Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Arts and Letters

I'm going to give away a secret. When I hit a wall and don't know what to write about here, I turn to Arts and Letters Daily, a daily selection of some of the best or most interesting Web writing. It helps that the selectors, in this case, seem to have the same definition of "best" and "interesting" that I have. So, that's the well I go to. Some of the regulars here already read it (I've seen it linked from your home blogs). For those of you who don't, it's the secret to at least half of whatever savvy this site seems to show.

From the top of the stack today, I find this good read twist on the timeless topic of Vive la différence.

Women might be the fairer sex, but men are the frailer. Most premature babies are boys, fewer survive and those who do are more likely than girls to have disabilities. Men are more prone to chronic diseases, more likely to contract post-surgical infections and, as we know, they don't live as long.

Tests also show many more men than women grouped at one extreme or another of human intelligence. There are more male geniuses (as any man will tell you) and more male fools - a fact not lost on women.

Only a man who hasn't been around women very often would think men are naturally more durable, or more impervious to pain. No man who has been with a woman during childbirth ever can complain about pain again without at least a twinge of shame.

Which is not the point of the article, just something that I remembered while reading the first few graphs. Which is how reading inspires writing. One of the hooks that drew me into it was the name of the subject of the interview, Susan Pinker. That's not a name I see often. In fact, I only know one other carrier of that name, the evolutionary psychologist (though I always think of him as a linguist) Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker is a charismatic and good-looking guy, that rare combination of professorial authority and common touch, and I was curious to see what sort of woman he'd marry. Because I assumed this would be his wife, an established expert in a related field. To my mortification, I read, "Pinker, sister of the acclaimed evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker ...." Which I guess means my false expectation might prove one of Susan Pinker's points about men and women.

* * *

I haven't said anything about the recent brouhaha over Aliza Shvarts, the Yale art student who either did or didn't (depending on whether you read her account before, or after she became notorious) get herself pregnant repeatedly and then induced miscarriages as her senior art project.

The act itself, if done in the way and for the purpose described, would be a sort of horror for which I can find no good words. The way I felt after reading this.

I might be able to address it as an insult to the ideas of art and education, and a tragic statement of how far both have fallen -- a pure message that the artist I suspect did not intend to present. If I did, I hope it would look like this piece by Michael J. Lewis:

It is often said that great achievement requires in one's formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. And such seems to be the case with Ms. Shvarts.

He points out -- rightly, I think -- that much of what enthusiastic students produce as art in 2008 has not got beyond Marcel Duchamp's 1917 idea to put up a urinal and call it "Fountain." (I have seen it, or one of them, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with a lovely and technically exacting bit of pornography he created.) I think it was genius the first time. Every other time, it's dull recycling.

Like Lewis (himself an art professor), I blame the schools more than the students.

Immaturity, self-importance and a certain confused earnestness will always loom large in student art work. But they will usually grow out of it. What of the schools that teach them? Undergraduate programs in art aspire to the status of professional programs that award MFA degrees, and there is often a sense that they too should encourage the making of sophisticated and challenging art, and as soon as possible. Yale, like most good programs, requires its students to achieve a certain facility in drawing, although nowhere near what it demanded in the 1930s, when aspiring artists spent roughly six hours a day in the studio painting and life drawing, and an additional three on Saturday.

Given the choice of this arduous training or the chance to proceed immediately to the making of art free of all traditional constraints, one can understand why all but a few students would take the latter. But it is not a choice that an undergraduate should be given. In this respect -- and perhaps only in this respect -- Ms. Shvarts is the victim in this story.

It seems to me you have to master the rules and forms to earn the right to break them. Dali was a clown and an artistic grifter in many ways, but he never let you forget that he knew his techniques, and honored, even in destruction, what artists before him had done. Velasquez, Goya, Millet shoot through his work, almost to the point of it being derivative. He was a radical conservative, but mon dieu, he could paint! So I respect that.

The same ought to be true of poetry. Prove to me you can write a perfect sonnet (perfect sonnets are difficult, but not impossible). Then I'll see what you're capable of in free verse.

Then, speaking of writing, there's this odd profile of an odd man, oddly composed. At the end I still don't know whether this is a profile of a fraud or a fraud of a profile, or simply something that is true without being quite real.

Today, Burroughs is the last of the big-game memoirists, targeted but still on his feet, still profitably working the cud of his dysfunctional youth, still memoiring, against all odds, under the vengeful glare of Oprah and her increasingly skeptical public. As the culture of memoir has imploded over the last few years—as JT LeRoy dissolved into some kind of conceptual-art project about Truth in Media, as James Frey suffered the most visible public flogging in the long history of global torture, as Margaret “Gangland” Seltzer was outed by her own sister as a pampered suburbanite, as Misha Defonseca admitted that she was neither a Holocaust survivor nor raised by wolves—Burroughs sat at his laptop, undeterred, furiously masticating his chemical gum, and claimed, with a perfectly straight face, to be faithfully transcribing the honest-to-God events of his past.

When Burroughs writes, he tells me, he drifts into a kind of shamanistic memory trance that allows him to travel freely through time. He never stops to look at what he’s typing, which he says would only distract him. Instead, his eyes glaze over, and he stares absently at the small aluminum strip between his laptop’s keyboard and screen. “When I am writing,” he says, “I am there. I’m there. I never, ever, in any of my books, ever, have thought, ‘Now, how would I have talked?’ That is not how I write. It feels like I just go back and I’m there. It’s like a movie. It’s extremely vivid. I’m a monkey at a typewriter, writing about the time it got M&Ms, and the time a blue M&M came out instead of a red one.” Like Proust, he works in bed, propped up on some pillows. He feels terror, excitement, and sadness; he cries. It’s more like a séance than a job.

Or whether "memoiring" is, or ought to be allowed to be, a word.