Why do people do art?
Want the quickest way for most people to emit a derisive snort? Tell them you’re an artist.
I got to thinking about this the other day when my writer friend Susan Gabriel posted about what art means to her. She said, “WE MUST–women and men alike–claim and protect whatever creative talents we have, or we run the risk of not recovering.” Pretty passionate. But why is she so? Writing hasn’t made her rich (I don’t think so, at least). It won’t make her thinner or healthier or have better cholesterol numbers or a bigger house. It sure doesn’t impress most people in society—being an artist doesn’t do that, unless you’re a very famous one. People wiggle their finger in their ear when they hear you declare you’re an artist. They privately (or maybe not so privately) say you should get a real job.
There’s a scene in Entertaining Welsey Shaw where protagonist Daniel Ferreira, tries to explain to his father how and why he wants to become a professional writer after college, It’s a conversation many have had, with its attendant frustrations After all, what kind of a job is that? What do you do? Who do you do it for? How do you know anyone is going to pay you? After all, “artist” is not exactly a job you “:get.” There’s no application to fill, no ads to answer, no interviews, no objective skill requirements.
Sounds like a scam.
Daniel’s parents, both retired civil servants who’ve moved on to a nicer home in wealthier climes, try to steer him to their idea of an “artistic” job. They know someone whose son recently started writing copy for a trash-talking radio show host who’s about to go national. This other kid’s doing well. He just bought a sportscar.
But people have not only bothered to be artists—they’ve died for the privilege. A privilege that includes no health benefits, no pension, no IRA and odds of being recognized that are about the same as the odds you’ll be struck by lightning.
It can’t just be ego. People forget egos take a HUGE beating in art. Many artists need the big heads they have, because, like a piñata, people are going to take many swings at it during your career.
The year 1752 might yield a clue.
That’s when Augustus III, king of Poland, acquired Raphael’s Sistine Madonna for the art gallery in Dresden (where it still hangs). Auggie was so moved by the work that he famously ordered, “Make room for the great Raphael!” when the painting was brought into the room and positioned in the sunlight. He and his retinue then spent hours just staring at it. (The cherubs that adorn the bottom of the painting are better-known in this day and age, gracing many refrigerator magnets and T-shirts.)
Imagine this man of wealth and privilege brought to his knees by the scrapings of pigment on canvas. Others had bowed before him, but he bowed before “the great Raphael.”
Or there’s Pope Julius II urging, threatening and finally pleading with Michelangelo to finish his own Sistine masterpiece. For all his power on earth, the pope’s time is limited, and he knows that. That’s one limitation art does not face.
Mighty Russian prince Nicholas Galitzin is remembered today as the guy who commissioned the last five string quartets—widely considered the greatest in history—by Beethoven. I googled him just now and the Beethoven quartets are the first thing that came up. He doesn’t even have his own separate entry in Wikipedia…were it not for Beethoven, Nick would likely be forgotten.
Then there’s the Archduke Rudolph. Known by various fancy titles, Archduke and Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, Cardinal, an Archbishop of Olomouc, and a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, today he’s remembered solely as one of Beethoven’s important patrons. To him was dedicated, among other masterworks, the Piano Trio that bears his name. Many times he and Beethoven would have volcanic fights and the composer would storm off—but it was always the archduke who worried about repairing relations. Perhaps he sensed who in the long run was the most important.
Stephen Sondheim once observed that the only two things that we pass on after we die are children and art. He might have mentioned political and other kinds of philosophy and all-around learnedness, as well as bodies of scientific knowledge, but it could be argued that those too are a form of art.
After all, Rockefeller is gone, but Rockefeller Center remains. William Randolph Hearst died decades ago, but people still flock to Julia Morgan’s masterpiece at San Simeon. And maybe we’re all hoping for a little bit of that. Immortality. Or at least a passing thought, a nod of recognition, from the future. Is it a coincidence so many artists are agnostic or atheist? Perhaps they’re seeking immortality some other way.
A replay this week for an extraordinary writer who just won this year’s PEN/Malamud Award. Congratulations to Deborah Eisenberg.
The other night I was reading Cross Off and Move On, the latest short story by Deborah Eisenberg, a completely, utterly brilliant and original writer. Reading it I was struck by how she was able, in so few words, to paint pictures, words her brush strokes. With a few simple sentences (in terms of vocabulary she’s well-within a tenth grade level, proof you do not need to use big or obscure words to write deeply) she conveys a snatch of a childhood memory, or an elusive thought, the kind that never stays long in the mind because it’s pushed out by more mundane concerns: What time did she say she’d get here? Don’t I have to pick up milk at the grocery store? Should I get gas on the way home or wait till the weekend? I remember as a kid playing with magnets and noticing how I could never “pin down” a magnet with another of the same charge—one always pushed the other out of the way. These thoughts are a lot like that. They squeeze away just as you feel you’re about to nail them.
But Eisenberg lives somewhere deep in that netherland between conscious and unconscious, and she can convey the feelings and sights and sounds—and fears and hopes and aspirations—of these areas in vivid portraiture. Better than any other writer alive, in part because few others go there or go as deeply. Eisenberg’s stories are often like dreams.
She fills these dreams with those vivid portraits, and that was the thought I came away with when I finished her latest work—that I’d been thinking of fiction-writing in the wrong terms, or at least not the best-suited terms. Most people, even writers, will reflexively say writer are storytellers. I think I disagree. Writers are painters. They paint with words. The storytelling is secondary.
But, you say, what about The Bard? They don’t call him that name for nothing. Well, consider this: it’s well-known that most of Shakespeare’s plots are not original. Others in his own theater company even addressed many of them before he did. Before he took his stab most of them were not considered anything special. So why do his tellings live on?
I posit it’s because he painted better pictures. His stories had the better brushwork, not the better plotting. Bard my ass.
Great literature, really, rarely turns on plot, on “A happens, which leads to B and that leads to C, which makes D conflict with…”
No, no. It’s the author’s world, headspace, mind. A vase of flowers, a chair, a wheatfield, isn’t particularly interesting until Van Gogh looks at them. Both Beethoven and a far lesser-known composer dealt with da-da-da-duuum. In the same year, too! (1808, in case you’re interested.) If the content alone were so compelling, we’d still remember Étienne Nicolas Méhul’s symphony today, but for the most part we don’t. His notes just aren’t put together in a very interesting way.
God is in the details…
We constantly hear that writers are storytellers, but I don’t think so. Writers paint. Photographers paint with light. Dancers paint with movement. Writers paint with words. You can create a written masterpiece with no plot at all. But you can’t create one without a voice. That’s a shopping list. Or an instructional manual.
Listen to this wonderful passage of impressions from Cross Off and Move On, which, from what I’ve read about her, must originate from Eisenberg’s own childhood:
Sometimes my mother takes me to the club where she works, and even though it’s exhaustingly dull to play in the cloakroom all day, I can bring my paper and colored pencils, and there is a lurid appeal in the ambiguous suggestions of adult life: the soft, luxurious coats and scarves, the interesting muddy marks of huge shoes on the thick carpet when it’s been raining, the great big men who linger and talk with my mother and who smell—and even look—like cigars, and the pretty little basket that the men put change and sometimes dollar bills into.
I don’t know about you, but I can see this painting, hanging in a museum. It’s as real as anything by Courbet or Daumier.
Or how about a couple of very simple poignant sentences that describe the psychological character of a fragile young girl, her embittered mother, and three loving aunts—
There are two pianos in the parlor. I don’t play the piano. My lack of musical talent is impressive, my mother has informed me, and lessons would only be a waste of money. This is a shame, though, I explain solemnly to my aunts, who listen with raised eyebrows, because my mother says that those of us who will not necessarily be able to rely on our looks need to invest time and effort on cultivating our other assets. My aunts look at one another and then Aunt Charna puts her hands over her face and lies back, her lazy, round laugh rolling from her. My mother can be counted on to speak her mind, she says, and Aunt Bernice and Aunt Adela titter a bit, sadly.
Just tilt your head back and imagine it all. Some paintings are best viewed with your eyes closed.
One addendum: if you’re a fan of the show Gossip Girl, which stars her partner-for-more-than-30-years playwright Wallace (“Inconceivable!”) Shawn, you may want to know that Deborah was on one episode in the 2012-2013 season, called Despicable B, as herself. She’s also been in a couple other movies in small parts, most notably an uncredited blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. (She’s also mentioned in the voice-over of the film, given, once again, by Wallace Shawn.)
He comes in every day—you can set your watch by him—and sits down to read a novel he’s toting. Brainy guy, one of those “beautiful mind” types whose IQ probably tops out on the far right of the bell curve. One day he has Moby-Dick. The next time it’s Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Then it’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Infinite Jest. You’ll never see him reading Twilight or Jodi Picoult.
I was talking to him the other day, in this coffee shop we both frequent. I almost hate to do this—talk to him, that is. He’s a pretty private kind of guy; you an tell by the body language he wants to be left alone. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of people who are as interesting, so I do engage him in conversation sometimes, occasionally.
He had just finished Moby-Dick for the umpteenth time. He enjoyed how it was a novel of ideas, how it rambled and meditated on all sorts of ideas and issues. We started talking about our favorites when I mentioned that so often when you tell someone you’ve read or are reading a particular novel the first thing—usually the only thing—that want to know is “What’s it about?”
In other words, he said, they want to know about the plot.
Exactly, said I.
He fairly bellowed, “Plot is overrated!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
To me it’s not What’s it about? as it is How’s it about?
I don’t believe plot is really all that hard. Sure there are some works of fiction with amazingly intricate plots that dazzle me, but a good voice will always impress me more than a complex plot. There are almost mechanical ways to construct plots. Of course there is the shadowy, imprecise concept of genius, which resists all formula, but in a lot of ways plot is like rhythm in music—almost mathematical, chartable.
But what makes one voice so compelling that it stays with you your whole life, haunts you? Why is it Beethoven wrote in sonata form just like hundreds of other composers in his day, but it’s not the other composers we remember? Why am I listening to the Archduke Trio right now as I write this, still finding new twists in a work that’s over 200 years old?
Why does the opening of Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Presents” astonish with its novelty:
The waves go on and on—there is no farther shore; a boat here and there in the dark water, a cluster of fronds, an occasional sunset. Cheryl closes her eyes and the warm night blue water rushes out around her. “Think it’s really like that?” she asks. Cheryl’s voice is arresting—low, and with a city accent that gives each word the finality of a bead dropping into place along a string; sometimes strangers to whom she speaks pause before responding, and look, if they haven’t looked before. “Think it’s really that blue?”
“Blue?” Carter glances down at his shirt. “Nothing’s this blue. Not even this. It’s the lights in here—make everything vibrate.” He tips the little glass bottle in his hand and spills a neat white line from it onto his forearm, which he extends to Cheryl with balletic solemnity.
I have to admit, after an opening like that, I don’t care what the story is “about.”
Back to my friend at the coffee shop. Today he had a new one; he was sitting far away and I couldn’t read the title, but it was thick and no doubt challenging. Its author no doubt created a whole universe of laws, of causes and effects as unique and detailed as the actual universe we live in, Einstein’s universe, Bohr’s universe. Think of literature that way. Like the real universe, it becomes a lot more interesting when you do.
“Plot is overrated!” I can still hear him bellowing.
Preach it, brother…
An interesting article popped up in my daily feed this morning: Why do first-time writers almost always start out with novels?
As the article points out, composers don’t start by writing a symphony. Beethoven waited a healthy amount of time before creating his First, and frankly, it’s not even that great. (His Second is even less good. He didn’t strike gold until his Third, the Eroica, which is Op. 55 of his oeuvre. His final opus number was 135, so he was well more than a third into his creative output before he really found his symphonic voice, and this isn’t even counting works he wrote as a young lad in Bonn that don’t have opus numbers.) Brahms didn’t write his first symphony until he was 43! (He admitted he was terrified of being compared to Beethoven—and he was. A critic dubbed the work “Beethoven’s Tenth.”)
So why do novels tend to cut their teeth on arguably the toughest format around?
I can speak for myself. I’m not kidding when I say I got the idea for Entertaining Welsey Shaw when I heard a voice in my head pitch the idea to me while I was working. Now, I’m not the sort of person who hears voices, bends spoons or sees dead people, and usually when I get ideas on the fly like this I decide half an hour later they were stupid. But something about this one stuck…
At some point into writing it, however, I felt that maybe I should complete a thing or two in shorter formats first. Coincidentally an on-line fiction site was having a novella contest whose deadline was being extended three weeks. I decided to knock out a novella and I did, just to prove to myself I could do it. (I won the contest, too! That really shocked me.)
Since then I’ve written a number of short stories and novellas for “practice” and posted them on that site. I even like a few of them, and maybe someday I’ll revise them and do something with them. And no, this is not intended as self-promotion. I’m not even going to link to them.
And that’s one reason I think most writers probably start with novels. They’re the most common fiction that people read. Short stories are a hard sell, or so I’ve heard, which really surprises me in this day of fast, fast, and faster, where there’s now 140-character Twitter fiction. Plays are an even harder sell. I don’t know much about poems, but I would guess the poetry market’s about as tough as the playwright market. And screenplays—unless you know someone in Hollywood I won’t even go there. And even if you do know someone it’s not easy. Even big-name people like Francis Ford Coppola have their pet projects sitting around, unrealized.
The article makes the point that perhaps getting well-versed in the shorter forms will help ensure quality over quantity. Most of the time when I tell people I’m writing a novel, the first thing they ask after “What’s it about?” is “How long is it?” I have a relative, in fact, who is always telling me one of her sons “wrote a novel” and it was soooo many pages, but when I ask her how many words she says she doesn’t know and then wonders why I asked. I tell her pages is an arbitrary measure: the size of your type, margins and spacing affects the number of pages, but the number of words is a constant. Novels shouldn’t be judged by the pound. Incidentally almost no one asks me what I think are the intelligent questions, such as Why are you writing the novel? or What are you trying to say? or What’s the point of view? When I look for fiction to read, I look for voice, point of view, character development, the overall idea. I don’t care about plot per se and often don’t even remember the intricacies of the plot, even in my own novels, where I constantly have to go back and look at my notes. My favorite modern novel is probably Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse—and there’s not much plot there.
A few modern writers buck the tide. Deborah Eisenberg, my favorite living fiction writer, concentrates exclusively on short stories, and eschews conventional narrative (which she “distrusts,” she says). Her best stories—Twilight of the Superheroes, Some Other Better Otto, Broken Glass, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, The Custodian—are as complex as anything out there. When asked, as she often is, when she’s going to write a novel, she says she starts all of them as such and then edits them down to the essentials, layering the material. That’s why there’s more life in twenty Deborah Eisenberg pages than in most 500-page novels.
But most people cut their teeth on the novel (usually the linear-narrative novel), for good or bad. I wonder how writing and writers would be be different if everyone started with short stories—maybe just a page or two to develop character—before moving on to larger forms with narrative (not all fiction must have a traditional narrative, something today’s writers and especially readers often forget). I think it would be a good idea. We’d all probably eventually move our novels along faster and have richer characters for it. But while no one would be foolish enough to skip little league and go straight to the majors, or begin ballet by dancing The Firebird, writers plunge into fiction with the vision of a thick tome at the end of the rainbow with their name on the front and their smiling author’s photo on the back flap. Perhaps me included.
Sibelius started me thinking down this road.
For those of you who aren’t music geeks, or classical music geeks to be precise (although I think he defies category), I’m talking about Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer from the last century. I was recently listening to some of his piano music.
Sibelius is hardly obscure. But he’s known for his granite symphonies and colorful symphonic poems. Most classical music listeners probably don’t even know he wrote piano music, a ton of it, and surely not many have heard any of it.
And that’s too bad! It’s sublime. Some of the most brilliant, original miniatures of the last century. Much of it sounds contemporary today.
I guess Sibelius should be counted one of the lucky ones. His place in posterity is secure because of seven magnificent symphonies, a couple of which, it could be argued, are among the five best of the 20th century. (The Fourth and Seventh would be my candidates.) But still, listening to his Five Esquisses and Five Piano Pieces Op. 101, I couldn’t help think that it was tragic someone wrote music like this to have it go into the dustbin of history. Who was he writing for? Himself? There’s the school that says artists Do It All For Themselves and not for the fame and reward, and there’s something to be said for that. The Artist as Hero started with Beethoven—deaf, almost without companions near the end, turning out late-period masterpieces that the rest of us would not understand for about 75 years.
At the same time, what’s the point if art like this is consigned to obscurity? It’s not noble. Art is intended for an audience. When an artist talks to himself, it’s no different than when anyone else talks to himself. Doctors would probably say it’s not mentally healthy. It’s not artistically healthy either.
Many artists go on, driven by an internal need that doesn’t care about audience approval or even acknowledgment. And that’s great, if the artist means it. But one can’t also help but conclude their art has failed if it is ignored. The failure isn’t the creator’s fault necessarily, but it’s a failure nevertheless, because each creation is an idea that is supposed to go from someone to someone. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Art that gets no response is a lot like the sound of one hand clapping.
What stops so much great art from succeeding—and more great art fails on this level than succeeds. To a large extent it’s an audience that wants comfort in the familiar. Real artists—as opposed to craftspeople—don’t do the same things over and over. That’s commerce. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But if you’re driven by that inner demon, you’re not going to want to do the same things over and over. No demon in that. The demon wants escape, wants surprise, wants a new reason to live.
But every artist has had to deal with an audience that wants the familiar, the tested. New things get through, of course, but, almost always, it’s an uphill fight, even though so often audiences say they’re tired of the same. Yet back they go, renting the next franchise movie (even though they hated the last three) or listening to the same music that appealed to their base instincts in high school. You really have to wonder why. Why are people oftentimes so lazy? Why do they say they don’t like something, and then ask for more?
Because of this, we have a surplus of great books hardly anyone has ever read, music almost no one has heard, and more importantly answers to questions no one will uncover, ways of thinking few people will ever know. It’s as if the answers to our problems are all there already. We don’t need to look any further. Rather, we need to sift through everything we’ve created already.
This Internet world we live in has tipped the balance even more against artists finding audiences. That may seem wrong; in the beginning, the promise of everyone being interconnected was that of new and better roads for art and artists. But the same Internet that makes us one big global village also lets us erect high walls and paint on them only the views we want ourselves to see.
Added to that is the problem has become that everyone wants to be a creator or performer; nobody wants to be in those red seats anymore—it’s almost déclassé. A young author who recently saw her first novel get published complained that more people today want to know how to write novels rather than how to read them, a skill she (and I) find sorely lacking. Just check out Amazon or Goodreads reviews! Yet she says when she asks aspiring writers what they read and why she often gets blank stares.
It wold do everyone good to step outside their comfort zone. We’d all be richer if the next time you went to a bookstore, you bought the sort of book you normally don’t read. My ears are better right now because Sibelius took the time to write about seven CDs worth of sublime piano music. I’m glad he did, but I do wonder what he got out of it. He’s been dead for well over half a century, and he wrote these works mostly in the early part of the 1900s, as he went silent after 1926. He felt he had nothing new to say for the last 31 years of his life. In fact, he probably destroyed an entire symphony he’d spent decades composing because of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction that he didn’t do something bold and new and original enough.
The audience didn’t even get a chance to discover that one.