Synthesizing art, literature, and Halloween costumes 09.23.2008, 4:41 PM
posted by kirsten reach
Natura Morta, Giorgio Morandi, 1956 (via The Met)
There is little or nothing new in the world. What matters is the new and different position in which an artist finds himself seeing and considering the things of so-called nature and the works that have preceded and interested him. -Giorgio Morandi, written in 1926, published in 1964
Morandi exhibits have popped up all over the city: in the Met, Lucas Shoorman's, and Sperone Westwater (thanks, Dan). I attended the Morandi exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this weekend. While the Met presented him on paper as a quiet and introverted artist (they even had a quotation about how he was a testament to what you can find when you look inside yourself), the most striking quality of this collection is how much he was influenced by outside sources. His brush strokes grow agitated and thick in one oil painting, then light and Cezanne-like in the next. He has watercolors and charcoals and experiments with shadow and light. He has a series of cubist still lifes. But the subject matter hardly changes: it is almost always a white vase or a stack of bowls in muted colors. It is as though he spent his whole life trying to see the same objects in a thousand different ways, borrowing eyes from his friends when he needed them.
Reading is not much different than that. We are reading so in hopes of seeing a fresh take on the same old, same old. Occasionally readers pay homage to the story by passing it on, verbally or musically or artistically.
In "The Ecstasy of Influence," Jonathan Lethem describes receiving a copy of his own first novel as a gift. Artist Robert The had cut Gun, With Occasional Music into the shape of a pistol. Lethem was charmed by this reincarnation of his work. "The fertile spirit of stray connection this appropriated object conveyed back to me - ?the strange beauty of its second use - ?was a reward for being a published writer I could never have fathomed in advance. And the world makes room for both my novel and Robert The's gun-book. There's no need to choose between the two."
When I met Margaret Atwood last year, she said she has been pleased with the things she had inspired others to create. "Your work gets away from you and takes on a complete other life. People go to Halloween parties dressed as the Handmaid's Tale," she said. "I am very much not against it."
"Who Built America?," software published in 1991 that I previously blogged about, uses a word instead of a "back" button. The word is "Retrace." I think this is a lovely precursor to the modern arrow. There is an art to the way we retrace each step of a book's life. Stories are often recycled, and we can understand them when we understand the way they were cut and tailored by each author. Both Lethem and Atwood embrace the idea that their work will take new form beyond their words - and that this is a compliment.
If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones - ?more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths - ?The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of "plagiarisms" that links Ovid's "Pyramus and Thisbe" with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism. -Jonathan Lethem, "The Ecstasy of Influence"
As Johanna Drucker calls it, the "e-space of books" - the space in an author's brain that we have the privilege of exploring through the text - is under-served by the printed page. In a way, the works that have been plundered will have the chance to be credited again. Why not link from Ovid to Shakespeare to The Simpsons? Why not allow the worlds that exist in e-space to nestle into the archives of cultural consciousness?
I'm a very greedy reader. I want more of everything: I want to know how the literature is related to current events, how it's perceived by critics, who helped to edit the book, who the author's friends were, who was writing upon a similar theme at that time, whether the fiction is grounded in fact, and what other readers thought of the ending. To my delight, plenty of readers have usually broadcast their thoughts in a dozen formats.
It's hard to stay in print or on television for more than a minute, but entering readers' minds is a very real way to stay alive. While the doom and gloom of recent articles has made it sound like readers are on the verge of extinction, we could scarcely be further from it.
In fact, we are more literate, more capable, more connected, and more potentially engaged than at any time in human history. -Mark Bauerlein
Imagine for a moment the possibilities a story might present. Cain and Able alone could lead you to the Wandering Cain of Mormon folklore, to 15C representations of the characters, to the history of martyrdom, to Lord Byron's poem "Cain," to John Steinbeck's East of Eden, to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, to Bloc Party's "Cain Said to Able" and Bruce Springsteen's "Adam Raised a Cain," to the Simpson's clip of the Flanders kids playing Cain and Able in a home movie. This is a copyright nightmare, but sometimes authors have to let go. Otherwise they'll never see people at Halloween parties dressed as their characters, and they'll never allow themselves the breadth of information available with this kind of free exchange.
But Morandi's work benefited from the network of visionaries he knew. Without them, all he had was a white vase. Networked books aren't a new concept, they're just a new way to display the relationships between texts and other media.
There has always been a network in art and storytelling. And that network doesn't fit cleanly between two covers.
Posted by kirsten reach on September 23, 2008 4:41 PM
Tyler Meier on September 24, 2008 12:26 PM:
Pure delight of a post. The paragraph about a writer's work living on in a readers head is one that I've often loved thinking about; it was made real to me memorizing poems in grad school and now again on my long commute to work--though it is hard to hear Yeats read "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"--to say it along with him in the car as it plays from the ipod--and not forever sound a little like a bad imitation of Yeats reading his own poem. And not be astonished that such things are even possible in the first place.
Probably, this isn't a bad thing.
When it is in your head, it's always yours.
There was a time in that graduate school class-- we were required to memorize a specific number of lines--where one student slogged through a Poe poem (long on sounds, short on sustenance). She finished it, and talked about how much she hated memorizing it. And the teacher looked at her, incredulous, genuinely puzzled. Then he said "Why on earth would you want something like that in your head?"
I learned a lot that day--clearly, with memorizing, there was more at stake than a grade.
dan visel on September 24, 2008 3:16 PM:
There's a long essay by Suzanne Vega in the NYTimes online today talking about her attitude towards remixing that fits with this piece very nicely . . .
Kirsten Reach on September 25, 2008 12:56 PM:
Tyler, so glad to see you here! I like your turn of phrase, and it reminds me of this quotation (which I hear in the voice of the Caterpillar from "Alice in Wonderland"):
"Writers don't own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. 'Your very own words,' indeed! And who are you?"
Thank you again for stopping by!
Elaine Bleakney on September 28, 2008 12:46 PM:
Such a wonderful post, meditating on the act of reading through Morandi's activity! I had a chance to see the same exhibit this week and it struck the reader in me, as well.
I do think there was more of a balance in the way the Met curators spun Morandi's story: focusing on his influences (Cezanne, Poussin, etc.) as well as talking about his reclusive life. Their labeling Morandi "quiet and introverted" did not exclude or diminish his voracious acts of reading his peers/predecessors for me.
The exhibitors' narrative tack about Morandi did make me think about the recluse, the "off the grid" person as being a supreme fiction to us right now: the protagonist with an avid intellectual life outside of a more conventional intellectual life (in Morandi, the absence of a cafe culture of his peers). So much of our current culture (and its online activity) is about finding Morandis, being the first to bring what has not been recognized to light. This is happening so quickly, too (one glance at Pitchfork and I'm overloaded with all that's not streaming my way.)
Anyway, many loose thoughts. Thank you for your rich post leading to other threads.