Art and literature

RES (Whose real name is the Reverse Etymology of Science Fiction) has ordered requested us us to stop writing treatises on what is science fiction, or what science fiction should be.  Fortunately, I don’t need to because I ran across a rant that fits my ideas of “art and literature” exactly.

I didn’t remember this rant, as it’s found in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which I’ve not re-read since shortly before my older son was born.  There were too many resemblances there to sixties strangeness (mostly through no fault of Heinlein’s) and besides it is flawed — in my opinion.  Don’t kill me — by Heinlein having set out to prove one of his oddest ideas — that plural marriage is better for everyone — and then arranging the book so as to do just that.  Though of course, the principal purpose of the book was to show that humanity in its expression is learned.  Or not.  To explore, yet again, the enmeshing of body and for lack of a better word spirit which becomes obvious in books like I Will Fear No Evil.

I don’t want to initiate a Heinlein pounding fest, first because even though he had some odd notions (and which of us doesn’t) my best story doesn’t compare to the worst of his.  Second because that is not at all the purpose of this post.

The digression is merely to explain why Stranger (And Job, which I read only once) are not among my “Heinlein rotation” and to point out that I don’t think I got my idea of what is art (including literary art) from him.  Instead I think I came to it slowly and painfully, past the horrible period right out of college when I thought I MUST be “literary” and “highbrow” and that only in the last three or four years have I come to realize that emotion in literature is not a detriment (think of how romances are treated and you’ll see why I thought so) and have I started slowly pushing past my own barriers on inducing emotion in my readers.  (Though I still feel guilty about it.)

Only in the last few years have I come to the conclusion that the canvas we paint on might be words, but the medium is emotion itself.  For it the story and characters and all are just the means and the carrier.  If I could do the same work with a poem that it takes a novel to do, I’d absolutely do it.

Now, of course, perhaps it’s possible that Heinlein programmed me to come to this conclusion…. but I don’t think so.  If he did, it was d*mn slow in acting.

Now, before I quote extensively — first one bit about art, then a bit by the character Jubal Harshaw — more specifically on literature, I’d like to point out that like Jubal I dislike calling myself an “artist” a word corrupted by being applied to things that are either incomprehensible or unpalatable or even indigestible.  But in the sense of “real art” I should hope I am at least on my way to being an artist.

“”…. Jubal, why isn’t there stuff like this around where a person can see it?”

Because the world has gone nutty and contemporary art always paints the spirit of its time.  Rodin did his major work in the tail end of the nineteenth century and Hans Christian Andersen antedated him by only a few years.  Rodin died early in the twentieth century, about the time the world started flipping its lid… and art along with it.”

“Rodin’s successors noted the amazing things he had done with light and shadow and mass and compositions — whether you see it or not — and they copied that much.  Oh, how they copied it!  And extended it.  What they failed to see was that every major work of the master told a story and laid bare the human art.  Instead they got involved with design and became contemptuous of any painting or sculpture that told a story–sneering, they dubbed such work ‘literary’ — a dirty word.  They went all out for abstractions, not deigning to paint or carve anything that resembled the human world.”

Jubal Shrugged “Abstract design is all right — for wall paper or linoleum.  But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which are not abstract at all but very human.  What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation… whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce — render emotional — his audience each time.  These ladies who won’t deign to do that — and perhaps can’t — of course lost the public.  If they hadn’t lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago.  Because the ordinary bloke will not voluntarily pay for ‘art’ that leaves him unmoved — if he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him by taxes or such.”-Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.

(Needless to say, typos are all mine.  Also, note the above and note that subsidies sometimes come in the form of university salaries, and sometimes in the form of reading lists, too.)

“…. Most of these jokers don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn… They would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they’re driving at.  If indeed they are driving at anything — obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence.  Ben, would you call me an artist?”

“Huh? Well, I’ve never thought about it.  You write a pretty good stick.”

“Thank you. ‘Artist’ is a word I avoid for the same reasons I hate to be called ‘Doctor.’  But I am an artist, albeit a minor one.  Admittedly most of my stuff is fit to read only once… and not even once for a busy person who already knows the little I have to say.  But I reach the customer… reach him and affect him, if possible with pity and terror… or, if not, at least to divert the tedium of his hours with a chuckle or an odd idea.  But I am never trying to hide from him in a private language, nor am I seeking the praise of other writers for ‘technique’ or other balderdash.  I want the praise of the cash customer, given in cash because I’ve reached him — or I don’t want anything.  Support for the arts — merde!  A government supported artist is an incompetent whore.” – Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.

You can’t hold it against me, because it’s not my treatise — but this he said and this I believe and this sculpting and reaching of human emotion into catharsis is in fact the essence of human wave fiction at whatever level it’s practiced.  And it is what I’m aiming for, even when I fail.

141 responses to “Art and literature

  1. I call myself an artist. A professional one, at that. And then I laugh a little, which usually my listener doesn’t get. Because I am not an artist in media that most understand as art, and calling myself an artist is a little bit of me thumbing my nose at the establishment.

    Besides, if you are an artist, you can’t help it. It just happens. It’s not necessarily something to boast about.

    • Same when I call myself a poet. It seems so pretentious even though it is true.

    • Only well along in life did I realize that I am compelled to be a researcher. Regardless of what talents I might or might not have for research. Regardless of what my employers or I intended me to do.

      The dice have not yet come to rest and there’s a throw or few left, but the compulsion, and inner conflict about it, may end up ruining my life (or not). It’s extremely probable that I’d be happier and wealthier today without it.

      • I’m not so much an artist as just insatiably curious — about most everything except modern twaddle. I have bookmarks for most sciences, from astronomy to zoology. I also keep track of what I can about our military and what it’s up to. I also slog through government activities, because they affect all of us, and usually unpleasantly. Google Earth steals far more time than I’m willing to admit (I spent 26 years looking at parts of the earth because that was my job. I missed many of the fun spots. Unfortunately, much of Google Earth is such poor resolution it’s really NOT fun).

        Reading — and writing — is escapism for me, and for a lot of people. If what you write doesn’t entertain, doesn’t allow the reader to “suspend disbelief” and enjoy the story, what good is it? Textbooks are frequently more interesting.

  2. Would snark be considered an art-form?

  3. There is a lot going on in those sections, but the one that speaks most to me is the idea–which I share–that art can only have value when the audience chooses to buy it of her or his own free will.

    To my mind, accepting a government subsidy for my art is admitting that no one will buy my stuff except by gunpoint. I’d rather that weren’t true about me.

    I wrote a piece in which I express my feelings for taxpayer funded art a while back:

  4. I don’t even remember where in your oeuvre it happened to me. I got some allergic reaction in my eye. And I said to myself (no shit) she’s been studying the Old Masters. Can the technique of stealth tearjerking be described? I’ve been intensely curious about that for decades.

  5. I wish more people felt about art as you do Sarah. For me, it also connects with Belisarius’ (as written by Drake & Flint) statement that he was a craftsman above anything else.

  6. RES? Revue d’etudes de science-fiction? Who the hell is RES and what’s with this “ordering” business?

  7. A government supported artist is an incompetent whore.


    Phidias designing the Parthenon for Pericles? Michaelangelo and the Sistine Chapel? Bach working for the Leipzig town fathers? Even, perhaps, Shostakovich joining the Communist Party? IMO there’s truth in what RAH is saying but he over-generalizes.

    • Um, in all those instances, I think the artist was being PAID to do what he did, just as Roden was being paid for the majority of his art. Thomas Gainsborough was a portraitist in this country, and painted hundreds of portraits. It supported him. Most of the art produced by Michaelangelo and da Vinci was commissioned by the Church, the Government, or the wealthy families of the day. They were the only people who had money. Today we paint with words, and the audience is much more plebeian, but the case is the same — we are paid for what we produce, or we starve. That means we have to attract and hold an audience. We do that by providing what the majority of that audience wants.

    • It wasn’t the same thing as a modern state, gs, and you know it.

      • 1. Yes, I know it, which is why I wrote the compound sentence IMO there’s truth in what RAH is saying but he over-generalizes.

        2. I do think that it is not easy to specify the points at which government support of art yields diminishing returns; starts to do more harm than good; and overall does more harm than good. Afaic, however, it’s not hard to tell that today’s America is well past the point at which such support does more overall harm than good.

        3. This post is also meant for Mike, Paul, and Kim. I’ve attached it to Sarah’s because she and I previously talked (and disagreed iirc) about the related issue of government support of research.

        • Just to elaborate:

          Would it be better to end all government support for the arts than to continue the present set-up? Yes, definitely.

          Is forbidding any government support for the arts the best of all possible policies? Maybe, but I’m not completely convinced either way. In principle, yes, government’s role should be restricted to its essential functions.

      • Points to the very real difference between patronage by kings and princes paying an artist out of their own coffers and a government subsidizing “art” with tax revenues extracted from the people by force.
        And yes I am aware that in the main those coffers got stocked that way too, but it’s still a matter of both motive and immediacy of the patrons and their wealth.

        • Eh, if we have nice murals in the courthouse or some such, that’s not too bad. We can pay to have some nice public buildings. It’s when we don’t get the art, or it’s UGLY that things get — ugly.

          • I would posit that it’s when “support for the arts” is being functionally equivalent to Welfare, that the main problem comes about.

            • That’s the problem.

              You can have a court bard who receives respect, prestige, and support and sings the praise of the king and queen and knights and lords and ladies in the formal style.

              You can have a starving artist in a garret who does as he pleases.

              What really doesn’t work is the artist who wants the freedom of the starving artist in the position of the court bard.

              To be sure, another thing that really doesn’t work is handing out no more respect than the starving artist and demanding that he laud the Glorious People’s Democracy in court bard Socialist Realist style, either

    • GS, IMO there’s a difference between a government leader hiring an artist for a job and a government funding anybody who wants to call themselves artists.

      Bach, Michelangelo, etc were hired by plenty of people over their lives and had to satisfy them or they wouldn’t get hired again.

      IMO this is just like Sarah having to satisfy her readers instead of just getting a check from the government for “being a writer”.

    • Artists have always had patrons. The Pope and Michaelangelo, Mozart and the Archbishop of Salzburg, the Florentine Camera, the Borgias… some of those may have constituted what we now call “government,” but there’s an enormous conceptual gulf between the Renaissance’s dei Medicis and the National Endowment for the Arts.

      • Exactly. The lines between Government and the personal purse of those who governed were blurred. To an extent these people were paying own money.

        • And even if it wasn’t their “own money,” it was the purchase of a specific artwork/project with individual accountability. Not like writing and obtaining a federal grant, with the minimal/missing accountability that goes with those.

        • Usually to buy public respect or influence.

  8. Most of these jokers don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn… They would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they’re driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything — obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence.

    In the training business, the people who try to create their own language (to separate themselves from everyone else) are called “mystics”. Wherever they are encountered, one has to repeat the question “What does that mean, in English?” until they either use plain English, or shut up.

    Every field has its own jargon, but the rule of thumb is that the more impenetrable the jargon, the less important the field. (Note that I use the word “field” and not the word “discipline” because that’s just an attempt at self-aggrandizement. he term “academic discipline” is just pretentiousness defined. It’s not a discipline; it’s a field of study.)

    It’s my major quibble with the so-called “Game” experts in the so-called “manosphere.” Their laughable use of acronyms (SMV, IOI etc) just underlines how pretentious, and intellectually lazy the whole exercise has become.

    I recommend to everyone George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language for a concise explanation of writing clarity. Just as concise, but funnier, is B.A. Myers’s treatise:
    Ten Rules for “Serious” Writers
    1. Be Writerly: If your writing is too natural, then there is no way it is scholarly.
    2. Sprawl: Content doesn’t matter, it’s all about size. Critics are impressed by big books, so brevity should be dismissed.
    3. Equivocate: If it doesn’t make sense, there can always be a good excuse. Truth can always be distorted as long as it makes the writer sound good. For example, the plot isn’t important because the lack of plot is what’s important.
    4. Mystify: If people think that your writing is smarter than their writing, then they will respect your writing. If you sound smart (and definitely if you are published) then you must possess a brilliant mind.
    5. Keep Sentences Long: If the sentence is not long and boring, then it is definitely not literature.
    6. Repeat yourself: Repetition of words is important. If you don’t mention your subject enough times, then the reader may not know what you are talking about. You may also use synonyms to show that you know how to use a thesaurus, and thus, must be an intelligent writer.
    7. Pile on the Imagery: Your writerly credentials will bloom to greatness if your ability to tie together multiple similes and metaphors like the wooden pieces of a Lincoln log set, never disintegrate from the fiery visage of the sun. The more literary devices that you can throw together, the better the writing.
    8. Archaize: If thine style of writing reflects an age long gone, and a world unfamiliar to the modern reader, then thou art indeed a master of the quill and the ink. This is very similar to rule number four, except you must write as if you are stuck in the past, rather than stuck in a dictionary.
    9. Bore: The word boring may as well be a synonym to the word scholarly. Along the lines of rule number one, you cannot write naturally, or make your words interesting. It is simply not scholarly. People are not supposed to be able to understand your writing, they are only supposed to realize that your writing is brilliant, because it just might be the cure for insomnia.
    10. Play the part: Remember to be as you write, scholarly, literate, practically a god. You must understand that when you seem smart, when you seem to believe in yourself, others will do the same, because, how could someone that is so smart and so pompous be wrong?
    Most modern writers (Proulx, McCarthy, Morrison etc) probably use the above as Holy Writ, rather than warnings.

    • Sorry about the long comment. Jargon and obtuse writing are my own particular flame accelerants.

      • Nah, comment was as long as it needed to be.

        • Was reminded of another Heinlein quote:
          “If it can’t be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion. It has long been known that one horse can run faster than another —
          but which one? Differences are crucial.”
          From The Notebooks of Lazarus Long in Time Enough For Love.

          In other words, you are either able to express your concepts mathematically or you must admit your field is at best fuzzy science. But of course we must remember that his training was as an engineer and naval officer.

          • David Hume got there before him:

            If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

            There you have the origin of all of logical positivism and analytic philosophy—though Hume’s eighteenth century prose was a lot more readable than modern philosophy usually is.

            • The military is frequently (and sometimes, accurately) accused of using acronyms to blind, dazzle, and befuddle those not “in the know”. Most of it’s just shortcuts. There are few fields as confusing to non-initiated than the one I pursued — imagery intelligence. Yet in the end, it more accurately fitted the description of “science” that Heinlein quoted than its critics would admit. Stuffed to the gills with acronyms and mnemonics, and needing every one of them!

            • eyes that passage.

              Asks: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No.

              Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No.

              Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

              Logical positivists went so far as to dub their central and sole principle “important nonsense” when people pointed out that by itself, it was nonsense.

    • …and don’t even get me started with Thomas Pynchon, who is lionized by the literature critics, but in fact is completely unreadable.

      • I see Pynchon’s name and all I can think of is “The House of Seven Gables,” and what happened to the evil Judge Pynchon. Which may be why I never got past, oh, 1960 in US literature. I went back to reading readable books.

        • Wow. That particular link never occurred to me. Probably because I’ve never been able to get past ‘lugubrious’ in the House of Seven Gables… which probably makes me a philistine.

          • Rook, I only read it because I was not up to reading the Scarlet Letter again (would have been the third time). But I also read all of Moby Dick, because I was interested in whaling. *shrugs* I’m an odd Odd.

    • I checked to see if this was a reversal of Twain’s essay on James Feinmore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, and it isn’t really.
      I won’t post the whole article, you can get it on,
      and it is worth the read.
      I will quote rule 14:
      Eschew surplusage.

      What more can be said?

      • That Twain essay can be considered the Alpha Draft of the Turkey City Lexicon… and it is full of awesome.

    • Myers’s treatise can be found in his A Reader’s Manifesto which many Huns and Hoydens may be interested in in its entirety.

    • Unfortunately, based on my experiences with email communications in business, I think #6 may be all too true.

    • A longer but well-written and very informative version of “Politics and the English Language” is C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words.

      Better, in fact. Orwell deplores a tendency. Lewis anatomizes the damage it does.

  9. Christopher M. Chupik

    You know, a few years back, there was this book where the author pointed out the problems with “literary” writing. It had some hilarious examples of over-the-top silly writing from big name authors and a stirring defense of Louis L’Amour. Can’t remember the author or title though.

  10. THIS, as the meme is wont to say 🙂

  11. Ordered??? Moi? I yam too disordered to order squat. You’re just taking advantage of your knowledge that on Sunday other demands on my time preclude my joining the horde until late and framing me for crimes other than those I’ve committed. Well, I’ll NOT HAVE IT. I order nothing and sneer at them what does.

    I shall return anon and mock you mercilessly, possibly with a bad French accent.

  12. Your subject today raises a very interesting question. Almost everyone agrees there is such a thing as Art, but can there be such a thing as an Artist? In my somewhat limited experience anyone who self identifies as an Artist rarely produces anything that can be considered art. Personally I do not think it is possible to really identify true Art until enough time has passed to test the universality of response to the work.

    Contemporary Art does little for me emotionally and will it be even considered worthy in 50 to 100 years? I think the best we can do at present is to identify talented practitioners of the arts such as writers, painters, sculptors, composers, movie makers, etc.

    As an outsider to these pursuits is my opinion even worthy of discussion or am I too sensitive to the ego laden self identified artist whose only major talent seems to be that of self promotion as an artist?

    • Er… I’m not even sure I’m an artist — but you’re missing an important point. I’m not saying “art for the ages” — I’m saying art is that which evokes feeling. AND that’s what we should aim for. If it’s for the ages or not it’s something else entire.y.

      • I will bow to your wisdom on this.

      • I think painters and sculptors have co-opted the word “artist” to describe themselves, and I’m kinda okay with that, even if I think they do themselves a disservice. I’m a writer, and even if what I’m doing is artistic, I prefer to be known as a writer rather than as an artist because, well, it’s a more precise description of what I do.

        As for capital-a Art: I think it’s important to differentiate between creative output which evokes feelings and emotion, as opposed to that which simply evokes sensation. Examples: anything ever painted by Giovanni Boldini, as opposed to the random paint splashes of Jackson Pollock; or Michaelangelo’s Pieta versus Henry Moore’s inscrutable lumps of granite; or the music of Beethoven’s Seventh versus the random noises of John Cage.

        Why yes, I do reveal my prejudices by my choice of words; I am a writer, after all.

        • I call myself an audio and acoustic consultant. My field is a mix of engineering and art. I can’t legally call myself an “engineer” because I do not have a State license as a Professional Engineer. To further confuse things those in audio who call themselves engineers are more likely to be the knob twisters who are doing mostly the artistic end of the field rather than the folk at the technical end of the field.

          “the random noises of John Cage”

          Many years ago I sat in on part of a recording session at a client of mine’s studio where John Cage was recording the sound of cactus quills. He had wired up a large number of cacti, and was twitching their quills to make sounds. As soon as the tape was filled on one track (of 24 tracks), it was rewound and he recorded a second track WITHOUT LISTENING TO WHAT WAS RECORDED BEFORE. This process was repeated until all 24 tracks were recorded. The tape was then mixed to stereo and released as his latest work.

          “simply evokes sensation”

          That was Cage.

      • Example: the genre sniffed at as “cowboy art” or “western art.” It usually features cowboys, horses, cattle, wildlife, Indians, or a combination thereof, in a recognizably western North American setting. It is not considered “fine art” for a number of reasons (according to detractors), but it sells steadily and has a lot of meaning for a number of people. I have one little Tim Cox triptych that I bought for, maybe, $25. But he captures the western skies like very few can do, and those little paintings got me through some very lonely and homesick years. Will his work be sought after (or even survive) in a hundred or five hundred years? Probably not. Can it stir the soul and bring comfort, or laughter, or just a nod of recognition? Yup.

        • My ex-brother-in-law is a Western artist and does some beautiful work with a no. 2 pencil. He was always embarrassed that he could draw like that– I mean his raw talent was better than most of our modern painters. He is an artist in my mind although in his mind he is a cowboy.

        • more likely to survive than the work of many a Modern Artist

        • A high-school friend of mine went through a phase of doing Western Art, and I personally think they’re awesome. His paintings look like photos. Lately, he’s taken a job in the Northeast doing concept work, but he also paints commissions and some fantasy.

        • My favorite painter (and a personal friend) has started doing western and wildlife paintings in the last year or so. For those so inclined, you can find some of that work here. He dabbled in it even when he was doing primarily fantasy work; one of my favorite examples is this one. He’s done some awesome cover work as well. I just wish his North American Bald Griffin were posted online, it’s beautiful.

    • I’m an artist. It’s one of my primary self-identifiers, even when I haven’t created any art recently. Oddly enough, I’m more an artist than I am, say, a musician, though if I had a choice of sensory loss I’d go for blindness over deafness because I could cope with that better.

      What am I doing with my skills these days? Mostly post-production in photography, logo design or cleanup, patch and t-shirt design, and the occasional piece for fun.

      Mind you, I said I’m an artist. I said nothing about the quality or scale of my work. It’s just such a fundamental piece of who I am that it has nothing to do with such things as public recognition. And it’s entirely separate from the other creative things I do—I write music, but I’m not a musical artist. I do some photography, but that’s photography, not me being a photographic artist. Like that.

  13. My thinking is that the “professionally subsidized” artist is a relatively modern thing … Dreadfully so, IMHO

    Isn’t it so that the “Classics” were all largely popular literature of their day? Shakespeare’s lines were mouthed by the groundlings and William himself was the first modern author to get a “piece of the gate” at the Globe.

    The average MFA who aspires to be a faculty/subsidized poet produces pretty dreary stuff. The verse is bland and usually an inside game. The work inspires no pity or terror. Maybe some puzzlement. Emotion, what’s that?

    • “My thinking is that the “professionally subsidized” artist is a relatively modern thing…”

      There’s a brilliantly carved basin in the public baths in Pompeii that’s inscribed, effectively, “Paid for With Your Taxes Thanks to So-and-So and Such-and-Such”. A few benches along the Herculaneum road have similar inscriptions. All those statues of Roman emperors? Mass-produced at tax-funded workshops.

      What’s NEW are the professionally subsidized who are allowed to express their contempt for their people who keep the artists fed, sheltered, and safe from lynching.

      • Fair enough on Pompeii and Rome. But modern lit hasn’t seen much tax supported rubbish until recently. So … is the subsidized artist a sign of the decaying society? A patron is a customer; a bureaucrat is a curse.

      • I’d argue there’s a major difference between “art purchased by the gov’t” and “art purchased by grants offered every year and with no spec.”

    • Some were specifically commissioned by the upper classes. Which could be considered a popular audience of one, since he would certainly be deemed an uncultured soul nowadays.

    • The origin of government subsidized art in America probably occurred in the FDR era when government make-work grants to “artists” were awarded by committees comprised of political “artists.” Thus separated by any degree of accountability to public taste, art became free to express the non-commercial artistic vision. Indeed, disdaining public tastes would be a hallmark of the “bravery” of the committee and the artist. Such committees became targets of the politically motivated, ensuring that art would become increasingly alienated from popular tastes.

  14. I think I’ve said this before…

    “I’ve long held that if a piece of art requires a little plaque next to it to tell you what it actually means, then it has failed. And if the artist says “It means whatever you want it to mean” then the artist has failed.”

  15. “Abstract design is all right — for wall paper or linoleum. ”

    Meh. After seeing Roman and Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, I envy them.

    • This reminded me of the linoleum in the kitchen growing up with little starbursts pseudorandomly arranged in varying colors and sparkles. Yes, it was abstract. And it provided me with entertainment trying to walk across the room without stepping on any of the golden starbursts. I don’t think that’s Art.

  16. I much prefer “art” to mean “craft” or “skilled working.”

    There’s an art to properly cutting a field, for heaven’s sake.

  17. Heh. Reminds me of one of my favorite passages from David Grossman’s “Guns of Two Space” – A book I like much better than his stuff with Frankowski, even the first of the westerness books. FTL travel is possible, through a means that may as well be magic, and via a gimmick that forces anything transported to be very low tech. The crew of the frigate, now “heroes” are at an artsy party back on earth (I’ll be editing the excerpt):

    It violates the First Law of Art, Carmack’s Law, which says, ‘If I can do it, it’s not art.’ How many years of art school did you have to go to to learn to splash paint on a canvas like that? If someone studies music for four years, they walk away with an ability to play an instrument and can do something I could never do or imitate. But you walk away with an art degree, and the best you can do is this?


    and one of the sheep bleated in response, “Well, you just don’t get it.”
    Vodi was beginning to wind down, but this last remark ran fingernails down the blackboard of her soul. “And that violates the Second Law of Art, Elantu’s Law,” she replied with renewed vigor, cutting off the recalcitrant sheep and herding it back into the flock, “which says, ‘If the artist has to explain what it means, then it’s not art.’ It’s not art, it’s a failure. Instead of universal symbolism or universal language, it’s gibberish. Or a con job!”


    “Ah! The famous Captain Melville!” said a black-clad poet of indeterminate gender, whose unnaturally black skin glistened with ever-changing sparks and flashes of color. “I understand that you have a flair for poetry. Tell me honestly now, what did you think of my new work? I saw you listening as I was reciting that last bit.”
    “Well,” Melville replied, “There were only three small things wrong.”
    “Oh,” said the crestfallen poet. “What would that be?” s/he asked as the others listened in.
    “First, you read it. Which can be excused, but perhaps not when it comes to something you wrote. If the artist won’t bother to commit it to memory it must not be worth much. Second, you read it poorly. And third, it wasn’t much worth reading in the first place. If you think that’s poetry, you’re just fooling yourself. One late twentieth century poet put it this way:

    “True poetry to me has meant
    Possessing the ability
    To use some brilliant words to make
    Another person clearly see

    “A vivid mental picture and to
    Make an easy, natural rhyme,
    As if the words were idly used
    In idle talk some idle time.

    “It may be my opinion,
    But it’s why we know Lenore,
    And Free Verse won’t last as long
    As the Raven’s, ‘Nevermore.'”

    • There are times where you do realize someone Just Doesn’t Get It. The correct response is the silent conclusion that they are Not Part Of The Target Audience.

      Someone bleating that the story has no point; you should really have had the hippie activists showing up the business man, for instance.

      • It is somewhat like restaurants. Demanding that your neighborhood deli serve Chinese food (hey, Deli’s are Jewish, right, and Jews like Chinese food, right?) is simply dumb. Complaining that KFC doesn’t offer hamburgers, the BBQ joint serves bleh gyros or that the pizza delivery doesn’t offer samosa — dumb, dumb and dumber.

        I long ago realized that while like my pad thai “thai hot” and my vindaloo “extra hot,” any restaurant routinely serving such fare will not remain in business long.

        If you don’t like the menu, take your custom elsewhere. The restaurant has no business complaining that what they offer is the best food in town and you should be happy with it, pay your money and shut your mouth.

        If you don’t like what is offered in a genre, take your business elsewhere. There are many ways in which I’ve been accused of arrogance, but my arrogance never rose so high I thought I could tell you what you like to read (or eat, or listen to, or drive or what to wear … although if you show up at a formal ball in a dental floss bikini I might possibly suggest you’re overdressed.)

        • Put more concisely: I long ago realized there is a difference between my tastes and those of others, and neither of is is right for what the other should prefer.

          Look at an industry that combines art and popular taste: movies. Look at the list of movies that have won (or even been nominated for) Best Picture Oscars and are now forgotten; look at the movies made in the same year which are now deemed classics. Did George Arliss’s, John Barrymore’s and Paul Muni’s performances rot over time or did fashions change? If fashions had changed differently would people now dismiss Gary Cooper for excessive underplaying? Lillian Gish is as beautiful, according to the standards and styles of her time as Scarlett Johansson is according to contemporary fashion.

          And I ought add that French restaurants totally ought be required to serve fried catfish and hushpuppies. It is only right.

  18. Late to the party, off about other things. And I’ve got a space waitress babbling in my head about a murder in an inter-species blue-collar diner. (Blame Dan Lane, it’s his fault.)

    Lemme start by saying I agree with our host, regarding what the goal should be as practicing artists. For me, the value of art is the response it evokes in the audience, the connections it makes between the feeling the artist had creating it and the feeling the viewer gets seeing it. It’s power should be inherent (and therefore accessible to the native culture), not dependent upon a secondary framework of explanation. If you’ve got to have a separate dissertation for clarity, it’s failed.

    But, I think the path to where we are now comes from a couple of places:

    One is the artist side, wherein people spend inordinate amounts of time in deep study on the forms and figures of their chosen medium. Often times they become so intellectually involved in the details and the minor fluctuations over time that they begin to view the work from a purely technical perspective. And they produce work derived from deep technical understanding, often appreciated by their peers for that very technical mastery. Having dabbled in music, painting and photography at one time or another I have witnessed first hand a fascination with technical variations on established mechanisms of art production without regard to a larger aesthetic. It is the product of an insular community obsessively delving down into the particulars of their craft.

    The second, and more harmful to my way of thinking, comes from the people who haven’t spent all that time but want to be seen as artistic or at least ‘of’ the arts. They’re close enough to the art world to get a feeling that this stuff is massively important technically but not close enough to understand why. So rather than pull the navel gazing artists back toward the light and purpose of all that obsessive craftwork they join them and proclaim themselves enlightened. And if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re just not quite smart enough. This is seen in both critics and those who want to be artists without working at it.

    The amalgamated result is a few obsessive artists exploring the outer bounds of technique and theory (Picasso) and a bunch of fawning elites who so want to be seen to understand and a huge mess of misguided people trying to duplicate the results without understanding why the obsessives went there.

    And this comment went way longer than intended, sorry…

    • One good example of art being appreciated by its peers for its technical mastery would be Citizen Kane. It shows up on just about every “Top 100 Films of All Time” list ever made. Yet I’ve only ever heard two distinct opinions about the film:

      1) Look at all the innovations in the film! Welles was the first one to do X, and Y, and Z… what a genius!

      2) What a boring film. The plot goes nowhere, and takes ages to do so. I want those two hours of my life back.

      While both opinions could be held at the same time, I’ve only ever heard opinion #1 expressed by film students, and opinion #2 expressed by people who aren’t film students.

      • Never seen the movie – in part because the only good things I’ve heard about it were “what a great film!!!!” and “what a genius” – but never heard anyone tell me why they loved the story, or what it really was other than vaguely sortof biographical.

        Interestingly, another of those all -time classics that I’ve grown to hate. 2001.

        Yes, breakthrough special effects, and some breathtaking shots. Great music.

        Unlike the book, which I’d reread repeatedly, my initial viewings of the movie in college must have been colored by nostalgia for the book. It is horribly slow, crappy pacing, and boring.

        • The music in Earth orbit is the Blue Danube Waltz; in deep interplanetary space, it’s the modernist Ligeti. In other words, the universe at large is not designed for (the present form of) humanity.

          Some modern artists, perhaps, are reacting to that perception & to what they infer from the progress of science in the last ~150 years.

      • Haven’t seen it, myself. But from everything I’ve ever heard, I think you’re exactly right.

        • The fallacy here is that Citizen Kane was so influential that its techniques were adapted and imitated by many of Welles’ contemporaries. You have to be a film student to understand it in the context of its historic contribution to cinematic story-telling because within an amazingly short time those innovative techniques were appearing everywhere.

          Heck, reading memoirs of comics (books and strips) artists of that era, they were staggered by that film and viewed it repeatedly to understand how to adapt its techniques to their work. For those of us coming late to the conversation all of that was already in the air we breathed.

          Similarly, Heinlein’s technique of dropping information into his stories was so influential and so broadly adapted within the field that most readers today do not realize what a story-telling breakthrough his conventions were.

          • Which fits with my hypothesis, I think. Citizen Kane would be the artist exploring the incredibly technical minutiae of the medium, and thereby pushing the boundaries of how things can be done. The resultant work may be incomprehensible to those outside of the field but it may foster a revolution in work that is more accessible.

            I don’t argue against work of this sort (though it often leaves me cold, from a consumer perspective.) I do argue against those who see this work, fail to understand its foundations, yet proceed to praise and/or imitate it without those foundations. That’s self-serving sophistry.

          • Yes indeed RES. Citizen Kane is so revered by the inner circle of film critics and film makers because Welles invented so many techniques that quickly became so familiar to us all via their imitation as to be cliches.

            Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are much better stories (and no less dazzling visually) because they feature much more sympathetic characters. And the latter has one of my favorite film noir lines in a genre known for them:
            “Come on, Hank. How many did you frame?”
            “No one – nobody that wasn’t guilty.”

    • “And I’ve got a space waitress babbling in my head about a murder in an inter-species blue-collar diner.”

      We look forward to reading that.

  19. Come cheer up my lads, tis to glory we steer
    to add something more, to this wonderful year!
    Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our Sarah!
    Wait! That doesn’t scan!

  20. My home town of Grand Rapids, MI has a yearly event called Art Prize where anyone can enter and anyone can vote for the best entry. This immediately created tension with the Professional Artistes who thought this was intolerable. Methinks a bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes mindset stalks the art establishment. You can see this when you see how stupidly rich people spend money on the art they give to Museums. Nevertheless, it gives little old me a chance to dash about town looking at cool things for a couple weeks. Unfortunately, I find myself talking to artists and becoming Oh So Pretentious. It’s like I’m possessed by this fella in a beret and ascot who uses a cigarette holder.

    In terms of my own creative enterprise, I’m wholly disinterested in Art, qua Art, but feel a need to master my craft, execute the expressions I intend, and connect with readers. The bit about evoking pity and terror sounds Oh So Greek and I would not be surprised if Aristotle said it first.

  21. Jubal Shrugged “Abstract design is all right — for wall paper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which are not abstract at all but very human.

    Pity and terror only? What about joy or happiness? I always liked Norman Rockwell.

    Darkness and despair are tolerable in moderation, but are wearing over time.

    • I think pity and terror and the coming up from it is implied — ie. consolation an joy. But you need the strong tints. Or to quote pratchett “In the end it’s all about the death and the blood.” Even when it isn’t. Perhaps especially when it isn’t 😉 I’m not advocating dystopia mind, but you need the dark to bring out the light and the light so you can find your way… I should do a post. (Which is my equivalent of “should I come in again?”)

    • “Pity and terror” is just shorthand for “tragic catharsis.” Since neither Heinlein nor Jubal were typically writing tragedy, the comedic goals are also implied. (I disagree with the comedy discussion elsewhere in the book, as with much else in the book.)

  22. For the first time since resuming walking, yesterday I bumped my Minimal Mile up to 2.5. Today, back down to 1. Probably prudent considering how I felt at the end.

    The preliminary calculation won’t be as bad as I feared if as I hope the nastiest term really gets multiplied by 0 & can be sidestepped.

  23. I seem to recall Aristotle’s definition of art as being something that allowed the audience to experience things, often terrible and frightening things, at a safe distance, generally so the audience can be better able to deal with those thing if they ever happen to them.

    I find everything that has stuck with me over the years has been that sort of thing.

    • Aristotle had the advantage of not having to say something different from the guy before him.

    • Not only so they can deal, but to give you perspective. Most of us — knocks on wood — will never experience revolution, war or doomed love. BUT we sort of need it in the repertoire, to give us range, if that makes sense. That way we don’t get confused when what we experience is a hang nail and a headache. In many ways our generation has lost perspective, which is why grey goo magnifies headaches and hang nails.

      • It also serves to warn us against experiencing such things (well, revolution & war — doomed love typically doesn’t come with warning signs recognizable before the fact.) Nobody who has read The Red Badge of Courage should ever be cavalier about armed conflict.

  24. I like fractal art.