Returning to a Hobby Horse I’ve Ridden Hard

In an earlier post, I argued a culture which values ugliness signals a deeper discontent neither passionate nor rational (though it may feel it is, mistaking irrationality for passion and will for rationality). Discordant modern art pushes away its audience, reflecting a certain dissonance with itself. Henry Adams saw this rejection coming on in his ironic and predictive autobiography as the century began. No longer honoring the sexuality of procreative woman but turning to the harsh noise of the dynamo.

My post was response more than thoughtful position. Still, we appreciate the beauty of a landscape or of a woman in ways often related to health. That fact comforts me: I’ll never be a fan of Miss America pageants, but I didn’t scoff when a winner argued the bathing suit contest tests endurance. Yes, there are better tests, but vibrant health is uncovered as the body is. We value beauty’s harmony and order, health and fecundity.

But others have been thinking more seriously about this. And, as so often, evolutionary poetics explain instincts. A&LDaily, guided by Dutton, often links to pieces such as Natalie Angier’s “The Dance of Evolution, or How Art Got Its Start.”

Here, Angier describes the theories of Ellen Dissanayake, a leader in art analysis which begins with evolutionary poetics. (See: Homo Aesthetikus, Art and Intimacy, and What is Art? ). Her theory (overstated in this context but surely getting right the powerful influence of love and generation) is summarized:

To Ms. Dissanayake, the tightly choreographed rituals that bond mother and child look a lot like the techniques and constructs at the heart of much of our art. “These operations of ritualization, these affiliative signals between mother and infant, are aesthetic operations, too,” she said in an interview. “And aesthetic operations are what artists do. Knowingly or not, when you are choreographing a dance or composing a piece of music, you are formalizing, exaggerating, repeating, manipulating expectation and dynamically varying your theme.” You are using the tools that mothers everywhere have used for hundreds of thousands of generations.

While the responses to my earlier post, that ugliness becomes code for a clique or a way to make art more expensive and rare, are surely true, these do not get to the heart of the matter. All of us are to some extent – and some of us to a great extent – estranged from nature. (I say this as someone who doesn’t notice much. I managed to completely ignore our dying yard which I walked through each day the summer my husband spent abroad. It took him a patient three or four years to revive it.)

Dissanayake sees the life force at art’s core. Birth, Sin, Procreation, Death: the mind’s consciousness of the body’s pleasures and fatal flaw. These are nature and the stuff of art. Shakespeare’s sonnets argue that our immortality is ensured by our children and our art. He is often witty and often ironic, but, of course, he is also often right. Art that forsakes beauty may be a ticket to a clique but I doubt it is to immortality. Does that surprise when many – especially those likely to buy that art, drink wine at that opening – have forsaken the immortality available to those with little talent but only the life force?

Art, in a general sense, she argues, draws us together. Buying art as an entry ticket to the world of the more “knowing” aesthetes, leaving the hoi polloi, runs against the way she sees (and believes we have traditionally seen) art. Indeed, she believes “art has also been a profoundly communal affair, of harvest dances, religious pageants, quilting bees, the passionate town rivalries that gave us the spires of Chartres, Reims and Amiens.” Indeed,

Art, she and others have proposed, did not arise to spotlight the few, but rather to summon the many to come join the parade . . . . [through] “artifying,” people can be quickly and ebulliently drawn together, and even strangers persuaded to treat one another as kin. Through the harmonic magic of art, the relative weakness of the individual can be traded up for the strength of the hive, cohered into a social unit ready to take on the world.

Well, that doesn’t exactly sound like art as we know it today – art of the self-conscious, questioning character of realism and then of modernism. But, of course, in a very real way, its strength does lie in a communal. When we read alone we make a small community with the author – and the wider one we make with other readers. The power of a work is the way it touches us with a sense that someone understands – someone understands perhaps better than we do ourselves or at least is able to put it better than we could. That moment is reassuring – even if it describes tragedy and pain – we are not alone. That work has done what Frost sees as poetry’s purpose – “a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost is quite modern but no one could argue that he forgot nature, the biological, the psychological. In touch with these, the community is not made up of the “knowing” but of those who want to & do understand experience.

Art often makes us self-conscious but it also makes us aware of the universal, the individual within the universal, the abstract within the concrete, of both our wills and the community of others through which we move. The initiatory pattern that structure so many narratives, in which a character embarks upon a challenging journey in which tragedy is often part of the great experience, generally concludes with the protagonist returns to home & community, carrying a boon – knowledge & experience – which enlarges and deepens him but also his community.

Indeed, that most minimalist of modern writers, one who early rid his work of character and narrative – the elements primeval in their call to us – came back to them by the end of his short life. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” gives us character, psychology, narrative. Of course, his character, laden with irony and alienated, entertains us while we watch him, distancing himself from life, with wit and an objectivity cruel in its self-absorption. But, gently and persistently prodded, we see him, through art, join with another and find the walls that imprison and isolate him falling: “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

6 thoughts on “Returning to a Hobby Horse I’ve Ridden Hard”

  1. These thoughts by Mark Helprin (which I’ve linked here before) would seem relevant to this post:

    Art, Discomfort, and Dehumanization

    Also, it’s probably just a nit, but you say (re Henry Adams)–“No longer honoring the sexuality of procreative woman but turning to the harsh noise of the dynamo”–part of Adams’ point about the dynamo was specifically that it was *not* noisy:

    “The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring — scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power — while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”

  2. David,
    We both return & I liked that essay you link to, then & now – but then, I suspect we return to it because it’s important in ways we may not yet understand. And, of course, you are right about Adams – it always seems strange to me so I should have remembered – you’d think they’d be noisy.

  3. Has it occurred to you, Ginny, that “honoring the sexuality of the procreative woman” isn’t that big a deal anymore because (a) it’s now politically acceptable (at least in some places) for us women who don’t want to do the whole motherhood trip to admit same, and (b), more importantly, because this big ball of dirt we live on has enough people on it already?

    Shakespeare’s sonnets argue that our immortality is ensured by our children and our art. He is often witty and often ironic, but, of course, he is also often right.

    Your children aren’t going to ensure your “immortality.” How many people know the first names of their great-great-grandparents? In this childfree woman’s opinion, a lot of people reproduce because they have no idea what else they might do with their lives. Can’t cure cancer or broker peace between nations yourself? Have kids, pin all your frustrated ambitions on them, and live vicariously through them.

    Death is part of life. In my opinion, right-of-center people are terrified of death, which is why they cling to religious and procreative dogma that are not only obsolete but actively dangerous to humanity’s continued existence.

  4. MDC,
    Well, an argument that concludes by arguing that right-of-center people are terrified of death is one of those interesting observations that are, of course, impossible to prove or disprove. I don’t consider it a very interesting argument, although that you see other’s choices as “actively dangerous to humanity’s continued existence” tells us something about your understanding. On a purely factual level, have you much sense of current demography?
    That you would see the life force as felt only in terms of what is politically acceptable and what is not is also interesting, but means your understanding of human nature and history is politicized in a relatively limiting way. If I considered immortality the way that you do, then you would win the argument. Of course, I don’t. That you consider “brokering peace” or “finding a cure for cancer” as opposed to (as well as transcending) familial roles defines these in a different way than I would. You seem to see parenthood as the choice of those who have failed to succeed in other ways. Again, I have my doubts that is why and how most make the choice they do. It is true that parents often talk about and think in terms of their children. To a childless adult, this may seem a vicarious life. But some of us find thinking of others and hoping for the best for them richly fulfilling. It is, of course, hard for one person to see what is within another and so we often project onto them our own feelings.
    You have made your choice, prompted I assume by the political and the way you envision your life. If you are comfortable and happy with it, that is fine. Others define the world and make their choices in other ways. And some of us observe that world with horizons a bit wider than those of 2007.

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