Thursday, November 28, 2013

Art as Experience: An Archive

I could begin this post on art and experience in many, many places. Were I talking to a creative writing class, I could remind them that one of a fiction writer's most powerful strategies is to create scenes; moreover, that if they want to move a reader they need to fill these scenes with details that will appeal to a reader's senses: what is the light like in the room where the two people are talking?  What colour of orange are the girl's sneakers--bright orange or a softer peach?  How does the air coming through the window smell?  Is there a breeze that ruffles his hair, or is the night perfectly still?  But most importantly, what are they doing?  Is this an argument?  The negotiation of grief?  What are they saying and how do their bodies react to those words? Anyone who has read the single-day novels of the early twentieth century--Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway, knows that these authors mine something quite powerful because they give us an experience of other people's lives.

Or I could be more philosophical.  On the one hand, I could tell you (not again!) that in the last decade of the twentieth century, philosophers turned from the question "What is art?" to the question "What is beauty?"  In part, this is a turning away from a question that yielded no clear answers--an embarrassment to aesthetics.  It is much more acceptable to say that you can't define beauty, and then to run with that wonderful fact and recognize that beauty is undefinable, that we have to talk about it, that our sense of beauty tells us something about who we are.  But it also brings "the aesthetic" and the conversation about the aesthetic within the realm of people's everyday lives, into their everyday experience.

Or I could get philosophical in quite a different way and ask you to think about your experience of a work of art.  This week, my wonderfully keen group of students in my class on Britain in the Sixties has been reading poems by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, and song lyrics by the Beatles. We spent nearly 75 minutes on Larkin's "Whitsun Weddings," which is full of exactly the kind of sensual detail about the heat and the landscape and the groups dressed to celebrate weddings that we look for in an effective piece of writing.  We know so much about those couples when Larkin tells us about the girls' nylon gloves or when he imagines that "A dozen marriages got under way" as the newlyweds took the short train ride into London, in a "time [that] would seem / Just long enough, to settle hats and say / I nearly died."  "Whitsun Weddings" repays all kinds of attention to form, sound, rhyme scheme, the subtle shifts in the speaker's attitudes, that toward the end of class I used the hackneyed metaphor of Dr. Spock's mind-meld:  it's simply remarkable to have spent time with the mind of someone who isn't even there.  This is one of the things that makes me feel most human:  that a work of art urges me toward the understanding of someone who is not even standing in the same room as I am--indeed toward an understanding of someone who might well be dead.  Or another thing that makes me feel human:  that I'm urged to ask questions I know will never be answered.  What did Ted Hughes mean by the shorter and shorter lines of "Crow Blacker than Ever"?  We were all affected by those single words that were isolated in their own stanzas.  We spent quite a bit of time attempting to articulate just how they made us feel, trying to articulate their effects, and mostly failing.  But we were left with important questions.

Or I could go off on a sad, political tangent and talk about the fact that even SSHRCC is hoping that the research I do can benefit a business somewhere, that enrolment in the Faculty of Arts is down, that parents don't want their children taking "useless" Arts degrees:  business and engineering are much more useful, they've been told, in spite of the fact that employers in the business world, as well as wearied faculty members, talk about the fact that arts degrees give students a whole toolbox full of transferable skills.  They can solve problems, do research, see the bigger picture, synthesize, respond to a rhetorical situation, think critically.  Well-educated people, we are wont to say, are crucial to any democracy:  who else is better prepared to consider whether to focus our foreign policy in places where we can gain trade for businesses is a good thing?  Who can better consider how we frame or make long-term decisions?

My office door is papered with articles written by people who defend the arts, particularly English degrees.  Adam Gopnik in August wrote quite a compelling piece in The New Yorker about the way reading literature made us human.  Psychologists and philosophers can get firmly behind that argument and suggest that reading makes us more compassionate; it gives us a chance to rehearse situations and choices that we will later face; it has a profound effect on our brains.  Nevertheless, my colleague Craig Melhoff pointed out another essay in The New Criterion by Mark Bauerlein that makes a slightly different argument.  Just as the creative writer doesn't move readers with abstractions, so those of us attempting to keep the arts alive perhaps ought not to put all our eggs in the abstraction basket by talking about critical thinking and transferable skills and humanity.  Bauerlein observes that "People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days.... Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire."

In that vein, I could tell you about standing in front of a late Monet painting of water lilies; in his later years, Monet wasn't seeing colour accurately, but he didn't make any attempt to correct for his eyes' misperception.  The resulting paintings are wine-coloured and dark in a way that makes them mysterious.  I was at the Musee Marmottan in Paris, lonely and isolated, travelling in a city with only the most appalling and embarrassing French to work with.  But an older woman was standing next to me in front of the paintings, and turned to me to speak.  When her French only puzzled me, she got out her rusty English and we negotiated a conversation about beauty--one of the few conversations I'd had in ten days--because we could not resist talking about it.

Or I could say how I always feel when I am reading To the Lighthouse, trying to keep track of the contradictory characters' contradictory experiences, when I read young James's revelation about the lighthouse and about his father:  "For nothing was simply one thing."  I have to see the world all over again, without judgment, in all its complexity, with my sense of wonder intact.  Or when I listen to Shostakovich's militant, mournful, and disturbing 9th symphony, I can't help but think about how he spent his nights sleeping in the hallway of his apartment building because he didn't want Stalin's henchmen to wake his family when they came for him.  You can hear the horrible fear in those movements, as well as the jack boots of censorship and murder.

So let's create our own archive of experience:  there's all kinds of room for your comments at the end of the blog.  What moves you so much that you know that savouring and saving it makes our lives fuller, more human?

Here's the link to Mark Bauerlein's essay.


  1. Any of Van Gogh's self portraits. I didn't see one in person until well into adulthood, but it was the experience of seeing them in books when I was in my early teens that really stuck with me. Those eyes said everything. To think, as I thought then, that no matter your circumstances, no matter how difficult your life proves to be or how well or poorly you are received, your imagination and creations mean you will survive no matter what.

  2. Those eyes also tell you how important it is to see, no matter what the world looks like to them at the moment. He's determined to look, no matter what. Thank you, Brenda.

  3. There is a small patch of beach on Last Mountain Lake where the lake bends and the Arm River enters. Here, a small peninsula has its own ecosystem based on the unique pattern of weather entering from the three valleys. The trees along the beach are beaten by wind and water endlessly. Rather than blending into a forest they become works of art - sculptures. Their uprooting, bending, hollowing out from the elements recreates them. In less than a half mile of beach there are hundreds of different vegitative and animal forms. In this condensed area, the entire cycle of life is contained (it is remarkable how many animals come to die here), All the symbols, metaphors and inspiration for a long artistic project can be found in a simple, well observed walk. It is an embodied beauty of living not in concept, theory, culture or politics but one of life itself. If we see and save this, we will find answers to these other areas - traditional cultures knew this.

  4. Thank you for this lovely, evocative writing. Your words make me want to go for a walk right now.