Art as Art

I was a alerted to a new facet of my reality after taking a breather while reading my old review or the documentary Born into Brothels. And it’s essentially this: I have little or no interest in a piece of art as a piece of art. I think this gets to the very core of my dislike of fiction, my apathy toward almost all visual art,  my lukewarm response to poetry, and my antipathy toward the mockumentary genre. (Kenny, if you’re curious, is the one exception that proves the rule on that last one. That one worked its way into my heart.)

I have a deep and abiding interest in real factual human stories. If there’s one thing that’ll dependably make me weep or shaky with ecstaty, it’s a well-done presentation of a real person encountering real things. What I noticed in reading my Born into Brothels review was that I said almost nothing about how the documentary works as piece of art. The mechanics of its making, the composition of the photography, the pacing of the narrative, none of those were relevant to me. What I concerned myself with was the twin moral imperatives of a documentarian to document and of a person who can help to do so.

It’s possible to read my inability to appreciate art as art as a moral failing. Similar to my conversation aversion, it’s doubtless led to consternation among those who know me and don’t understand my problem. And I’m sure that there’s something to be said for the ability to appreciate art as art.

Since I keep saying it, I should probably be clear about what I mean by “art as art.” Seeing art as art is staring up at the Sistine Chapel and being interested only in the brushstrokes that made it, the picture it presents, and how that strikes you on an emotional level. When I look up at the Sistine Chapel I’ll likely experience some sense of awe (I got one using this approximate), but my mind quickly races to grapple with issues like the reason it came to exist, what its existence means, and what it means that we hold it in such reverence. The technique doesn’t interest me, the intricacies of its creation strike me as mere oddities, and the realities of the visuals strike me as rather banal. In short, I can’t appreciate it for merely what it is.

Life interests me. Fascinates even. But the creations of people who aren’t so fascinated by it to be held in such awe that they want only to document it have always struck me as odd. I just feel like I’m watching deluded people try to entertain other deluded people.

Deluded may be too strong. Sleeping or blind are more accurately what I mean. People driven to create art are usually those who feel the need to make something beautiful or pure or simple. They aim mostly to distill, simplify, and make understandable. I see the irony of doing this, but it feels appropriate to communicate this better with some lyrics from Connor Oberst. The Bright Eyes song Bowl of Oranges ends:

…if the world could remain within a frame
Like a painting on a wall
Then I think we’d see the beauty then
We’d stand staring in awe
At our still lives posed
Like a bowl of oranges
Like a story told
By the fault lines and the soil

It’s not that I don’t think people creating things with the goal of helping others to see the beauty, majesty, hurt, tenderness, etc that underly the weave and weft of the cloth of life is useless or silly. It’s certainly not. If I write for any reason it’s to learn how to convey knowledge of those things better than I currently can.

But what is true is that what they produce is much less interesting to me than what they meant by it. I’d rather consider the artist than the work as it sits before me. Perhaps this is actually how most people respond to art, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, so I did.

linkpost, OPW


This is an odd installment of “Other People’s Words,” because even though the words are good, they’re not the primary thing I want to draw your attention to. What I want to have a look at this charming site, called “THEBLOG WEEMADE.” As the name suggests, it features drawings by young children. And the reason, as it explains it:

Here at THEBLOG WEEMADE, we find the artwork and creativity of kids inspiring, thought provoking, entertaining, and unpretentious. We think that reminding ourselves how children see the world is a valuable and enlightening process.

THEBLOG WEEMADE is a user-generated showcase. We accept posts from anyone and everyone. Scan and post your children’s artwork or your own artwork from when you were child. Found artwork. Anything!

Brian created THEBLOG WEEMADE in February 2008. The inspiration was a box full of his old schoolwork and drawings that his parents had kept over the years. Poring over all this old papers, Brian and his wife were entertained by how bizarre and imaginative a lot of the work was. He knew that there must be millions of people with similar material to share, so he decided to create a forum in which the artwork and creativity of children everywhere could be showcased.

fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.