Tag Archives: artist

Beyond genres, writing as a way to live

I earned twelve dollars and fifty cents this week for explicating Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” when I substituted in a high school colleague’s literature class for 25 minutes. I made my money by discussing the ornate crassness of lines such as “worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity.” I wondered aloud to the students why anyone would attempt to argue, to logically reason, someone into bed — has such a thing ever worked?

The next morning, the poem came back to mind, and I wondered if perhaps Marvell had been playing a joke — if the whole poem were some clever attempt to state in high style what is essentially a pick-up line.

Lately I’ve been wondering if all writings, maybe even all artworks, that are made intentionally for unknown others to read (as opposed, say, to writings done in a journal or letters written to a particular friend) are, in some sense, made to impress others, to show off, to build the writer’s reputation.

An assertion: All writings that are created in order to be published are written self-consciously; that is, these texts are written with the author’s own reputation in mind. Even as I write this blog post, I’m aware that it will give readers a sense of who I am as a writer, how competent, how interesting I am.  (Yes, I suppose that I sometimes write poems without intending to publish them, and if they turn out well, then I’ll publish — but before I decide to publish, I think about how the poem will make me look — pedantic? loony? genius?) So writers are always “on” in their published works in the way that actors or politicians or other professionals are “on” whenever they’re in public.

But being aware of, and wanting to build and protect, our reputations can make it hard to be honest, hard to be our most-authentic selves. When writers only publish their final drafts, they seem unapproachably perfect to novice writers. Perhaps writers want to seem perfectly brilliant and not like the flawed and/or boringly normal people we are. Certainly, not every thought that comes into my mind is worth telling others. (I’ve had to block certain Facebook friends who commit this artistic and anti-social sin.) But when we can let go of our self-control as writers and be spontaneous, we may also write things that are beautiful and that are wiser than we normally are.

I’m reminded of a st0ry Natalie Goldberg told in one of her books (I’m not sure which, perhaps “Wild Mind”) about giving a public reading of a text that she had written just a few hours earlier, a text that was basically a first draft, a freewrite.

Now, I don’t mean to say that all writings should be first drafts, either. This is a concept I struggle with, though. If I write for publication only things I already know, I risk lecturing others/being pedantic, or just as bad, being merely clever in an attempt to entertain. As amusing as The Onion is (and this story gets a little too close to my truth), it also strikes me as the mental-nourishment equivalent of eating frosting. And while the idea of writing Onion stories seems fun at first, it later comes to seem like some level of hell where everything one writes must be snarky. (My own Onion story suggestion: “Onion writer would just honestly like to be taken seriously.”)

Of course, I’ve set up yet another distinction — writing for oneself vs. writing for others — and most distinctions are arbitrary, temporary — are tools for thinking, left behind when no longer needed.

And so I write. I don’t want to write to meet a publishing purpose, so many of which seem needlessly restrictive. It may help marketers to establish genres and categories of art, and it may even help some readers to orient themselves, but dividing up the magazine rack by topics, and the bookshelves by genre, suggests limits on what counts as “real writing” that I accepted for many years.

I thought that what I wrote was valuable only as long as others would find it interesting — that is, I thought I had to carve out of my writings only those short bits that would fit into established, marketable categories. It has taken many years for me to see the arbitrariness of these things, and to understand that an artist is free to (and maybe ought to) challenge the common ideas of categories, of purposes, of value. Realizing that the standards against which so many things are judged are also arbitrary helps in that when we are creating something new, there can be no standard against which to judge a new thing, so there’s no wrong way to do it. Standards, forms, and genres melt as the confections that they are when exposed to the cleansing rain of creativity — to use an overwrought image, but eh, why not? Part of the fun of writing is the chance to use language fancifully sometimes.

I’m also aware that this is the second reference in this blog post to a sugary substance — this was not intended, but when these images (of the frosting, the confection) came to mind, I went with them. Perhaps this reveals something about my mind — but maybe all writing that is not intentionally-and-arbitrarily limited does reveal the writer’s mind.

But it takes a mind to tell stories — things and events do not tell their own stories. Every written thing is the product of someone’s mind, someone’s consciousness, someone’s mental voice (however one wishes to conceive of this). I had an experience of seeing students moving down a hallway yesterday, and my interpretation of their walk was that it was more of a shamble, almost as if they were cattle being herded ahead of the cowherd-teacher driving them. Of course, all of what I’ve just described was a mental phenomenon — I’m not lying, but I’m telling a story that exists only because I’m telling it. Nothing in the world outside my mind compared these students to cattle. But perhaps my description communicates to readers and perhaps interests and/or amuses them — and the reader can’t share my experience, but only my words.

And my words, too, must be interpreted by readers before they’ve communicated anything — and I hope my words and ideas could benefit others. But I know that I write to benefit myself. I write because thinking and writing are how my mind operates in my life. Some people craft furniture, some dance, and some of us write. Some of us see students walking like cattle and feel a need to say that, and then we are amused by the description alone.

Whether or not anything I write ever becomes widely known doesn’t really matter to me. But I write what I want to write, when I want to write it, and somehow this satisfies my mind’s need.

Links: Art & doubt

An interesting post in the NYTimes asserting that Andy Warhol’s conception of art, which included art attributed to Warhol that he didn’t actually construct but was merely aware of, questioned the modernist view of art:

whole generations of art lovers have been trained in modernist dogma, and arts institutions’ access to various forms of state or foundation support depend on it completely. One goes to the museum to gasp at stunning works of incomparable, super-human genius by beings who are infinitely more exalted and important than the mere humans staring at their paintings. That’s why ordinary people staring at a Picasso (allegedly) experience a kind of transcendence or re-articulation of their lives and world.

This view of art, writer Crispin Sartwell says, promotes the “aura” of the original work of art, which, being one of a kind, can then be given one-of-a-kind prices, and this serves economic interests of many in the professional art world.

But Warhol was representing a different concept of art:

It is quite plausible to assert that, unlike most modernist masterpieces, a decent reproduction of a Warhol is as a good as an “original,” or for that matter is just as original. In virtue of what, precisely, would you distinguish them aesthetically? Is it that the original was brushed at a distance of some miles by Andy Warhol’s awareness?

Warhols are, to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms, “works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Benjamin famously asserted that, in a situation in which images could be copied cheaply and en masse, works of art were losing their “aura”: the sense of mystery and transcendent value that attended them. But aura is associated with rarity and preciousness: it limits supply and hence enhances or exponentially increases price. So, for those who stand to profit from postmodern art, the aura has to be imposed, invented, or (dis)simulated.

I would like to add here that this “aura” is something that I, in becoming an artist myself, have questioned.  In order for me to become an artist, I needed to define for myself what “artist” meant. Those great artists revered by experts are unassailable, and I needed to take them down from their pedestal–in my own mind–in order for me to have a place for myself, to be able to be bold enough to attempt to create.

Making art is the process of asking questions. If certain artists and artworks are revered, questioning them seems rude. We need to be able to forget all that has come before (an impossible task, of course) in order to create anew today — which new creating is of course never completely original, is indebted to previous works — but the mind engaged in creating is in a perpetual present-moment.

And a recent article in the New Yorker describes doubt in the thinking of Albert Hirschman:

doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action.


The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. Courage, Colorni wrote, required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself.”


Hirschman would come to recognize that action fuelled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind. [The Spanish Civil War] was a tragedy, but it was also, for him, an experiment, and experiments go awry. Hirschman liked to say that he had “a propensity to self-subversion.” He even gave one of his books that title. He qualified and questioned and hedged as a matter of habit. He never trusted himself enough to indulge in grand theorizing. He pursued the “petite idée,” the attempt, as he said, “to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.”


Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah [Hirschman’s wife]explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.” Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake. As it happened, the four years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.