Being an artist, it does not necessarily follow that you can speak about art. Artists gifted with the poetic mind can bury themselves in lifeless prose as they try to explain what is difficult to explain. In fact, the critics often sound more eloquent in exploring a world they do not even create. So it was with trepidation I approached the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s collection, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. But Winterson succeeds in delving into the world of art criticism with the power of a creative writer and creative mind. However, it as much her enthusiasm as her intelligence that makes this collection work. Art is no academic exercise for Winterson; it is a way of life. And her passion is infectious.
“A work of art is abundant, spills out, gets drunk, sits up with you all night and forgets to close the curtains, dries your tears, is your friend, offers you a disguise, a difference, a pose. Cut and cut it through there is still a diamond at the core. Skim the top and it is rich. The inexhaustible energy of art is transfusion for worn-out world” (65).
This, by the way, in an essay focusing on Virginia Woolf. The essays show Winterson’s love of modernism, but her essays on Woolf (two of them) and Stein (and extended comments on Eliot) are springboards for Winterson’s thinking. In other words, she not only knows art impacts our lives, she shows how this works by her reaction to art.
The first of three sections is a longer essay, entitled “Art Objects,” where we see how visual art becomes important to her. Even though she really knew nothing about visual art, she learns to expand her life by expanding her exposure to art. “When I wanted to know about paintings, I set out to look at as many as I could, using always, tested standards, but continuing to test them”(16).
Winterson rails against the subjective “I just like it” mode of approaching the arts. She wants us to seek out what others like and why, but never hesitating to push back. With intelligence!
“The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ has nothing to do with the picture in its own right.
‘I don’t understand this poem’
‘I never listen to classical music’
‘I don’t like this picture’
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience” (13-14).
The other two sections of the, “Transformation” and “Ecstasy and Energy,” combine several essays. In “Transformation,” we see the art that has shaped and continues to shape Winterson — it is an ongoing process. In the final section she seeks out the personal in terms of how it relates to art. Her essay on “The Semiotics of Sex,” explores how her being a lesbian does and does not influence her art. She takes to task both the “straight” and “Queer world” (her term) for their polarizing approaches to art.
Her final essay applies much of the earlier discussions to her own work, but again, this serves as jumping off point. In “A Work of My Own” she makes a strong case for the importance of arts in the world.
“…each new generation considers itself more enlightened than its predecessor; a view that science both encourages and depends on. Literature (all art) takes a different view; human nature, emotional reality is not seen as a progress from darkness to light but as a communication, with ourselves and across time…Whereas science outdates the past art keeps it present” (166).
She notes that while science debunks the past, “Shakespeare has not been sunk by the weight of four hundred years of scholarly and popular interpretations” (166).
Winterson’s writing is lively and thought-provoking. She challenges us to give art its due, to take time. This is not another voice saying we move too fast, but she is clear that art should make you pause. It is time well spent. What do you get from examining a work of art for an hour as opposed to putting on the museum tour headphones and being told what to think. Winterson would say listen to the headphones, but also spend time alone with the art. This goes for literature, the visual arts, music, all arts. This book is worth slowing down for and spending time with as we consider the impact of art.
Explore Winterson’s world at her website or on Twitter @Wintersonworld