Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Do I Really Like This, or Do I Just Want To?

Painting is as lonely a business as writing can be, so Scott has developed friendships with other artists over the years and alternates his studio time with group outings to paint en plein air, visits to other artist’s studios and vice versa. Today, Bob MacPherson came to spend some time with Scott.

Bob and Scott have different styles, both somewhat impressionistic with a bit of the abstract here and there. We started to talk about abstract art. Bob recalled being in a museum and looking at a collection that was primarily different colored squares, juxtaposed on each canvas in various combinations. The paintings weren’t speaking to him and he was about to write them off when he overheard a docent explaining that the artist was exploring the concept of psychology and art and how different color combinations can evoke emotion. That made the paintings a bit more interesting.

When I first met Scott, I was a big fan of modern art. Six years living in Europe afforded me the chance to take several art history courses – you couldn’t beat the field trips. Learning about nineteenth and early twentieth century impressionists, fauves, cubists and expressionists within the context of history gave me a great academic appreciation for their work.

Living with art and among living artists, understanding what they are striving to achieve and how they can make a living doing it has given me an altogether different point of view. I still have an academic appreciation for modern art, but I’ve learned a whole new level of appreciation for representational art as well. I’ve learned that what I can appreciate in a museum is not necessarily what I want to see hanging in my living room.

Coincidentally, I was finally able to start reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer and there are some similar parallels between the visual arts and literature. When I was in high school back in New England, reading the classics was still very much a part of the curriculum. I loved reading Shakespeare, as long as it was in the classroom where a teacher could guide me through it. When I tried reading it on my own, I was lost.

I’ve always loved art and literature pretty equally, so over the years, I’ve either read or attempted to read as many “great” books as I could. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve read, but not all. I tried to read Faulkner several times before I finally picked up As I Lay Dying. I made it through, enjoyed it, was able to follow it reasonably well, but am certain there was a lot I missed. Tropic of Cancer is still sitting on the shelf, unread but someday I’ll try it again. I read William Gaddis’s last novel, AgapÄ“ Agape with its five page sentences and it took enough focused concentration to light the book ablaze. I needed a three hour nap to recover. I have another Gaddis novel also waiting patiently in the bookcase for me to crack it open, but it may be waiting a while.

Why would a rational person, with limited time to read for pleasure, put herself through this? It’s because I know how much I’ve loved other books that were tough to get through, once I was able to find their rhythm and get into them. Sometimes I couldn’t do it outside of a classroom.

It’s definitely a different kind of reading than I do when I need something to get me through a long flight, but as long as I’m not completely lost and I see the beauty of the author’s work, I enjoy it -- don’t I? Or is it that I just want to be able to say I read it?

An engineer friend of mine maintains that all abstract artwork is a case of “the emperor has no clothes”. Maybe sometimes this is true. When certain art and literature is so esoteric that it requires special education to appreciate, can we really love it?

What books have you struggled to read and then fallen in love with? Which ones have you tried to read and abandoned? Do we really read serious literature because we enjoy it, or because it’s a challenge and if it’s critically acclaimed, we want to see what the reviewer saw?


Therese said...

Lisa, I love exploring this issue of whether we primarily value art/lit only because of the frame through which it's presented to us.

Some work really is too inscrutable to comprehend without that frame--but with the frame, we get so much we'd have missed otherwise! Thus I, too, love lit classes where the work is revealed through the professor's framing, which is based on explorations by many preceding scholars.

Some art requires that we be educated in order to appreciate it, some does not.

To me, neither is "better;" they are simply different. I can be astonished by a close look at a single stem of queen anne's lace along a footpath, or by a close read of Absalom, Absalom, or by the evocative and heartbreaking drama of two gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.

Personal taste is another factor in this equation...

As to whether I read serious lit because I enjoy it or because of the challenge and reviews, well, for me it's both. As a writer, I study, contrast, compare, and internalize so that I can inform my own work in ways that suit my own taste and purpose.

Maia said...

I love this post. I read War and Peace when I was nineteen and wanted to impress people on the subway, then I ended up loving the book. I've got all of Faulkner's books, but can't make it through any of them for some reason. Too many contemporary works to read as a writer, and as Therese mentioned above, "contrast, compare, internalize."

I'd like to understand modern art and hope you will post more on what you know on this subject. I'll be back :)

Scott Mattlin said...

Well Sweetheart;...

I just can't resist the urge to place a comment regarding this posting;)

Your engineer friend is ALMOST entirely correct with regard to "abstract art".
"The Emperor has no Clothes".

Let me elaborate; as I don't want to make this post a blanket opinion that encompasses ALL 'modern" art.
It's really quite simple. If a painting needs to be "explained" by a "learned expert' in order for the viewer to see beauty, inspiration, or craftsmanship;'s simply not art.
A painting should speak for itself.
Does an apple blossom or a beautiful piece of hand-blown glass need to be "explained" to be appreciated for it's inherent beauty?
Is a single square of red on a canvas art? OF COURSE NOT!
Art should never be intellectualized. It's a visceral and visual experience; and I believe, needs to speak to the heart and/or soul.
That said, I love you:) -Scott

Larramie said...

Scott's final words explain it all fo me. Art/beauty/truth is what you love.

Anonymous said...

I'm an artist and a writer. This is a great post, the art is beautiful, and I really, really like your husband's post as well. Bravo!


The Writers' Group said...

Well, I was going to post about the abstract vs. real art (I love abstract) and then what books started off challenging, but then became favorites (Cold Mountain, The Road), until I saw Scott's post.

What a romantic gesture...A few carefully chosen words,now that's art.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

What a lovely post . . . and comments. Let me say first, I love Faulkner. Love, love, love. Hemingway? Not so much. I've never been able to finish Dickens. (As an English major and teacher, that's my shame!). I keep thinking I should pick up Cormac McCarthy but don't. Yours are the kind of questions my students used to ask, and I don't think I'm any better equipped to answer them now.

(And, I have to add after having glanced at your profile, Stegner's Crossing to Safety makes me swoon)

Therese said...

Scott's comment is so interesting. I admire his passionate statement but I'm not sure I agree with it.

Visceral response is based on taste. "Beauty" is subjective. "Love" is subjective.

"Appreciation," on the other hand, can be greatly informed by learning more about the process of creation, the context, and so forth.

So when you ask if we can ever love a work that must first be explained, I say some can, and others never will.

Lisa said...

Therese thank you for creating the link to your Blog. You made this a much bigger discussion than it ever would have been otherwise and I love your insights.

Maia, I love your story about War and Peace. I think I've done some similar things...and I'm glad I found your site -- great discussion there too!

Scott, thank you for your always valued painter's point of view. You always simplify what I like to make difficult ;-)

Larramie, like Scott you have an wonderful way of putting a fine point on things -- and I have to order some of that wine soda!

Amy, I think you should talk about the abstract too! I still love the same work I always did and can still be drawn in by color and harmony and mood outside of representational art. I want to hear more of your thoughts on The Road sometime...I just finished it too.

Judy, I'm so glad to know that there are authors even english teachers and authors can't get into!

and Therese, thank you again. You've made distinctions between taste, love and appreciation that make perfect sense to me.

Lisa said...

Oh and Fotini, thank you for the wonderful comments! Would love to hear more about your art and writing!

Therese said...

Lisa, thank you for tossing the ball onto the playground to begin with!

Oh--and Scott, for what it's worth, I LOVE your work. Gorgeous use of light and

liz fenwick said...

Interesting post...I can think of of many works that with out the help of the professor I never would have 'got' it or more correctly found the deeper meanings. Now I read more for pleasure than greater meaning which I thinks reflects on state in life - mother with three kids and lack of time to dwell to deeply. I also find now I tend to look at how works of literature are contructed - this a by product of writing which detracts from the reading expereince. Reading like viewing art is an experience and all that we are and have been taught or been through colours what we read or see.

Anonymous said...


Here I am on Publishers Marketplace.

My new website isn't up and running yet, but when it is, I'll be sure and let you know. Finishing my 2nd novel now. My 1st was published some years back under another name. Going forward, I'll be writing as J.F. Constantine.

I majored in Art at UT Austin. I did not finish my degree because I got caught up in creating and got bored with endless classes. :) I plan on going back and getting an art history degree after I get my writing career off the ground. Writing is priority ONE (since I was 5, it's been my dream).

My forte was always portraiture - in the classical sense. Some abstract interests me, but some of it strikes me as pretentious. Just my opinion. Some of it is great - for instance, I love Picasso, but he could also actually draw. ;)

I viewed your husband's gallery yesterday. This is the kind of art I appreciate - real art - this requires a gift. This is not slapping paint on a canvas. :)

I do not believe that an artist can be totally taught. Improved upon by teaching, yes; but, there must be a gift there first. Clearly, Scott has that.


Mia King said...

Aloha Lisa!

I'm currently reading Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She lists 100 books that she went back and re-read to help her jumpstart her writing again. A lot of the titles on her list were recommended reading when I was in high school, and some of them were like pulling teeth - I could not get into them no matter what! James Joyce was one of those writers for me, though I'd love to go back and take another look.

But there were also titles that I am so glad I was told to read - otherwise I just don't know that I would have picked them up on my own. Anna Karenina, The Idiot, The Awakening (one of my favorites!), Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre ... all excellent. I think certain books work for us at certain times, while other books are timeless. In my mind, there's nothing more wonderful than a good book. A REALLY good book. There are lots of entertaining books out there, but a good book - one that grabs you and doesn't let go - is the reason why readers read and writers write.

Lisa said...

Liz, thank you for joining our discussion! I agree with you. What we read and why does change over time as does our perception of the work because we are always changing.

Fotini, thank you for sharing more about you. I look forward to reading your work and would love to see some of your painting.

Mia, I'm glad you joined us and now I have two more books for my "to read" list...yours and Jane Smiley's. James Joyce is one I could never get through either and I've always told myself I'd go back and try him again. Even for a voracious reader, it's tough to come close to reading everything I'd like to. It's compounded because there are so many books about writing and reading, in addition to fiction I'd like to read. I find writing has definitely changed the way I read. I have a list of books I read when I was very young that are also on my "someday I'll read these again" list. I'm glad I read them, but certain Sartre and Camus won't be the same at 45 that they were at 20!

Greg said...

Lisa, hardest book I ever forced myself to read through was Das Kapital by Karl Marx. It was at least 1100 pages long, and it was all this boring economics stuff about why capitalism in an industrial age gives people a headache.

May the adventures of Lee Press-On-Nails continue....

Lisa said...

Greg, Aaaaaaaaaaaargh! I'm not sure I could read 11 pages on economics :-)
What about fiction? Ever pick up a book you didn't want to read and love it? One that you wanted to get through and couldn't make yourself do it?

Yellow said...

Lisa, I love the way you are so honest about what you feel. I too am often unmoved by paintings from many movements. The paintings I seem to 'get' are often not beautiful, but have a power to them. I came across an atrists blog recently of detailed studies of every day objects. the guy was a true craftsman, and yet I was left cold by what I saw.
I'm still in the very early stages myself in my own art. I find I get lost in the 'process' of drawing or painting while intensly studying what it is I'm working on. At the end, or after a break, I'm often surprised by the final piece, and I find it hard to look at what I've done without reliving the creating process I went through at the time.

Lisa said...

Yellow, I checked out your site and your work is lovely! I can definitely see the influences. I particularly love the pen and ink figure study. I think honesty in our work is the only way to create anything that is truly real. Honesty in our lives is the only way to live a genuine and happy life. It's not easy and it's certainly frightening (most of us are brought up to not be honest about most things). Keep creating and thank you for stopping by!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf