I haven’t posted anything in a couple of weeks, and for that I really am sorry. My life is a little bit bananas at the moment, and as much as I would love to sit down and write every day it simply is not possible. And I wouldn’t have had anything to put up this week, either, if it weren’t for a super annoying twist of fate. I was going through some stuff, straightening up my books because everything housewifery-wise is completely out of hand because I’m a sleep-deprived monster right now, and I found an old notebook with an unpublished blog stuffed in one of the pockets. I hate that. So rarely do I misplace things, let alone blank on their existence altogether. But whatever. Now I have a post! Hooray! It’s from a couple of years ago, and my writing has changed so much since then that this is almost difficult to read, if I’m being honest. It feels book report-ish and stilted, but I did enjoy the shit out of that book, so here you go. Further thoughts after. And now, Time Machine Theatre presents: the lost blog post from 2013. [cue TARDIS noises]
Art is Pain.
I know a little bit about a lot of things. I know a lot about a few things. When I encounter things I know absolutely nothing about, I seek to educate myself. That’s all intelligence is, enjoying the systematic eradication of ignorance. It has come to my attention lately that one of the things I know less about than I’d like is art and art history. I took a class in college, but it was way too broad (Art and Music of Western Civilization – holy overload). Also, I was really high. It’s hard to think critically about symphonies and pretty, pretty pictures when you’re stoned and get all distracted by liking stuff. How do I even have a college degree? Seriously?
The reason I bring this up is because I read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova and it was tremendously frustrating. I loved loved loved her first book (The Historian, I highly recommend), but that one was deeply rooted in the written word and books about books are some of my favorites. This newer one is just as entrenched in its subject and its intricacies, but I kept getting lost because I know so little about art. That aside, the book was great. To sum up:
A semi-famous artist is arrested while attempting to stab a painting in the National Gallery. When he won’t talk during his arrest, he’s committed on a psychiatric hold. His shrink, being an amateur artist himself, is intrigued by the case and proceeds to break both laws and ethics to get to the bottom of his particular delusion. Meanwhile, the artist is obsessed with a pack of old letters that he reads over and over, so the novel switches back and forth between the doctor’s investigation and the one-sided story from the eighteenth-century letters. The writer of the letters was a young woman who was an artist in France, a contemporary of Monet and his gaggle of Impressionist rebels. It’s basically a three-way conversation among artists, across three centuries. With one of them being both mute and insane.
Kostova’s style is richly descriptive, and her characters obsessed – not a great combination when the reader gets lost. Scene after scene about color and brush stroke and lighting just went in one ear and out the other. But in all honesty, my not understanding art didn’t change my liking the book. The story’s great and I really liked the constantly shifting voice and the puzzley way all the clues came out just a little peek at a time over hundreds of years.
It’s also an interesting look at obsession and madness. Robert, the artist in the mental institution, has always been a little nuts. But the kind of nuts one could blow off as wacky artist behavior – poor hygiene, sleeplessness, forgetfulness, desperate obsession. That stuff is, for whatever reason, connected in our minds with artsy type people, and the better they are the more craziness we’re willing to excuse. But at what price? At what point should we stop dismissing it, stop saying “Oh, he’s just a tortured artist,” and get that person real help?
I’m guilty of perpetuating this stereotype myself. Not in any effort to minimize my mental problems or use them to my advantage. Because writer or not, that shit’s no fun at all. But I do tend to excuse it, consider it a necessary evil. The twitchy mental stuff and the arty stuff are inextricably bound in my head. Maybe because of the folks I admired early on. People like Kerouac, Plath, Sexton, Dickinson, Poe, King – all fucked up in one way or another. It seems normal, natural even, that artists be a touch crazed to make the appropriate circuits fire. Or something. If you seemed completely normal and well-adjusted then told me you were an artist, honestly I’d probably think you weren’t that good. How fucked up is that?
Come on, brain, get your shit together.
I like this immersive, obsessive thing that Kostova does. There’s something claustrophobic about it. But her characters aren’t condescending or pedantic, explaining things to the reader through unnecessary exposition. You know how on those CSI-type shows, scientists are always telling other scientists how science works? I hate that. It’s hamfisted and unrealistic. Any group of peers in a given social or professional setting will use the accepted shorthand of that setting. For example: “The MOD needs you to make an LSL of that display of TPB SFF when you’re done zoning.” That’s nonsense, right? But my Giant Evil Bookstore homies know what it means. Liminal language. It’s good stuff. My point is that Kostova doesn’t do that CSI thing. She acknowledges that these people understand each other and that it’s not necessary for the audience to be completely onboard. Some might see that as a turnoff, but I appreciate her commitment to realism even if it means I now have to go buy some books on art theory to know what the hell she was saying. All the better, I say. Yay for learning and stuff!
So, yeah, give The Swan Thieves a go, even if you’re not particularly into art. And definitely put The Historian on your to-read list. And maybe throw me some good suggestions for books about art that I could get through without getting completely lost. You guys have got to help me out. I know nothing. And knowing is half the battle, I hear.
[End of post. Please return to 2015 and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.]
Okay, firstly, what even is that title? So melodramatic. Secondly, I don’t know what was going on in my head in that little diatribe about mental illness. It’s like some doughy, half-formed thing that I thought was okay to commit to paper. I have some further thoughts on that whole mess, though, which I’m working on squeezing into a more delightfully brown and crispy post for later. I’ll get back to you.
Also, I still haven’t picked up a book on art history. Not even one of those pop science ones that I like. Things I have taken it upon myself to read up on since 2013 include but are not limited to: the American colonial period, FDA regulations and legislation, the British invasion and takeover of Australia, the history of timekeeping systems, how wine snobbery/collecting became a thing, the origins of punk, and all the different things that happen to dead bodies in America.
But not art. Guess I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I should, though. Seems important. It’s one of those dauntingly huge subjects, with so many ins and outs that I’m not sure where to start. Technical stuff, so I know the lingo? Perhaps a broad overview of timeline and key players, like a smaller version of that survey class I took? Or should I just pick one thing or person and really dive deep? Van Gogh seems like a pretty interesting dude. Or some of those complicated renaissance guys who sneaked scandalous stuff into their work so the church wouldn’t notice. That’s ballsy. I always wanted to know what was the deal with Hieronymous Bosch, as well. See? Too many options! I’ll get on it. Meanwhile, I stand by my statement that you should check out Kostova’s books. They’re fun, quick, smart reads.
Should I find anymore forgotten blogs hiding in my house, I shall post them as quickly as possible. I don’t think there are any, but there’s never any way to know what things you’ve forgotten, right? But seriously, if more start turning up I think I’ll probably start believing in blog fairies and lose my shit completely, start screaming about Fornits (mega bonus nerd points if you get that reference). So that will be fun for everyone. Good times.