Post #1365 • June 15, 2009, 9:27 AM • 32 Comments
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction:
A few years ago, or so I've been told, a group of sound technicians conducted an experiment to discover whether they could heighten the "presence" of recorded music by multiplying tracks and speakers. The result was quadraphonic sound, but on the way to that result a strange thing occurred. A group of composers, musical performers, and critics were assembled to listen to music designed for four speakers, then eight speakers, then more. When listening to music on eight speakers, some of the musicians noted that what they were getting was not more accurate representation of music as we hear it in a hall but something quite new and different: One began to be able to locate the sounds in space. The clarinet seemed to occupy a particular point or area in the room, the trumpet another area, the piano another"not areas correspondent to the seating of the group recorded but areas related as the head, arms, and legs of a sculpture might be related. The music, in short, had become visual, something new under the sun. Writing music for eight speakers, a composer might theoretically shape music—physically shape it—as no one had ever done before. Whether or not any composer has explored that possibility I do not know, but the story, if it is true, illustrates a fact well known among artists, that art does not imitate reality (hold the mirror up to nature) but creates a new reality. This reality may be apposite to the reality we walk through every day—streets and houses, mailmen, trees—and may trigger thoughts and feelings in the same way a newly discovered thing of nature might do—a captured Big Foot or Loch Ness monster—but it is essentially itself, not the mirror reflection of something familiar.
The increasingly sharp recognition that art works in this way has generated the popularity, in recent years, of formalist art—art for art's sake—and metafiction, of which we spoke earlier. The general principle of the former has been familiar for centuries. The first modern thinker to define the mode clearly may have been Robert Louis Stevenson in his preface to the Chesterfield edition of the translated Works of Victor Hugo. There Stevenson pointed out that all art exists on a continuum between poles he calls "objective" and "subjective." At one extreme, the objective, we have novels like those of Hugo, wherein we feel as we read that we are among the French mobs, surrounded by noise and smoke, transported from the room in which we read to Hugo's imaginary Paris. At the other extreme, the subjective, we have Fielding's Tom Jones, wherein we are never allowed to imagine for long that the hero is a "real" young man. As soon as we begin to incline to that persuasion, Fielding introduces a Homeric simile, or an interchapter, or something from the tradition of puppeteering, forcing us once more to recognize the novel as an object, not "real life." By way of illustration from the visual arts, Stevenson compares the effect of early- and middle-period Turner, when Turner landscapes were like vivid scenes seen through a window, and, on the other hand, the work of some unnamed French painter (one suspects that Stevenson may have made him up) who pasted real sand on his beachscape in order that no one should mistake what he's looking at for a real beach on which a family might arrive to spread its picnic.
H.D. Raymond, commenting on the super-realist visual artists, offers a modern version of the old scientific ideal. "In omitting ideology, sublimity, and morality from their vision they are sworn to a phenomenologist credo. They stare unblinkingly at what is 'really' out there, ignoring the mental constructs through which they are peering."
One objection to the credo is old and obvious: We simply do not believe that reality is what these writers (and painters) maintain it to be. The realism is not "lifelike" because it seems to us dead. We may even suspect in the writer's suppression of emotion a certain unwitting dishonesty. Certainly no one who looks at the paintings of Philip Pearlstein, with their strong frontal lighting and accurate but slightly cartoonish emphasis of features—"stupid paintings," he calls them—can deny a faint suspicion that Pearlstein feels an unacknowledged contempt for the human form, even when the paintings are of his daughters.