Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

Art Objects coverBeing 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 jeanette_winterson240visual 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

 

 

 

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My Name is Asher Lev

Makoto Fujimura’s “Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture”

Refractions_coverE-380x570Makoto Fujimura is one of those rare animals — a Christian and an artist thriving in the secular world while holding firm to his faith. Born in Boston and trained in the United States, he received his MFA from Tokyo National University as a scholar in Nihonga, a Japanese-style of painting. His excellent work there earned him a chance to be the first non-Japanese citizen to take part in their lineage program. While studying, he became a committed Christian, which changed his direction in life and art.makoto fujimura

This book is a collection of essays, mainly culled from his “Saturday morning essays.” As with any collection of essays, some will strike the reader more than others. In addition, many are stronger within their cultural context, while others escape such limitations. Nevertheless, all of them raise questions and offer insight which will challenge the reader to re-see the world.

One of Fujimura’s greatest strengths is seen in an essay such as “Dances for Life,” in which he makes an impassioned argument for the importance of dance. Although a visual artist, Fujimura clearly loves art of all genres. “There is something primal about dance that transcends all of the conventional concerns. Dancers embody the very ideal of the arts and fuse the spirit with the body. In other words, dance incarnates, and dancers bring this fusion into their bodies.” Many Christians are uncomfortable with dance companies and dance as an art form (and I say this as someone who has booked many dance companies in our Christian community), and Fujimura challenges them. “Christians should be the first in line to see and applaud this fusion of body and soul. Christ is not an ideology, a sentiment, or a mental image, but a fusion of body and Spirit.”

From his "Grace" series

From his “Grace” series

A natural educator, Fujimura also sees art teaching us how to live daily. In “Surfacing Dolphins,” he talks about visiting art students at a college, and their reluctance to share their art. When he asks for works they are not proud of, they bring out plenty of examples. “We live in a culture of perfection, or at least in the superficial resemblance of things perfect….Failures teach us more than successes.” As he does in all these essays, Fujimura relates his experiences to his faith, and with failure ties in the idea of repentance. “I have learned from Scripture to pay attention to works in my life of which I am not proud. They speak to teach me. I have learned that what the ancients called ‘repentence’ is a journey of coming home to a place where all our wretched works rest, but also where that our wretchedness is overcome by light.”

four quartets a

From his “Four Quartets” series

Perhaps Fujimura’s commitment to art is summarized best in a speech he gave in 2005, published here as “Why Art?” “By continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live. We have no alternative today. The path of apathy, the path of cynicism, and the path of terrorists have incarnated their realities in our backyards. To have hope is no longer an optimist’s escapism–it is the only path to the future.”

A reader will find a range of topics, including many essays on the visual arts, in these 23 essays. After reading these (or before) visit his excellent website at http://www.makotofujimura.com/  and watch his 6 minute video on his latest work (which also gives you some background on him).

As is clear, this is a book I highly recommend. It is refreshing to see Christian faith and art seen as supporting one another. Side note: Having just finished Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, I’m curious if Fujimura has read the book (and if so, his thoughts on it). The struggle to balance faith and art are essential to that novel.