Monday, February 16, 2015

All that art can do: images of home and of the other

I've been reading aesthetics again.  I know, I know, it's a bad habit.  But I'm working on the Woolf book, on what I call an "interlude" that looks at how the poetics of the novel were thought about between the writing of Jacob's Room and Mrs Dalloway.  As Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock were locked in a battle about how the novel worked, they found themselves faced with two difficulties.  First, until Henry James wrote "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, not much thought had been given to the very notion that the novel had various ways of working.  A novel was...a novel.  Second, when you are suddenly made self-conscious about something (your own identity, for example), it is challenging to find language for something you've never seen or thought of before as having qualities that aren't obvious.  I wanted to give my readers--all of whom will be even more self-conscious about the novel than Woolf was, having lived through the postmodern crisis of literature--a sense of what this lack of words was like.  

So I turned to Roger Fry, the painter and art historian who was also a mentor to Woolf.  Fortunately, J.B. Bullen has put together a selection of materials written by Fry and other artists and critics during the period between the first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitions Fry organized at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 and 1912.  These two exhibitions were a watershed for British art and shocked Britons because the art Fry hung with such enthusiasm and glee didn't try to replicate the world as exactly as the painter's craft would allow it to do.  In England, until this exhibition, the quality of a painting was determined by the artist's skill at representation.  What, then, were they to make of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky?  In about eight essays written for magazines over these three years, Roger Fry struggled to find the words that will describe what he loves and admires about the work of the continental Modernist painters.

Thinking about Woolf's struggle to understand "the art of the novel," and Fry's enthusiasm for Post-Impressionism and abstraction lead me to think about all the things art can do, and all the things we hope and expect that art will do.  On the back of one of those cards you find in Walrus urging you to subscribe (which I already do), I made a partial list, at the top of which was "moves us to joy or tears."  If art does nothing else, its capacity to draw a connection between the human experience and powerful feeling, so that our own emotions get little dress rehearsals or wake-up calls from time to time, is justification enough for its existence.  Next on my list was "it surprises us."  It keeps hopeful playfulness alive in the world; its inventiveness is a corollary for every kind of innovation and creation--the very habits of mind we need for solving practical and social problems   Then "world/critique."  Art offers us a critique of the world as it is, or offers us a perspective on our world seen from elsewhere.  It offers us utopias and dystopias.  It offers us choice; it makes promises; it foresees disasters.

But then, because I had recently been to the Wilf Perreault exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, I'd thought about how art reflects on home, how it bring home into focus, how it might give us a surprising, unexpected view of home, helping us to see again what we take for granted.  Such art is sometimes simply a prompt to engage with the visual world that surrounds us daily and that we take for granted.  As it happens, I went to this exhibition three times, each time with someone different.  This was not simply because Perreault's work is realistic and comforting, which it is, though I'm equally at home in Mark Rothko's abstraction.  I think my motive was almost anthropological:  what did Bill, Katherine, and Veronica think of the work?  Would the conversations around me change, or would they be much the same as they were the last time?

During my three visits, however, I took part in variations on the same two-part conversation--one which I took part in with  my companion and also overheard taking place all over the rooms.  First, there's the response to Perreault's painstaking technique, his affection for everything he finds in his beloved back lanes, from an empty potato chip package to a dandelion, from trees just changing colour to the complex reflections in the puddles.  His love of the community and city where he lives is translated into a technique that expresses his sense of wonder and evokes it in us.  The second part of the conversation involved people's attempts to figure out where the paintings are "taken" from, to identify the neighbourhood, the lane, the upstairs window that provides the perspective.  (In many of these, the Cathedral helps to orient you.)  Veronica, rather in love with her iPhone and with Google Maps and Google Earth, managed to help us to locate the vantage point of a couple of paintings that I had thought that were compilations.  But she was not the only one who tried to guess the street or the lane.  It's clear that we take delight in seeing ourselves, our communities, our very own land- or city-scapes on gallery walls.  Besides urging us to look more closely, the painter's attention to the details of our very own worlds--and seeing them on gallery walls--gives our lives a kind of dignity.

Not every artist or work of art does everything we need art to do.  That's part of the mystery and the wonder of art--that we can recognize that vastly different things  nevertheless share something integral.  So my sense that art (as a practice, not as individual works) fails us if it only functions as a kind of appreciative, focusing mirror should not be taken as a criticism of Perreault.  Rather, it comes out of reading the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who argues so convincingly that one of our human tasks--our ethical tasks, though he will not use that word--is to understand "the other."  Levinas's definition of the other does not emphasize the viewer's unfamiliarity with another individual's ethnicity or history.  As a phenomenologist, he begins with his own experience being in a concentration camp during World War II, and concludes that there were two ways of being, two choices people could make:  for totality or transcendence.  The war taught him too well what totality was like:  during times of war each individual is part of the State's war effort, and little more:  a cog in a wheel, a means to an end.  I think we can see some element of totality in our commitment of consumerism or even our electronic devices:  we are part of someone else's plan for our life.  We also create totality in those moments when we see other people in our world primarily as means to an end, not as individuals whom we need to understand on their own terms.

For Levinas, the other is not someone of a different gender or ethnicity, but simply someone whose gesture or facial expression or words of greeting attempt to open a conversation about what we value and how we live.  Our curiosity about the other, our attempts to keep the conversation going, to hear the other's words move us toward transcendence.  Quite simply, the experience makes our world larger, richer, more complex.  

Some art effects this for us, or provides a dress rehearsal for moments when we have the chance to partake in such a conversation.  On Friday, I was in Saskatoon for the Saskatchewan Book Awards Shortlist Announcement, and had a wonderful chance to talk with writers and publishers about their experiences writing and publishing.  But before I left town, I stopped in at McNally Robinson and bought Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  I finished it this afternoon and promise that I will write about it more fully once I have re-read it.  In some ways, Murakami provides the conventional experience of the other.  Tsukuru is Japanese, male, an engineer who designs train stations.  Yet in some ways, he is very much like each one of us, insofar as he comes to recognize that his life is a pilgrimage, a process of wandering, being lost, discovering, finding once again what is important.  What is different is how he negotiates the challenges of his own particular life, and what his challenges tell me about my own.  I suppose that I'm saying that as I read this novel I was having a Levinasian conversation with Tsukuru and Murakami, and that my world is made, in some oddly ethical way, more transcendent for the experience.

We ask art to do a lot for us:  prompt us to feel, keep inventiveness and play alive, provide a space of critique, reflect our homes and our lives while giving us access to lives and experiences that are entirely different.  Virginia Woolf believed that readers, viewers, and audiences kept art alive and lively by making demands that somehow became part of the air the alert artist breathed,  making art better.  So it's important for us not to stop expecting art to play a crucial role in our private lives and in the wider culture:  those expectations make a difference.

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