Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rabbit or Duck?

Contemporary literature and visual art share a vague, background-level prejudice against/weakness for mimesis - that is, for works that blend, stick-insect-style, into the bewildering tree of the real. Personally, my view of this is Tolstoyan (in the novels, not the criticism) and therefore completely unrealistic: it's all a misunderstanding, a question of an original unity splitting itself through will and perversity into a series of schismatic offshoots, whereas if our wife was dying on the other side of the room we would find a way not just to forgive the lover that she had left us for, but actually to love him ourselves, and with all our hearts.

I mention this strange Russian garden of aesthetic peace because the British tradition of criticism, both literary and artistic, has always seemed to me to be fundamentally Tolstoyan. The desire is not to overcome an opponent's argument by amassing esoteric tautologies one on top of the other like a tower of spinning dishes, or to deconstruct relentlessly until everyone whimpers, but rather to ask, at every point, "What are we actually talking about here?" The appeal is twofold: towards "we" on the one hand (the shared reality of communication), and "what" on the other (the world under discussion). The overall tone is one of stern good will. It is all a misunderstanding, but we will make it through, you and I, these two men (women, children) of taste and understanding.

The sheer pleasantness, not to mention charm, of this kind of writing is obvious to anyone with an ear and heart; it's usefulness, unfortunately, is not. We want our aesthetics to be high tech and glistening, or folksy and hemp-smelling. Manners, we all agree, are boring.

They are not, of course: they are the heart of it, the backbone, the solution. We swim in manners. E.H. Gombrich's Art & Illusion even goes so far as to suggest that we are manners, or at least that any "original" act of seeing/reading is original only insofar as your decision to die your hair blue was original. It was, of course - but at the same time, it wasn't: it was a choice between existing possibilities, which you made either for or against the opinions of your peers - but still within the context of those opinions.

Multiply a choice like that times a thousand, Gombrich says, and you've got Van Gogh's decision to paint the skin in his self portrait using green paint. Was he painting from life? Or was he making his decision within a context of conventions so fine and expansive that spraying an aerosol can around his head would have revealed a veritable spider-web of ruby-red lines radiating out in every direction?

Freedom and meaning are incompatible: this is the tragedy of space and the reason why there will never be any great epics written by children who were raised by wolves - unless, of course, they are later taught by a French Catholic schoolmaster. Art is a continual process of debunking and rebunking, but in order to do either you've got to know, somehow, what you're doing. Not knowing leads to sterility and death, even if you manage to hit it once. So when you're out walking around town trying to see nature and dust and the soles of people's feet, take a copy of Whitman, or Rilke, or King, or something.

Gombrich's book is not just a history of art, but a plea for histories of art. If you want to know how to see better, it behoves you to learn how others saw in the past, and to think about the similarities and differences between their vision and yours. After doing this, you may be surprised to find that certain trends persist, for example, the desire to copy - to be, as Gombrich calls it, illusionist. You may find yourself either troubled or comforted by that, depending on how you fancy yourself.

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