Sunday, February 17, 2013

What we go to art for (Books - Artful by Ali Smith)

I fell over a review of Ali Smith's Artful (The Penguin Press, 2012) by happenstance this past week, thought it sounded interesting, and then walked into my favorite bookshop the next day looking for something else, and I thought - there's that book I read about.  I can never resist browsing the books stacked on the big tables at Three Lives Booksellers.  I read a page and thought - oh, I really do have to read this: its art criticism but it's also a dialogue between a woman and her dead lover, and it was originally delivered as a series of lectures, which really means she has written a dramatic dialogue.  So anyway, I bought Artful as well as the novel I had come in for and even though I was really looking forward to reading the novel, something made me start Artful on the way home in the subway that evening and I was stunned, hooked instantly.  I did not want to stop reading it.
Artful is a masterpiece of integrity, and I mean that in all senses of the word.  Artful does not seem that it could be added to or subtracted from. It is consistent in its methods - its form (the subject, in fact, of its second chapter).  It is difficult while inside the whole to question these methods. Smith's narrator tells us she is mourning a lover.  Even as I am aware that Smith has created a narrative with craft and ingenuity, I believe that this must be true about Smith herself.  Finally, as Merriam Webster would have it, Artful is incorruptible. What I mean is that it brings its diverse pieces together so successfully that, well I was going to say that I am not aware of them, but that is not true. When I stop to consider the components of this book - form and content, reading and writing, painting and film, artist and art, lover and loved, mourner and mourned - my appreciation of the whole doesn't pause.  To consider the parts is to consider the whole. 

Smith may be well read, but her take on Dicken's Oliver Twist or a Cezanne painting, or a Charlie Chaplin film, or a Wallace Stevens's poem, is never erudite.  She doesn't mean to dazzle us with her greater knowledge of these subjects like, say, Camille Paglia would (don't get me wrong, I admire Paglia). This narrator of Artful is nothing if not modest, making this book a work of anti-criticism.  It approaches artistry as a naif, as an appreciator, but this is artifice.  Smith is university educated.  She is the author of nine works of fiction, is a member of the Royal Society of Literature, and was invited to be the Weidenfeld visiting Professor at St. Anne's College, Oxford. She is no slouch as a writer, or a reader, but the form she chooses for these lectures is a first-person account of a dialogue between a mourner and her dead partner, who returns as a ghost.  The narrator is not much of a reader, she does something with plants, I can't remember what.  She is more a consumer of popular cultural forms - film, musicals.  It is her lover who lectured on literature.  This is genius, because Smith makes the expert on art someone else. The narrator read Oliver Twist last in college.  She has a passage from Jane Austens' Jack & Alice tatooted on her skin, but only to win the literate ghost as her lover.
Okay, which bit do you want? I say.

All of it, you say, from The to world, and I'll expect your tattooist to spell beautiful like Austen does, with two l's, and friend like the young Austen did, with its i and its e the other way round, f r e i n and d.  Or youll need to get yourself a new skin because nothing less will do for me if you're so determined to have a tattoo.  Okay?

All of it?  I say.

Lucky for you and ands are ampersands, you say.

You are calling my bluff, of course.  I call yours back.  I take that book to the tattoo parlor down Mill Road and I come home, after several sessions, with exactly this tattoo.  I choose to have it done in deep blue, the color of your eyes.  It costs me a fortune.  It hurts like irony.

I see you again only when it's finished and my skin's settled down.

You're unreal, you say when you see it.  You're the real unreal thing all right.

Less than a month after this we move in together and mix our books up.
Smith establishes our narrator as someone not illiterate but not scholarly.  She seems grittily determined.  She won't back down.  The ghostly visitor, as a creation of the narrator's grief, is likewise a persistent presence. She returns not to assuage her lover's grief but to complete the lectures on art she had been working on at her death, lectures very much like those Smith delivers and which become this book.  This is the lynchpin of this narrative's artifice, or I guess I should say its artfulness, a game Smith plays with subject and object. It struck me particularly in this passage on Cezanne's paintings.
I tried to remember what you'd ever said about him or his work.  I knew we'd seen some of his paintings, and that you loved them.  We'd stood in front of one of his pictures in a quiet gallery in a grand building in London, a place full of the most beautiful paintings and almost nobody but us there looking at them, and you'd told me the story about how Cezanne would slash and burn his own canvases in a fury, or when his child poked holes in them would exclaim with delight, look! he's given it windows! he's opened up the chimney!; how one day he threw something he was working on, a study of apples, out of the window of the top floor of his house and it landed in the branches of a fruit tree below, and he left it for weeks, till the day he looked up, saw it again and called to his son to go and get the ladder because it had ripened enough for him to work on it a bit more.

The painting we were standing in front of when you told me this, a painting of a lake and some trees, was so full of the color green that it's almost all I remember about it, that greenness, though I remember you painting out to me how everything in the picture was treated with the same importance or lack of importance, how every slab or flick of color mattered as much as every other, that that's how the painting made its shapes, and how it mattered, too, that we knew it was a painting, something made, how Cezanne had wanted people who saw it to see how it was formed out of paint, made of color, made of surface, before they even thought about trees or a lake.  That way, you said, the artifice was what made the place in the picture- as well as the picture - truly alive.  That way, we knew that it was telling no lies, it was not deluding us, it was real.
Aside from this being what I value in art, and aside from the fact that that is exactly what this book is doing at the moment we read this, it could do it (convey the content) even as I noticed and appreciated the artifice (although that did mean I read the page three times.  Re-reading is something Smith champions in this volume, so that is entirely appropriate).  Notice that the excerpted paragraph begins I tried to remember what you'd ever said...  But Smith isn't really the 'I' here, that is the role she is performing as the narrator.  In actuality she is the 'you,' the tutor.  The 'you' of the dialogue she creates is the listener or reader of the lecture, the person who has come to Smith to be tutored in her views on art - the listeners at Oxford, you and me. For a while, I really believed in the set-up of a mourner, but then I began to think of the ghost returning unsatisfied to the lectures she had left unfinished as Smith herself.  This is the creator of the lectures, I thought, struggling with what to speak about.  This creator is dead, as if Smith killed off her knowledgeable self in order to speak about art in a more direct way.  Not an approach delivering precious gems for the blessed few of Oxford, but a simple talk with a person who needs what only art can give.

Artful is divided into four sections: On time, On form, On edge, and On offer and on reflection, suggesting that Smith will treat time, form, edge, and offer, etc. as it functions in art and especially in literature, which she does. But really what she does is treat them as they function in our apprehension of life's deepest experiences: love, beauty, work, mortality.  These are the subjects of art, yes, but Smith wants her needy listener to get inside of how art brings us these experiences.  Art is what results from an act of imagination.  It is a tool for anyone trying to get at an experience but who doesn't know how to get there. In this case, her 'you' wishes to mourn fully and seriously, feel her pain deeply, integrate her loss into her life, and then move back into her life feeling it with greater depth, greater appreciation. Art is a means to that end in that it takes the unspeakable, as Smith says in this book, and imagines a way to say it.

Smith hopes she will learn what we go to art for and then to go to it, and go to it, and go to it.
We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture.  We'd never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we've read a book after reading it just once. 
And she has such great taste.  The bits of Dylan Thomas, J.G. Ballard, Wislawa Szymborska, she shares are such full works, ones she has read deeply, and integrates fully into the fabric of her dramatic narrative.  I challenge you to get to the last page of Artful and not dive for a copy of Oliver Twist, or immediately order a copy of  Sylvia Plath's poems, or search on Netflix for the films of Aliki Vougiouklaki.  I had never heard of her either.

I found Artful such a brilliant, rich, well-crafted, read I actually stopped reading about 20 pages from the end just so I would have a little more to read later.  That said, given how much Smith has to say in it, and with what originality she says it, this is a book I intend to read more than once.

Here is a recent interview with Ali Smith if your interested in her writing habits, reading recommendations, and superstitions.


Pat R said...

Ted, Yet another book I now MUST read! THANKS AHEAD OF TIME... the interview was a joy....

Ted said...

Pat! Oh yes, you must! This one is for you.

Pat R said...

"MY" copy is waiting for me at Barnes and Noble... simply didn't want to wait to have it shipped from Amazon...frugality? ... after reading your review and a few pages on Amazon frugality had NO chance.

Ted said...

Frugality is greatly overrated.