new ideas for my personal aesthetics – as always; snitched …
“Insofar as I was interested in the arts I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf,”
Ben Lerner: Leaving the Atocha Station (2011)
Descent from the Cross – Detail Mary Magdalene
In Leaving the Atocha Station, the protagonist, Adam Gordon, is a young American poet living in Spain on fellowship money. Adam grapples with doubts about the usefulness of poetry—and art in general—within the format of the novel. A major theme in the novel is the gap between Poetry with a capital “P”—the virtual possibilities of the art, the immense claims traditionally made for those possibilities—and actual poems, which to a certain extent must always betray the abstract potential of the medium the second they become merely real.
“I tried hard to imagine my poems’ relations to Franco’s mass graves, how my poems could be said meaningfully to bear on the systematic and deliberate destruction of a people or a planet,” Adam muses while on a cigarette break from a pretentious poetry reading. “I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen … but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it.
“And yet, when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realised that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.”
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Lerner’s narrator says something quite startling:
“an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual…”
Sometimes I wonder if that moving target, aesthetics, so personal (one person finds a spider gorgeous, another flees in terror) as to be indefinable in a general way, is that porous barrier between the actual and the possible. And without it we are inestimably impoverished. In this passage Lerner tropes Auden’s famous line that “poetry makes nothing happen” and, as a poet myself, I feel that knowledge all the time. What does art do? What does a poet accomplish with a poem? Or an artist with a painting or, perhaps most curious of all, a performance piece–temporal and necessarily ephemeral?
Your posts often wrestle with these questions. Thank you.
Thank you Ann, I do absolutely agree that these questions are very central in my own studies of art. Right now I’m working on a review of the Argentinean artist Tomás Saraceno’s marvelous installation “14 Billions” – a work which is truly transgressive:
I have to remember – sometimes, rather often actually, art enlarges the world.
Wow. What an intricate task. (I admit to feeling some degree of discomfort around the idea of black widow spiders, but the work is oddly beautiful).
When I went to see the exhibition kids were playing around in the installation. Careful not to do any damage, they moved in and out between the strings. Amazing – and not frightening at all!
I won’t pretend to entirely know what “how my poems could be said meaningfully to bear on the systematic and deliberate destruction of a people or a planet,” means. I suppose it needs context. But prose is entirely dependent on context, I think. And context is so wearing.
We don’t, as humans , wake rested and in control of even the flow our own thoughts, often. I think that’s why someone said, “youth is wasted on the young” or something like that. Youth so often in possession of such power that they can and will destroy something for better or worse.
Mostly we are stumbling between exhaustion, physical and emotional, and vague recollections of understanding, nodding at distractions that can lull us to rest for a bit. “Nodding off” saying, ah yes, art, poetry, tell me what to think so I can grab some morsel of intellectual satisfaction.”
So mostly art (and poetry) doesn’t change or destroy anything.
Nevertheless there are moments when the destruction is complete — as profound as waking up still human, and recognizing something so directly personal that we disappear.