Here’s a little story for you…
A philosopher, photographer and, novelist walked into a bar to chat. What do you think was the first question they posed? Why is the sky blue? Does god exist? No, the question was— What is ART?
Saturday night at the bar. Such a happy looking crowd– isn’t it?
These weren’t just any neighbourhood amateur philosophers, photographers and novelists. In fact, there sat IRIS MURDOCH, Chair of Philosophy at Oxford, ALFRED STIEGLITZ, world famous photographer sitting beside the great and prolific novelist, THOMAS MANN, author of Death in Venice. Oh! And here comes another one to join them! That’s MARCEL PROUST, a rather frail looking soul who wrote the seven volume novel, In Search of Lost Time.
Iris Murdoch said, “Any kind of art is a battle to the death against formlessness and chaos! As humans, we must create something out of nothing and cheer ourselves up by constructing forms out of a pile of senseless rubble.”
As one novelist to another, Thomas Mann, leaned over and said, “Ah, so true Iris! Art is a close and dangerous game with those dark, unconscious forces we call the subconscious. Great art disturbs and sometimes even alarms us in ways we cannot understand. It is the foreign and strange touched by the familiar. In this painting by Hieronymus Bosch, can you see the angels and demons waging their tails in the subconscious?
Stieglitz twirled his swizzle stick reflectively. “Art holds the mirror up to nature.” He gave an elaborate shrug. “Of course, this reflection or imitation does not mean slavish or photographic copying. So often, photographers have been accused of this. I’ve spent my entire professional life as a photographer working to establish photography as just as fine a form of art as painting. Photography is art!
Smiling rather flirtatiously, Iris ordered another vodka martini. “Dear Thomas! Why so glum! The subconscious is a marvelous and necessary place to visit if you want to create. That’s where all the angels and ogres are found. Surely, you’re not frightened by them? If art is to be truly great, no matter how produced, it must be disturbing and come from deep within.” She thumped her hand on the table. “You feel you are looking at something brand new, never before seen, but it has a tinge of familiarity mixed with something inexorably strange and foreign. It’s something you’ve forgotten you knew and are now just remembering. Could we be dipping into the ocean of the collective unconscious?
Alfred Stieglitz got out his cell phone. “Yes, sometimes I take pictures like everyone else with this,” he said rather sheepishly. “But I can’t get these selfies right.” He struggled to get into a better position. “If I snap a photo of the four of us together, will anyone call it a work of art? Even bad art?”
Thomas Mann shook his head. “I very much doubt that!”
“Dearest Alfie!” exclaimed Iris. “Why ever not? I think we all look quite fabulous!”
“There’s so much more involved, Iris,” Stieglitz said. “Nobody can say what the recipe for great art is regardless of whether we’re talking about painting, photography or writing novels. Somehow, the artist drags something out of himself and makes us see the world…life…differently. If I just snap a selfie, I put little of myself into the picture. And so, I cannot see how that is art.”
Marcel Proust had been looking dreamily about the bar. As if speaking from a great distance, he said, “Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another sees.”
“Nicely said, Marcel!” remarked Iris. “Are you quoting someone or is that you?”
Marcel only smiled.
Despite the fascinating talk, I had to leave. Listening to the philosopher, photographer and novelists in the bar, I had plenty to think about walking home along the river.
Could I look at the work of various artists from their perspectives? That is—are artists driven to create because they cannot tolerate chaos? Where is the best material? In the subconscious, even the collective unconscious? What’s this business about something familiar yet foreign and strange?
Suddenly, I stopped. A question occurred. If I accept all of the above ideas as true, where does that lead? Let’s find out!
On the way into the bakery for bread, I thought more about the French novelist, Marcel Proust, and his seven volume work entitled In Search of Lost Time. Because that is a huge work, I only vaguely remembered one scene—the madeleines. No madeleines in this bakery!
Unbidden, the Proustian Moment floated into my mind. Proust wrote about, as a child, eating madeleines—a sort of tiny sponge cake. Miraculously, that act triggered a tsunami of childhood memories. In fact, those involuntary recollections [the ones which just pop into your head] led to reflections about time which contained the essence of the past. Usually, they are triggered by such senses as taste and smell. Through those memories, he felt he could bend time and transport himself present to past and back again. Confused? So am I.
But I laughed out loud and considered racing back to the bar to sit with the philosopher and the artists. I had something to contribute, didn’t I? By talking about how eating the madeleines brought a rush of memory, didn’t Proust elevate his work from just a sentimental recollection of childhood events to art? How so? Such thoughts bring deeper meaning and significance to the novel by introducing the question of how human beings experience life. We are broadened. We are invited to consider the nature of this story-teller, his life experiences and our own.
Proust raises the question of how we perceive the world. We can consider other kinds of people at a safe distance. Even if a particularly vile character appears, we can perhaps understand him better, provided he remains safely tucked between the pages. That way, our perspective is broadened, and we learn more about different kinds of people. We can appreciate diversity and that should lead to tolerance. How different and yet similar we are.
I was pleased to have seen the great artist and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz tonight. He spent his entire professional career convincing the public that photography was just as fine an art as painting.
Steerage is one of Stieglitz’s most famous photographs.
These migrants have been rejected and are being sent home. That seems highly relevant for our times. Is this art? Or is it just a photograph of a crowd. Stieglitz came upon this scene while travelling in a first class cabin on the ship. He ran back to his cabin for his camera.
The composition of the shot is divided into two separate areas delineated by the gangplank, the roofline, the ladder and the pillar [rising vertically on the left]. Your eye is caught in these areas and doesn’t seem to want to leave. In fact, it keeps returning to a scene in which society’s division of class and gender is starkly delineated by the composition.
But look more closely. See the worn and haggard faces of the men effectively portraying quiet defeat. Despite the crowding, there is very little interaction among the people. Time weighs heavily on these shoulders.
Is it still just a crowd? Or has the composition elevated the photograph to art? Isn’t art supposed to expand us and broaden our vision? For a man in a first class carriage, this photograph or scene would definitely enlarge his vision. It expands us into an appreciation of diversity. I think we are invited to find compassion in ourselves as we consider lives far different than our own. Does that make it art?
I was delighted to have sat a table or two away from the great and prolific Thomas Mann. Now the questions are—Can literature be called art? What do we mean by literary fiction? There must be obvious differences between literary fiction and say a romance or crime novel just on the basis of subject matter. But surely other factors make us call it art or literary fiction.
The Magic Mountain written by Thomas Mann is, in my mind, art. The Snow Chapter, right in the middle of this seven hundred page novel, elevates it to that level. In that chapter, Mann describes two visions his protagonist, Hans Castorp, experiences in a snow storm in the Alps. There is something about the writing which creates such blinding visions.
The first vision is one of deep pleasure. I will quote just a few sentences because it’s pretty long.
What a happy, friendly sight it was–the way the older lads worked with the unskilled, curly haired boys, helping them string their bows, showing them how to draw and take aim, supporting them when they reeled back laughing from the recoiling bow while the arrow left it with a whir.
Such an image speaks only of the very best, most loving aspects of humankind! But there is a second vision which stands in absolute contrast. I have rarely read anything of depicting such horror!
So half naked old women were busy at a ghastly chore among flickering braziers–their hair was was gray and marred, their drooping witches breasts had tits as long as fingers. They were dismembering a child held above a basin, tearing it apart with their bare hands in savage silence.
Don’t forget our protagonist, Hans, is dumped in a snow bank during these visions. Despite the grotesqueness of the second passage, as a writer myself, I have to admire these passages for the effectiveness of their imagery! It’s so vivid that they have burrowed into my mind and stayed there for years.
But here’s the most important point. Mann has described two contrasting visions of human nature. Hans, the protagonist, understands that he has dreamt of the incomparable beauty of mankind right when the absolute horror of mankind is going on unseen directly behind it. They are simultaneous. The two contrast but complement each other. And both of them are true if we are honest.
But does this make it art? When a writer can take his reader and his character to another dimension so vividly implanted in your mind, surely, it must be art. If a writer can express such fundamental ideas about human beings, then he has elevated his work to art. An author, who can so terrify his reader with contrasting visions, surely must be an artist. So, we have the horror which lies just behind the beauty of human nature.
Great art expands us. It makes us appreciate diversity because we understand other people much better. And appreciating diversity leads to greater tolerance and surely, in this day and age, that is a good thing worth fighting for.
I hope I have inspired you to comment. Please scroll down and let me know your thoughts. I promise to respond!
As a novelist, creativity is one of my favourite topics, especially when writing about photography and literature. You might want to browse my blog…
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
If you wish to purchase any of my novels, please follow this link to my Amazon bookshelf.