The Piecing Apart Of Arts
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 7/20/06
People would understand things better if they understood them more deeply. And by deeply I don’t mean relentless quoting of so and so said such and such, but if people in the arts understood more of how and why things worked, they would be able to apply that knowledge to greater application. We are able to see it in science, but why not in the arts? One of the biggest fallacies that I tire of is this whole ‘art is subjective’ crap. No, not really- your tastes are subjective, but not whether or not something is of quality. I’ve found that the only people who claim that art is subjective are those who don’t understand the laws for how things work, i.e. bad artists and lazy thinkers. And by ‘laws’ I shall touch on that in a bit. Bad artists always claim this- they want to believe there is merit to their mediocrity by claiming that their shitty finger paints are as good as Picasso. They use the subjectivity thing as an excuse, a defense, that way when a critic rips it, they can always say, ‘well it’s all subjective.’
Mathematically speaking, it’s not. Clichés occur more times in the universe than non-clichés. The fact that they appear so much is something that can’t be argued- for the mere abundance of them is what has made them into the clichés they are. Musicality in writing, and specifically poetry- is inarguable. One cannot claim that Donald Hall has as much music in his dull poems as that of Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane. To claim such is ridiculous. Line breaks- the way poems are broken, can increase the number of ways a poem can be read. This is something that is inarguable. A great poet knows this and will use these tools if he or she has a facility for them. I don’t believe for a second that the sloppy ‘artist’ finger painting on the wall chooses to paint the way he does- he does it because he has no other way of knowing how. Don’t you think that if he could paint like Frederic Edwin Church he would? But he doesn’t, because he cannot. The bad artist is then forced to rely on ‘gimmicks’ in his work.
Since I’d rather get dysentery than ever read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, his big claim to fame is that he ‘chooses’ not to write with a cohesive narrative. Sorry, I don’t buy that. He doesn’t write with a cohesive narrative because he can’t write a cohesive narrative. Imagine a beauty contest where the girl who wins isn’t Catherine Zeta-Jones, but some Roseanne Barr clone that ‘chooses’ to not be pretty, claiming ‘I could be pretty, but choose not to be.’ In high school there were girls with that sort of attitude, and they were called Goths. They would paint their faces white and wear black lipstick so they’d be not called ‘ugly’ only ‘weird’, for it was better to be weird than ugly, just as it is better to be known for choosing not to do something, rather than being known for really being unable to do it.
For example, in science people can break things down better than they can in the arts- maybe it’s because scientists tend not to be overly emotional or something, I don’t know. If you think about science- everything in the universe can be broken down to the laws of physics. Physics is the oldest science, and the foundation for how everything is built. From there, if you can understand the movement of atoms, you can apply this knowledge to other forms of science, such as chemistry or biology. I was a biology major in college, cell biology most specifically, and I spent all this time learning about the sodium-potassium pump- this act that goes on through each cell in the body, which basically can be broken down to the movement of particles, or most specifically, the charges of ions. When a chemical reaction occurs in a flask, why it occurs has to deal with the way the atoms are interacting. If you look at the cell processes that occur within the organelles of the living cell, these same reasons for what is occurring there can be found in the flask. Once someone understands this, the explanations for why it happens are really quite simple. In the arts, specifically writing, poetry is equivalent to physics. It is the oldest form of writing, the most compressed and the most stripped down. Playwriting is sort of like chemistry- not as stripped down as poetry, but still compressed. Prose is biology. It’s much more expanded, and has had much more to build upon.
I feel like critics when they approach art, look at it from very shallow points of view. They see something like the sodium-potassium pump and also the chemical reaction occurring in the flask, and are unable to connect the two. The ‘laws’ for how something works escapes them. But I have written all three forms of writing, and it was through my understanding of poetry that made me the prose writer I am today. Through poetry, I had made my mind stretch, and developed the ability to make connections between things that no one else had thought of before. This is that one element that all great artists possess- this ability to make these connections, this raw ‘insight’ as I like to call it. This is something that an MFA program cannot teach. One can either see it or not see it, but you can’t tell someone how to see it- it’s something the artist must learn on his own, for the point is to be able to see it uniquely, greatly, and with a solid pinch of vision that only the insightful can share with the world. And likewise, just as people approach the arts with such a shallow perspective, they do the same for intellect. Real intellect is not about the reciting of facts or endless knowledge, but how one uses that knowledge. It is how one chooses to use that knowledge, and how well one uses it that makes someone into the thinker he or she is. I can always tell a bullshitter by how much this person quotes in argument. He or she will throw around things like, ‘Well, John Milton once said that art is the essence of truth rooted in the soul of blah, blah, blah,’ or ‘Carl Jung claimed that human intellect was akin to…’ and what it would be akin to wouldn’t matter, as long as someone like Carl Jung had said it. He could have said ‘akin to zebra shit,’ and the morons would believe it. And to your average superficial person, these points of blah, blah, blah wouldn’t matter- for it doesn’t take much to impress the ignorant.
There was this loser who I used to work with- a real asshole who, when I met him was trying to impress me with his literary knowledge. Little did he know that he picked the wrong person. He brought in a book of Anne Sexton’s poems and showed me the book, asking if I ever read Anne Sexton. That’s like asking a mountaineer if he’s ever read Joe Simpson or Jon Krakauer. So I of course said yes, and he continued to prattle on, telling me the poem he was reading which happened to be, “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound.” He quoted the title of the poem to me, and I proceeded to inform him that I knew that poem quite well, and even told him the last line of the poem, which ends with nuns going up into the sky quoting, “good news, good news”. When I told him this, he read the poem silently, and then let out a ‘hmmm…’ once he finished. I was right. He picked a random poem out from Sexton’s book and I knew the end of it. See? I know my poetry. After this incident, he shut up pretty much most of the time, and from what I could tell, had an inner disdain for me. Most of the time when he mentioned to women he wrote ‘poetry’, he’d probably get the typical, ‘Aww, he’s such a nice guy.’ But he got no such reaction from me. I could tell by his opinions regarding art that his poems would have been really shitty- for when I tried telling him about clichés and what makes a good line break from a bad, he looked puzzled, and I could tell that such thoughts never occurred to him before. The reason I bring this backstabbing motherfucker up in this essay (he’s a backstabbing motherfucker not for this, but for other things- trust me on this one) is that most people wouldn’t have known he was a bullshitter, but I did, because I understand things artistically at a deeper level than most. Why should I lie about that? And I think he knew it, and for that, resented me.
I feel like if people spent more time piecing things apart, they would better understand the connections between things- the laws and ways in which things move and work, the crossovers between poetry with that of film, or paintings that show a moment, as poems do, they’d begin to approach things with a fresh perspective, rather than mouthing the same critical clichés about any one piece again and again. For it’s not until one can understand the parts to something, that the sum of that something can be truly held and admired for what it is- an element of beauty that shares parts in common with other elements of beauty, but yet remains as something unique, unbroken and whole.
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