Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about when a work of art exists. The example I used was a painting. Imagine that the artist is working on it one evening and stands back to see where he has got to and realises that it is finished. The following morning he phones his agent who goes round to the studio and enthuses over the work. The agent rings a gallery and they send over two men who transport the picture to the gallery and install it on the wall. At this point the painting has been seen by the artist, the agent, the removal men, the gallery owner and a couple of members of staff. All of these people (with the exception of the artist) have looked at the picture as a product, what Marx would have called a commodity, a utilitarian object that has value. My point was that it is not until the gallery doors open the following morning and the public are admitted that it is viewed as a work of art, and it is therefore at that point that it can be said to exist as a work of art.
Another example would be a statue; say, David by Michaelangelo. Suppose, that when he finished it he boxed it up and locked it in his basement so that it went unseen for five hundred years. In that state it has no power to communicate to anyone and so might as well not exist at all. Only after it has been seen does its existence have any meaning and in that sense it does not exist until it has been seen. This allows us to think of the audience validating the work of art and it was in this sense that I suggested to my friend that the painting did not exist until it was viewed by an audience of the public who conceive of it as a piece of art rather than by gallery staff who saw it as a utilitarian object. Recently I realised that this idea of the audience being involved in a work of art can also apply to literature.
When I was a boy, each summer during the six week school holidays there was on television a serialisation of Daniel Defoe’s castaway story Robinson Crusoe. Since Crusoe spends most of his time on his own there was almost no dialogue in this TV serial, but there was a voiceover spoken by someone with a rather strange middle European accent; think of a Hungarian person speaking English with a French accent and you begin to get a feel for what it was like.
The serial began with Crusoe being washed ashore on the island, then he spent a couple of episodes recovering a range of stuff from the wreck of his ship and the rest of the series was his struggle for survival, meeting Friday and then being rescued just in time for us to go back to school. This was your basic Boy’s Own story of manly heroism, stoicism in the face of huge difficulty, imaginative problem solving, and it all turns out well in the end. What’s not to like? For many years I thought this was the story of Robinson Crusoe. Then I read the book.
In the book I first learned why he was on that ship in the first place and the reason caused me to reconsider the whole story. Crusoe owned a plantation in the Caribbean and he was on that ship looking for slaves to work on his plantation. This knowledge put a decidedly different perspective on the whole story and I had to stand back and think about this. Robinson Crusoe was written in the eighteenth century (first published 1719) when slavery was widely considered to be normal. Defoe’s readers would not have thought anything of Crusoe owning slaves because that was as normal to them as sitting in front of a glass-fronted box watching moving pictures is to me. But today we view things differently and slavery is an evil we would prefer to eliminate entirely.
I started out thinking that there are essentially two ways to respond to this. We can either read the book from the perspective of Defoe’s original readers, so that we transport ourselves first to the eighteenth century and imagine ourselves in a world of horse drawn carriages, open sewers, surgery without anesthesia, slavery, and so forth. Or, alternatively, we can read the novel from our contemporary perspective and implant our modern concepts of right and wrong on the events in the story.
In trying to work out which of these approaches is correct, I thought about a science fiction story based on a world I can never visit and involving characters who have never existed. Clearly, the idea of me being able to metaphorically transport myself to their world before reading the novel is unrealistic. All I can do is read the story from my perspective and rely on the author to take me there with his narrative. Transferring that approach to Robinson Crusoe I found his failure to rationalise the taking of slaves distasteful. In not mentioning it except in passing as though it were of no consequence Defoe is treating it as perfectly normal behaviour, which to him it was. But to me it is not normal at all and its presence changes my whole understanding of the story.
This is in many ways similar to suspension of disbelief that I wrote about in a previous post. If you are not able to believe that waving a wooden stick with a feather hidden inside it can effect magical changes on the world then you’re not going to get very far with the Harry Potter books. You have to, temporarily at least, suspend your disbelief in magic to allow Rowling to transport you to the world her books inhabit. By the same token, Defoe needs to suspend my disbelief in slavery in order to draw me into his world, and for me he didn’t do that.
At that point I read an interview with Martin Amis in Paris Review. In response to a hypothetical question about what he is trying to say in a particular novel, Amis pointed to the novel and said, “That. The book. All 435 pages of it.” His point was that if he was able to reduce the novel to a ten-word epigram you can print on the back of a t-shirt, he would be in the t-shirt business, but since what he wanted to say was a bit more complex than that he wrote a novel instead. To understand what he was saying, it is necessary to read the novel, all of it.
I bought into this idea and thought it, relevant, coherent, sufficiently obvious I should have thought of it myself and well expressed. Each artist chooses the medium through which to express his ideas and suggesting that Martin Amis should be able to reduce his novel to a t-shirt slogan is essentially the same as suggesting that Shakespeare should be able to express Hamlet through the medium of dance. Which is not the same as suggesting that Hamlet cannot be expressed through dance. Novels are turned into films, stage plays are turned into musicals, paintings are expressed in music and poems are expressed in sculpture. Artists take ideas from each other and express them in other mediums but it doesn’t make much sense for us to expect an artist to express his ideas in more than one medium. Martin Amis writes novels; if you want a witty three line epigram for the back of a t-shirt get a marketing expert or humorous cartoonist to run one up for you. Charles Frazier didn’t direct the film of Cold Mountain, he wrote the novel upon which the film was based.
Then I thought about my local university’s year-end art show and those little blurbs they put up next to each exhibit telling viewers what to think about or what the artist was trying to say. On my first run through at this I thought of the blurb as being essentially the epigram on Martin Amis’ t-shirt, that if I needed the blurb to tell me what the art was saying then the art would seem to have failed on its own terms. If three rotting cauliflowers aren’t “speaking” to me then some highly pretentious blurb explaining that the artist was exploring the relationship between consumerism and the depletion of natural resources isn’t really going to tell me very much. More than that, if I need to be told what is being explored, explained or investigated, then hasn’t the exploration been represented in an obscure and opaque way that prevents me from engaging with the artist’s work rather than encouraging me to join in their exploration? I quickly saw that thinking like this results in the mindset that concludes that if I don’t “get” the art without the blurb then the art has essentially failed in its objective. (Assuming, of course, that art has an objective).
However, since every piece at the show has a blurb there is obviously another way of looking at this so, rather ironically, I explored the relationship between the work of art and its blurb. After a while I came to realise that if Martin Amis puts a word in his novel that I don’t know it is perfectly legitimate for me to look in a dictionary to learn what it means and then go back to his novel and use this new knowledge to help me understand his work. The fact that I looked the word up in a dictionary does not invalidate Amis’ work, on the contrary, the dictionary enhances my ability to engage with him and improves the quality of my experience and therefore increases my chances of buying another of his books. The dictionary is a learning experience that enables me to learn more about the medium through which the artist is communicating.
Translating that back to the blurb in the university art show, I asked myself whether the blurb can be seen as a dictionary for that particular work of art. In this view we can see that the blurb isn’t required reading, and if I am able to engage with the art without it then fine, but if not then the dictionary can help me learn more about the medium, the mode of expression and maybe even art in general, enhancing my experience and improving the quality of the communication. The view that the dictionary is not permitted then becomes analogous to the view that we are not allowed to learn anything and that artists in any medium are permitted to speak to us only in a language we already understand and to tell us things we already know. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where artists did that. That would be a sterile, barren world, devoid of ideas, lacking in imagination, a place where communication was utterly bereft of meaning. But I don’t have an artistic cell in my body, so maybe I’m just wrong. That’s more than possible.
The dictionary I used to improve my experience of the Martin Amis novel and the blurb at the university art show are both learning experiences, and life itself is a rather more general learning experience. We learn everyday new things about our world and about ourselves, we view the world differently today as a result of the things we saw and read and heard yesterday. Many people viewed Muslims very differently after 9/11, many people will probably view homosexuals differently now that their marriage has been legalised, many people will view David Cameron differently when they realise that those changes were not brought about democratically. Life is a learning experience that allows us to grow and change and become today someone we were not yesterday.
Not only that, but characters in novels do that too. They learn and change and become and when we read about them what we are doing is sharing that journey with them. We are vicariously experiencing their hurt and suffering, feeling the warmth of their love and the sting of their pain. Which in turn suggested to me that I was reading Robinson Crusoe in the wrong way. Instead of it being about me and how I view slavery, it should be about Crusoe and how he views events, about how he survived the surf and how he built himself a cave and protected himself from the wild animals on the island. Reading is about surrendering self and giving the author the chance to utterly immerse you in the lives his characters experience. You are not there with them, you are them.
Armed with this new reading perspective I went back to a book I have struggled with many times. Homer’s Iliad is one of those books that I feel I ought to have read, but in the past it has always struck me as being rather silly. There is a collection of Gods on mount Olympus squabbling about petty things and having arguments and feuds with each other like small-minded school children whilst they are moving the human characters around on a huge counterpane world down below and influencing the outcomes of human events according to their temporary whims. The humans, meanwhile, worship and idolise these petty beings whilst stumbling from one god-inspired act to another with no control over their lives at all. The idea that any of these humans might be heroic evaporates when we realise that none of their supposedly brave acts were performed without first being advised by one god or another that everything was for the best. Viewed like this the human heroes were just toys in a giant diorama, like claymation characters in a Ray Harryhausen movie, and the gods were undeserving of the idolatry and worship that was lavished upon them. In three previous attempts I never got beyond book three before collapsing in fits of laughter.
Using my new reading perspective, however, it becomes possible to see the gods not as actual sentient beings but as the attempt the human characters are making to explain the world they inhabit. The arguments between the gods are an attempt at rationalising the irrational nature of life, the arbitrary decisions of the heavenly host are the luck of the dice as seen by the humans struggling to understand the incomprehensible complexity of life. The gods are not really there, they are the projected thoughts, dreams, hopes and aspirations of the humans through whom the story is being told. Viewed like this The Iliad becomes not just a story about some events in the Trojan War, but a whole new way of looking at what it means to be human.