Art or Cheese?

“Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese,” said Charles Bukowski “On Writing”, which reminded me of something I was thinking earlier this morning as I was stuck in a long commute. Who do you measure your own work against? Do you hold yourself to a high standard, a low one, somewhere in between, or not at all.

I understand that for many writers their standard is a commercial one. Writers who have achieved worldly success are the measure of the craft. They look up to a Stephen King or a J. K. Rowling. They aspire to that. They measure their own worth against that.

On the other extreme are those who measure their own writing against the best books they have ever read. I’m in that camp myself, and I know just how far I fall short of that bar. I tell myself that I would know if I ever wrote something as worthy as “The Hour of the Star” or “El Juguete Rabioso”, and I’m pretty damn sure I never will.

And that’s okay, but it also means it’s perfectly all right in my mind that my books will never occupy a shelf in the bookstore of my dreams. That shelf space is too precious. The store is small and very selective. It’s also a commercial disaster, like all the best bookstores.

But the world needs more than the best bookstores. It needs the decent ones, and the good enough ones too, and it needs the decent books and the good enough books. If you only read the best books, you’d come to the end of the list pretty quickly.

Anyway, I can’t even produce much of a cheese. It’s either art or nothing for me. Art doesn’t have to be great. “[It] carries its own reason for being” (Bukowski)


Critical Thinking and Whiplash

Much human activity can be considered to be self-medication.  We have needs and we attend to them. Many activities can also be seen, in this light, as addictions. The young man in the movie Whiplash appears to suffer from a sort of obsessive-compulsion disorder that he treats with incessant jazz drumming practice. This is one way to see the movie. The other way, of course, is to see it as yet another remake of Rocky or Breaking Away. He wants to be great, we are told. “One of the greats” in his own words, and to be “great” requires endless sacrifice, hard work, persistence, dedication and above all “passion”. With those tools in hand, how can one not become “great”?

But “greatness” is a cultural artifact, not an objective achievement on a scale of one to ten. At one point in the movie the bully/teacher Fletcher intones that there are no more Charlie Parkers because everyone says “good job” and no one pushes hard enough, but the reason there are no more Charlie Parkers is that Jazz is not a thing and hasn’t been a thing that produces cultural greatness since the 1950’s. There are no more Mozarts, either. Why did Jazz die? Because all things die, not because nobody bloodied there fingers enough.

The movie seems to believe in the myth of the Great Artist more than it believes in the psychology of fucked-up people, but the young man (Andrew) is a fucked-up person, incapable of meaningful relationships, uninterested in the world for the most part, a youth who doesn’t have anything to say and doesn’t listen to anything outside of that one narrow band of acoustics. The movie doesn’t go there, except for a gesture towards a pop-babble notion that he drums compulsively because he never had a mother.

The Great Artist suffers for his art and thank God for that because otherwise we wouldn’t have Great Art. This is the myth, but the truth is that we ALWAYS have Great Art, because our societies demand that we have it, because as societies we need it, because it is a major component of our self-medication requirements. Therefore, we will always be declaring some Art to be Great, and that which is declared Great IS Great, ipso facto.

Some Great Artists suffer and some do not. Some get lucky in their time and place and some do not. Some make money and some do not. Some become famous in their lifetimes, and some do not. Having a passion is not enough. Talent, hard work, practice and perpetual improvement are not enough. You had better be aligned with your time and your place, and you had better hit all the right bells and beepers on your pinball voyage through the world. Failure is always an option, and the odds are in its favor.

The final scene of Whiplash reminded me of the rock concerts I went to in the 1970’s which for some reason always featured extensive drum solos. Nobody seemed to enjoy those sets. They were boring and obnoxious and went on far too long and eventually the whole concept was booed off the historical stage. What happens when the Great Artist’s Great Art is something nobody ends up wanting? It might be Great Art in another time and place, and art, more than most other human endeavors, does have the ability to time travel, but in that case the Great Artist is like a tree that falls in the forest. He didn’t make a sound, at least not then and there

Ideology and the Miracle of Confusion

So last night we watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (now available on Netflix), starring the always entertaining (if not alarming) Slavoj Zizek. It’s quite a feat. He guides you through all kinds of movies, sorting through the subtexts and drawing astonishing comparisons that seem so obvious in retrospect. At the same time, you have to admit that half the time you have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about! Considering that when you do have a feeling of comprehension, you decide that the part you don’t get probably makes as much sense, he’s just ahead of you by a mile or two.

Ideology is nothing more than the ruling mythology of the time and place in which you live. For us in early 21st century USA, the reigning myth is that of individual self-fulfillment, generally through the agency of products attained, obtained, purchased, invented, used or otherwise engaged in. It could be the “app of the week”, it could be the Tesla car you drive, it could be the fitness feedback you got from your hyper-intelligent wristband, it could be the number of likes you received for that comment you made on that post that you saw. We are so very individuated that we can now construct our own unique set of fulfillments out of the cornucopia of possibilities surrounding us. Hey, why not? But I digress.

In the film, Zizek brings together several wonderful correlations, often surrounding the concept of The Other. The Other can be a positive or a negative, such as a good God or a bad apple. For example, all fears united in the figure of the shark in Jaws. Change one letter there, and you have all fears united in the figure of the Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s not a stretch at all. It makes perfect sense.

How interesting that so many different political dynasties used Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as their anthem – from the Nazis to the Stalinists to the Maoists to Shining Path to the droods of Clockwork Orange. A symbol can stand for anything, as long as it invokes a certain wordless quality that somehow unites its participants. The symbol doesn’t matter. The product is irrelevant as long as you’re buying something from the sellers.

Ideology is always hiding behind a mask. We don’t want to see that we are always buying into a myth, whether we’re right or left wing, religious or agnostic, scientific or spiritual, naive or experienced, thoughtful or carefree, you name it. There is some version of some myth that justifies our vision of self-fulfillment, and clouds the fact that we are simply creatures of this particular planet alotted a short span of time in which to do whatever it is we either can or else permit ourselves to do.

I Ain’t Superstitious, but …


Driving on I-280 on the way to visit the in-laws yesterday, I saw this and naturally my first thought was “oh, shit!”. My second thought was “who the hell was Tommy?” Turns out to be a guy who fell off a cliff north of Santa Cruz. My third thought was “how the hell did they do that?” Hanging over the side of an overpass above a freeway in the middle of the night to put up a tribute to a guy who fell off a cliff … seems the act of putting it there was a tribute in and of itself.

Arts and Crafts

This is a recurring theme of mine which has come up again in a series of conversations with my wife, who is currently reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, a sort of how-to-write-fiction book. It is full of very sensible advice which, if followed, would certainly help someone to turn out a reasonable product. And that is what “craft” means to me in terms of writing. How to make a product. When I went to summer day camps as a child, we had “arts and crafts” and in the crafts sections we made leather wallets and lanyards according to the practical rules of same. They turned out more or less decent depending on how well we followed instructions and how nimble our fingers were. In the arts section, we more or less did whatever we felt like doing, and that is precisely what “art” means to me, as in “the art of writing”, as opposed to the craft. From the craftsman we expect the thing we ask for. From the artist, we expect something different, something we could not have anticipated or come up with for ourselves. The artist deals in revelation. The craftsmen deals in trade.

Naturally there are markets for both of these kinds of wares, but I find it helpful to keep them in separate categories. Only once in my years of writing have I followed a formula. This was a story called “Somebody Somewhere”, a somewhat-suspenseful story based on the instructions of the great Patricia Highsmith in her own rule book, “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction“. It was definitely helpful and some people have certainly liked the book, but the general reaction has been “it was okay”, “it was what I expected”. It played out the way those things play out. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It had a set of characters who interacted and had their own background stories which led to appropriate conflicts and resolutions. It had a useless cop (my own Inspector Stanley Mole, who in his many appearances throughout my books has yet to solve a single crime) and a crime scene left behind for the blood-moppers (though the violence occurs off-stage, where I prefer it, as well as being as brief as possible). In other words, it could be a television movie. That was enough craft for me.

It’s not being snooty or condescending to say that when it comes to fiction, I far prefer to read an artist than a craftsperson. I want something more than what I expected. If there’s action, let it have some meaning, at least. If there’s romance, let it be real. Otherwise I want ideas that never occurred to me, phrases that ring unexpected bells, images and metaphors that make me take notice. Some might argue there are those writers who are both artists and excellent craftsfolk. You could point to people like Tolstoy, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Guy du Maupassant and many others, certainly. There’s no doubt about that. But my favorites (and I’m somewhat eclectic I know) are all on the far side of the seesaw.

I’m also thinking of this because I’ve been reading a few things by Roberto Bolano. I’ve tried before (The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile) without success because of my own particular buttons (I’ve had enough of twenty-somethings drinking and fucking. Seriously. And then there’s the whole bloodbath thing which I simply can’t deal with anymore. An isolated death here and there, okay, but non-stop fighting and slaughter puts me to sleep faster than anything – I’ve recently had to put down otherwise strong books because of this pattern), so it was a matter of finding books by him that didn’t push those. “Monsieur Pain” was one such book. It resonated with my fondness for dadaists and surrealists and experimental dabblers, as well as my fascination with outsiders, losers and generally pathetic individuals (am I identifying much?). It was also full of wonderfully interesting bits and pieces. I’m now reading a collection of stories called “The Insufferable Gaucho” and also enjoying that. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be a fan of his masterpieces (such as 2666, which has carnage written all over it), but I’m very glad I found a path I could follow into his writing.

Anyway, my whole view of the arts versus crafts thing was summed up nicely in an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, in which he said “Art is not for making a living. Art is for growing your soul.”