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Saul Bellow

Art and meaning. Big topic, and one that just keeps morphing and moving through our relationship with art making in whatever form that takes. I’ve written on that complex topic a lot here, if only peripherally given its depth, but my interest in it is tireless. Leon Wieseltier’s New York Times review of Saul Bellow’s newly published volume of letters touches on it too as well as other salient Bellow insights into life, living and consciousness.

Here are a few passages that jumped out at me:

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As with his novels, the reading of his letters leaves one amazed by how much Bellow saw. He was always glancing and glimpsing. In a letter to a former student, in 1955, he cautioned her about “American books, including my own” that “pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine.” He instructed her, instead, that “a work of art should rest on perception.” In 1957, criticizing a story that Philip Roth had sent him, he scolded the young writer that “I have a thing about Ideas in stories.” And Bellow was just as vigilant about the arrogance of form. To Alfred Kazin, in 1950, he complained about the prevalence of the notion that “to write a story is to manipulate symbols,” and warned against “what happens when literature itself becomes the basis for literature and classics become crushers.” About “The Adventures of Augie March,” he wrote to Bernard Malamud that “a novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay…Bellow’s cause was actuality, the whole mess of it. His ideal was wakefulness.

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He declares, almost creedally, that “the man we bring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened, fed and fattened by all the facts about him, all of his history.”

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This is the sort of drollery that gives evidence of an uncommonly large internal space. “The 19th century drove writers into attics,” he tells Alice Adams. “The 20th shuts them in nutshells. The only remedy is to declare yourself king, or queen, of infinite space.”

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He informs Barfield that “lately I have become aware, not of illumination itself, but of a kind of illuminated fringe — a peripheral glimpse of a different state of things.”

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Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder.

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“A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,” and in that palace Bellow was sovereign.

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He never loses his constancy of purpose…“Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.”

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This short piece by Jonathan Jones (in The Guardian) captures rather succinctly many of the frustrations I have written about here in earlier posts. We are currently living through a period of inappropriate dependence on language to extol and explain what is often beyond language in the visual arts. Enough words! My voice joins others in a plea for inviting a variety of different responses including silence, stillness, and to be outside of thinking and logic.

The anecdote about Jackson Pollock is particularly heartwarming…

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

Yet, there are more and more pressures today on artists to explain themselves. Once, an artist was allowed to hide behind a vague and mysterious aura. The American abstract expressionist painters made grand pronouncements about their work that are so enigmatic they give away no hostages – nor do the kinds of epigrammatic comments made by Francis Bacon. Yet artists in Britain today are always offering explanations for what they do.

If you’re looking for the root cause of anything annoying, silly or spurious in the culture of art in 21stcentury Britain the source of the problem is never hard to locate. Once again the culprit is … public art, in which the popularization of art, the determination of institutions from parks to to local councils to be associated with it, and a lingering British Puritan visual clumsiness produce a lot of guff as artists try to promote the accessible virtues of their ideas.

As soon as you start saying what people want to hear, adapting your art to the common sense political and moral platitudes of ordinary speech, you betray subtlety and poetry. Artists presenting proposals for the Fourth Plinth, the Tate Turbine Hall and elsewhere should rebel again this. They should agree to all submit the woolliest and least explanatory pronouncements they can dream up. Something like: “The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.”

That’s Jackson Pollock, writing a grant application in 1947. I don’t suppose it would get him much of a grant in Britain now. He’d have to explain what his webs and loops of abstract paint are all about … but he’d sit there chewing his pen, no more able to offer a simple explanation of them than the critic is half a century later.

I found an article in The Independent yesterday that I posted on my filter blog Slow Painting. It has dominated my thinking all day. In a singularly succinct manner, it captures a core set of issues that are at the center of my disaffection with a number of trends in contemporary art. These are some of the same concerns that drove me to start blogging two years ago.

Two imperatives are identified as de rigeur in the high profile world of contemporary art:

Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about.

Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

The article goes on to elaborate this conundrum:

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.

It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself…

That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”

This runs in a similar vein with much of what Lawrence Weschler has explored in my still current favorite book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. What Irwin keeps moving in and out of in the interviews included in the book is related to Sontag’s issue of cutting back on content and getting the viewer closer to what is “real.”

I’ve referenced Irwin’s well known response to a Philip Guston painting in an earlier posting here but it is particularly pertinent to this discussion. He describes going to a gallery and seeing a small Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. The Brooks painting was big in every way—large shapes, with strong color. The Guston, an early piece, was small, painted in the subtle and signatory muted pinks, greys and greens. But in Irwin’s eyes, it outstripped the Brooks completely.

In Irwin’s words:

My discovery was that from one hundred yards away…I looked over, and that goddamn Guston…Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum…Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall…

Not on quality, just on power…some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

What Irwin keeps getting at—that power of the painting itself—lives outside the domain of applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases:

They only work immediately; they command an incredible presence—“a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative stance it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent. That is why for many years Irwin declined to allow his work to be photographed, because the image of the canvas was precisely what the painting was not about.

This is the deep furrow I want to plow. The contemporary concerns for obligatory meaning and languaged legitimacy melts away for me in the face of full-bodied power. Overlay and artifice? Enough already.