Monday, December 04, 2006

Use/Nonuse of Art, Books, Ice Cream

Comment thread time: Rob’s recent post on Rousseau gave me a lot to think about in terms of the usefulness and purpose of “art," or lack thereof. Dare I suggest that it might be fun if folks who are reading the blog wanted to recommend any other books or writers on that subject, or just sound off about it.

The best book on this subject I’ve read is John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Gardner is unapologetically in favor of moral fiction, but by that he does not mean didactic fiction. In fact, the way he defines “moral” fiction or art is the book’s brilliant point. He explains by way of a Norse story (I paraphrase): Middle-earth was always on the verge of being overrun by trolls and other forces of chaos and darkness. Every year Thor would circle round the Earth beating them back with his hammer. But Thor would get older and each year the circle of light on which men and gods would live would get smaller. And eventually, they will be overrun. In the meantime, Thor keeps hammering away and the hammer is Art. I like this formulation as it is a big tent—it can encompass art that has a message (“Killing people won’t make you happy!”), art that perfectly articulates some facet of existence, art that stretches your ability to think/feel (tragically or comically), and even art that inspires you to go out and do something about some inequity of the world.

That being said, the book is best before it gets into examples of specific authors writing at the time Gardner wrote his book. Gardner’s taste is often frustratingly conservative and there is much to disagree with. Still, his overall point is sound. Things are bad enough on this earth that there’s no reason to make things worse by spreading nihilism, sadism, and meanness under the cover of artistic license, which, incidentally, is why I hate the movie of A Clockwork Orange.

What books/essays/writers/thoughts do you think are worth checking out on the subject? Any takers?


At 5:01 AM, Blogger Ed said...

Sorry in advance if this posts like three times, I'm having login problems.

Anyway, On Moral Fiction is my favorite work on the subject, though I think Gardner does a good job applying his definition of moral art to the shallowness he sees in the writing of guys who depend on stuff like easy nihilism, cartoonish characters, and intentionally opaque language. In some ways it reads like an attack on all postmodern fiction, but I've found its application explains why (for instance) I like Calvino so much while I'm exasperated by Barthelme.


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