Art and Matter
Art and Matter: the idea came to me recently in Paris, at an exhibition of manuscripts. Near a letter written by an anguished Paul Verlaine, not far from one in the actual hand of Marie Antoinette, was a page from Albert Einstein. Although I could read little of the text and formulas, I was impressed by the composition as a whole, with variable line weights, lengths and shapes and intricate notations. Where would an Einstein find himself today, I wonder.
Perhaps Marcel Duchamp was correct in the 1960s when he predicted that the great artists of the future would go underground. That’s where many exist today, covered by the thick, tasteless paste of comfortable consumer culture. Some artists, arts committees, and schools have tried to turn art and the act of art, along with themselves, into a commodity, a business — nevermind the work, join a clique, get some press, pretend you’re not in a clique, repeat.
There are universities that contribute to dumbing-down culture, creating politically correct writing programs and paint-by-our-numbers clinics for kids to experiment with cute bunny rabbits and sensitive feelings, for a price. There’s certainly nothing wrong with creative people being paid for work, but the divide between rich and poor is just as obscene in the arts as it is everywhere else in Western 2009. And while our pitiful Wall Streeters, expense-account Parliamentarians in the UK, and raiders of the last endowments in the US fumble toward a new beginning, glued-together media conglomerates scramble to license, control, feud with, and sue teenagers.
While the big guys flounder, times could not be better for lean, independent projects. Newcomers, often do other jobs to support their art. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick after long hours at a factory, and there are plenty of others who didn’t get courted by the serpents of celebrity. For successful people, it’s time to make a break from the publicists and share.
Ironically, glimmers of hope are emanating from declared pessimists. At this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, I had a conversation with Jay Parini, a St Andrews educated American poet, professor, and currently biographer of, as Parini noted, the ‘perpetual pessimist’ Gore Vidal. In his recent memoir, Point to Point Navigation, Vidal asserts that movies and films have replaced literature, and ‘the books are closed.’ Yet, according to Parini, the first thing Vidal does after making such a statement is to go back to his desk and work on his new novel. And although Parini himself says that ‘people have lost the art of narrative’, citing ‘unwatchable television’ as a factor, he also quoted Robert Frost’s line, ‘poetry is a momentary stay against confusion’ which still holds, with poetry currently enjoying a resurgence.
One of the most intelligent young writers I’ve met told me, in a tipsy moment at a party, that he wanted to be a writer but wasn’t going to university for at least five years or so, because he needed to go out and get experiences to write about. ‘Otherwise, what’s the point?’ he remarked. Agreed. And there are plenty of people who get it.
In 1969, John Calder and Co. put on Romeo and Juliet at Easterhouse, one of the worst neighbourhoods in Glasgow at the time – and people there still talk about it. Recently, Calder and I gave a writing workshop in a young men’s prison, where some of the best work I’ve seen in a long time is being created. Innovative friends like Theatre NEMO in Scotland and The Moth in New York are actively leading the way — among many others. There is no reason for the real creative community to be in any slump. And, with the threat of fascism on our heels on both sides of the pond, we damn well better not be — fascists are indeed afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Some say, ‘I don’t like Modern Art.’ Good, then it’s doing its job. You might think, ‘My kid could do that.’ Great. Buy her a paintbrush. Innovative art needs you not to like it at first. Good education needs you to be uncomfortable. That’s the point. I don’t like dragging myself through hall after hall of religious iconography; the lost Popes and forgotten Saints on canvasses paid for by the guilty penance. However, I go to learn, and always do. Sometimes, I learn to like it, although I could use some help with Slam Poetry and Opera.
Even more recently, I walked into a fresh food café on George Street in Glasgow. Immediately, I recognised all the hallmarks of a small family business, namely, things were arranged, not merchandised, and the guys working there didn’t address me with that familiar far-away stare of wanting to be somewhere else. ‘Is this your place?’ I asked one of the boys, just old enough to work. ‘No, it’s his,’ he replied and pointed to the owner, sitting at a far corner table, his office, buried in the Saturday paperwork that should have been completed last Monday.
He glanced up with a ‘try to sell something and I’ll run’ look. After I reassured him, he invited me to sit, while I asked him about using his place, with high vaulted ceilings and white open spaces for readings, discussions and perhaps the odd party when we launch a book. He was interested from a business perspective, but added, ‘The funny thing will be to tell my wife and the family that we’d have poetry in here — we’re Philistines.’
‘Good,’ I told him, ‘you’re the best audience.’
Martin Belk is the editor of ONE Magazine and Writer in Residence at Polmont Young Offender’s Institution. He has a forthcoming book, Pretty Broken People — lipstick leather jeans, a death of New York.