I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Positive Negative

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand. PICASSO

One perverse pleasure of art is the pleasure of being lost, in the sense of being confused or in the dark. KATHRYN SCHULZ

Art is an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness. KATHRYN SCHULZ

In the last chapter of her book Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error Kathryn Schulz riffs fascinatingly on the close productive relationship betwen error and art. Victorian art and literature focused on recreating the world with as much verisimilitude as possible. But the aftermath of World War I and the arrival of modernism changed all that. At its most extreme, culture had become anarchy, and anarchy culture. Tristan Tzara, the Romanian poet who founded Dadaism, urged his fellow artists: Let us try for once not to be right.

If error is a kind of accidental stumbling into the gap between representation and reality, art is an intentional journey to the same place, Schulz writes. The idea is not new. One hundred years prior to World War I the Romantic poet John Keats embraced the positive value of the irrational, and of error, doubt and uncertainty, in a letter to his brothers which contained this famous passage: ... and it at once struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

I remember the excitement and sense of personal and literary freedom I felt when first reading this momentous remark by Keats about the importance of Negative Capability, this ringing endorsement of subjectivity. Hey, yes - it was OK to experiment, to be unsure, to get things plain wrong from time to time! In other words, to be a human individual, myopic and fallible. Indeed, only out of doubt, questioning and open-mindedness, out of wrongness, does great art emerge, I firmly believe. If an artist knows the right answer from the start, what need of the artistic quest? Keats's idea led me directly to cubism, expressionism, existentialism; to Picasso, Eliot, Virginia Woolf; to the twentieth century, in short.

Schulz goes on to quote the Candian poet Anne Carson - What we engage in when we do poetry is error - and infers from this that Carson means these things: The first is that poetry is made of words, and, as we've seen, words have error built into them from the get-go. Every syllable is a stepping stone across the gap, an effort to explain something (train tracks, thunder, happiness) by recourse to something it is not (a word). The second is that writing, whether of poetry or of anything else, involves a certain amount of getting it wrong, - an awareness that truth is always on the lam, that the instant you think you've got it pinned down on the page, it shimmers, distorts, wiggles away. Last, but possibly most important, I take her to mean that poetry, like error, startles, unsettles, and defies; it urges us towards new theories about old things.

8 comments:

Phoenix C. said...

What fascinating words and insights! I particularly love the Picasso quote.

For me, art (of all kinds) is a way of exploring, expressing and celebrating intangibles, both 'known' and 'unknown'. Years ago it was more the unsettling and melancholic that interested me, but I become ever more drawn to harmonious loveliness and light.

Ruth said...

I just love where this takes me, Robert. Love it.

"A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon" . . . but we mistake words for truth all the time. Maybe we who derive from the Christian church, where the Bible is considered the living Word of God, we attribute too much to words.

This post reminds me of the discussions that have ensued from the Rilke blog about translating poetry. In the end, it's impossible to translate everything, especially the nuance (which apparently Rilke has in spades in the German). What choices will be made? For rhyme, for meaning when there are no equivalent words, etc.

What is wonderful is that meaning does get transferred from one person to the next, in writing, literature, poetry, film, paintings, sculpture, photographs. Even if somehow the entire thing could be plopped whole from one brain to another, it would change, for people are different.

Oh dear, tangent.

I also think our religious upbringing has trained is wrong, to think we must always be right. And somewhere in that wrongness is also something good. Apparently!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting stufff Robert. What you mean by a word and what I mean are probably two very different things; similarly what you see in a painting or any other work of art and what I see may be totally different. That is what makes any art form so exciting to me - it is totally individual - and that goes for anything I produce or anything I see.
I saw Rembrandt's Night Watch in Amsterdam in the Autumn and was absolutely blown away by it. David looked at it, read the history of the reason it was painted, and said = it is only a lot of rich old men trying to look important to advertising it.

George said...

I loved this posting, Robert. First, I have always admired Picasso's statement about art being the lie that shows us the truth. Second, I can think of nothing more valuable in life — not just art — than the Negative Capability that was seized upon by Keats. If one cannot tolerate the companionship of ambiguity, failure, and self-doubt, it is unlikely that one can grow beyond the prison of conditioned thinking.

Grace said...

This sounds like an interesting book. These days I’m appreciating that which honors the falliable nature of being human. We need more of that and less of the “how to be perfect in 5 days or less—guaranteed!”

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it's a book full of fascinating insights, Phoenix. Well worth reading.

Ruth - thanks for this. Yes, our individual minds, our subjectivity, our unique thoughts and ways of expression - are a big part of what makes us human, and also what makes us potentially interesting to others (and also what can make us distant from and distrusted by others!) Off on a tangent myself here too, I think ...

Anyhow, I think wrong is usually more interesting than right, and it's indisputable that wrongness is the main stuff of our lives and of art.

Thanks, Pat. That's what I was trying to say!

'If one cannot tolerate the companionship of ambiguity, failure, and self-doubt, it is unlikely that one can grow beyond the prison of conditioned thinking.' Beautifully put, George, and absolutely true, I think.

Thanks for your comment, Grace. That book is definitely worth getting hold of. 'How to be perfect in 5 days or less'! I love the 'less'! I fear my own life is more of a case of how to be imperfect in 50 years or more.

Lucja Grabowska said...

Absolutely wonderful insights. As long as I remember I have always experienced a vaque feeling of self- betrayal, failure, uneasiness while using language, especially when trying to convey some deeper meaning...Hermann Hesse said: 'Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish'; art / literature is erronous in a sense that it is merely a representation (or translation) of the reality of an inner experience...words are only pointers, never the essence...since literature is made up of words, all literature is merely a translation, thus it lacks in originality...since one thinks and writes in language, one is predisposed to be wrong...I think literature is being created in the space between experience and language...in the play between those two...In this way, I think, 'it's indisputable that wrongness ts the main stuff of our lives and of art'.

The Solitary Walker said...

'Words are only pointers, never the essence...' Absolutely right.