June 12, 2006

Art Objects

4 out of 5 stars

Over the weekend I read Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson and found it so dense with ideas I thought I’d share a few.

The first section of the book offers a living, dynamic, two–way approach to the arts and to artists. Winterson shares with us her love for new art and discuses the fluidity of the exchange of emotion between artist, painting, and owner (herself). Her discussion made me think of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours which charts a moment in the life of an author (Virginia Woolf), reader (Laura Brown), and character (Mrs Dalloway). The triangles of exchange in both cases facilitate a deep exploration of the process of becoming and highlight the importance of the arts in the creation and re–definition of a selfhood. Strong texts, Winterson claims, ‘work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists.’
It is their prerogative to enter into other realities that enables them to have such a transformative impact on us. Winterson repeatedly reminds us not to fall into the trap of recognising no reality but our own. The fact that people often misquote their favourite texts, she writes, comes from their own desire to find the reality of themselves reflected rather than allow themselves to become lost in the total alien world of the book.

It seems to have been the Victorian ‘realists’ who introduced this criterion of truth to life into their study of the arts and denied art as art. Winterson speaks of the ‘revolution in taste’ and the reaction against Romanticism in the mid to late nineteenth century. She claimed that whilst the male poet suddenly found himself at odds with the poetic tradition he inherited, the Victorian women poets benefited from the collapse of the ‘unmasculine’ Romantic sensibility.

The women poet, unlike the majority of the women novelists, accepted her mantle of Otherness gracefully. She would lead the mind to higher things. She would direct mental energies towards emotional and spiritual contemplation. LEL, Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, each accepted the distinction of the poet as poet. The particular struggle of Tennyson, how to be sensitive in an age that disliked sensitivity in men, was clearly not a problem for a woman. (p.30)

Winterson suggests the freedom the Victorian women found which enabled her to work her own form within the authority of tradition, cleared the ground for the contribution of women to Modernism. The primary focus ‘Art Objects’ is on the Modernists and their approach to depicting the reality of life in their own terms. Modernism, she argues, was an attempt to return to an idea of art as a conscious place, ‘a place outside of both rhetoric and cliché.’ Winterson clearly admires the poets who write a ‘living language’ in a pitch beyond everyday speech. Hence, her appreciation of TS Eliot becomes only too apparent.

Moving on, Winterson discusses the Autobiography of Alice B, published by Gertrude Stein in 1934. Since attending the post–graduate seminar session on ‘Life Writing’ I’ve been thinking about the complexities inherent in the construction of any piece of autobiographical writing. I was therefore interested to read about the criticisms directed at Stein following the publication of her so called ‘memoirs.’ Instead of re–making biography into fiction as Woolf had done in Orlando (1925), Stein, Winterson claims, ‘re–defined autobiography as the ultimate Trojan horse.’

We are supposed to know where we are with biography and autobiography, they are the literary equivalents of the portrait and self–portrait. One is the representation of someone else’s life, and the other is the representation of your own. We shouldn’t have to worry about form and experiment, and we can rest assured that the writer (or the painter) is sticking to the facts. We can feel safe with facts.
Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions yet they fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?’
bq. Bring on the Trojan horse. In the belly of the biography stash the Word. The Word that is both form and substance. The moving word uncaught. Woolf smuggled across the borders of complacency the most outrageous contraband; lesbianism, cross–dressing, female power. More than that, she smuggled her language alive past the checkpoints of propriety. (49–50)

The most uncanny aspect in Stein’s work seems to be the fact that she herself became the fiction and allowed a ‘plasticity’ to self that was threatening and emotive. Are real people fictions? Winterson asks in response to Stein. Well, we understand ourselves through stories but often apply a strict self–censorship that refuses to allow us to enter the imaginative space where we can appreciate art for the Other that it is. Once we understand ourselves as fictions, Winterson suggests, we are freed into a new kind of imagination and are able to understand ourselves as fully as we can. In a chapter based on Woolf’s Orlando, Winterson claims that art enlarges and enables us to see ourselves through metaphor. Metaphor is transformation. It is she writes, ‘the burning bush that both shelters and makes visible our profounder longings.’ (66)

Along with the metaphor of the burning bush, I was struck by Winterson’s insistent use of Biblical imagery in order to discuss art in a variety of ways:
‘Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield.’ (p. 20)
‘Art is excess. The fiery furnace, the freezing lake.’ (p. 94)
‘Like Adam we name our beasts.’ (p. 113)
‘Against this golden calf in the wilderness where all come to buy and sell, the honest currency of art offers quite a different rate of exchange.’ (p. 139)
In my thesis, I consider the appropriation of Biblical imagery by the Victorians. Interestingly, Winterson’s appropriation could be seen to highlight the central argument of her book. She speaks of the need for a new, living language that is rooted in the past. Like Christina Rossetti, by using the Biblical images and instances in a new way (albeit a very different way!) she achieves what she claims all good art should contain– a fresh approach to reality and tradition. For Winterson, art is the Word. It heals, transforms, links the past to the present and the future and creates a new space in which to exist and escape from the ‘problems of gravity’.

To conclude, Art Objects reveals an exciting realm where the triangle of communication between artist, product and viewer can be transformative if only we allow it to.

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