Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stolen, With Credit

I wish I'd thought of this. I truly do. But I didn't, so credit is given where credit is due.

Hey, that kinda rhymes. Watch out, Charles! ;-)

Okay, seriously: Charles recently posted about a crappy literary novel he read, a much-acclaimed crappy literary novel. Lots of people complain about crappy literary novels. Others complain about crappy popular novels. In this verrrrrry long interview, Neil Stephenson (around question #2) casually drops the most elegant analogy possible for funding in Western Art: Beowulf and Chaucer.

Chaucer wrote for king and court. His meal ticket was creating art (The Canterbury Tales) that pleased and engaged his wealthy and powerful patrons. The anonymous bards who first sang Beowulf moved from town to town, night to night. A good tale that engaged the crowd meant a comfy bed and good food, etc. Boring or offending the audience... well, let's just say it's not a good idea to bore or offend a lot of big hairy men and women with axes.

It's probably no coincidence that The Canterbury Tales is a top-down look at medieval society: pious, occasionally bawdy (when the peasants feature) and gently teasing where Church-y materialism is concerned. Not that Beowulf features monsters by moonlight, subterranean caves of doom, flying dragons and the biggest, meanest, hairiest motherfucker to ever swing an axe riding into town to set the world to rights.

Modern fiction and movies, not much has changed.

And this duality is with us throughout the art world. While the very rich were daring each other to buy Picasso's throwdown to the art world, N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for Treasure Island were selling in the bazillions. About the time Martha Graham choreographed "Chronicle", Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were packing them in the aisles to watch the foxtrot.

Two camps, one where a small group of discerning patrons drop big chunks of money and another where a whole lot of folks vote a dollar or two at a time. It's probably no secret which one I'm in. (I mean, the blog title's a bit of a giveaway, innit?) Sure, I go to the opera and the ballet, and I dig those underlit European movies where a lonely guy drinks coffee and then dies. But you better believe I'm going to be there when Hellboy 2 opens here!

My own education geared me to a life in the ivory tower. My inclinations put me squarely on the street. Best advice I can give ANY artist is, know which camp you belong in and work as hard as hell in that one. If I have any regret about my art career, it's those early years I spent sucking up to arts boards for funding, chasing down gallery shows and all that. Many of my friends did well in that world, but it wasn't me...

At their best, the Chaucers give us bold and daring work, art that might never have a popular following but that still fills us with a sense of pride. Without the Chaucer approach, we might not have the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso or Claes Oldenburg.

The Beowulf crowd are easy to dismiss with a 'low-art' sniff. But our work endures, precisely because it appeals to the average joe. It's common, vital and alive. No endowment funding or princely patronage could have ever led to pulp fiction, comic books or the Blues.

Thing about the Chaucers is, when they fail, they fail BIG. At their worst, we get novels with no discernable punctuation. We get music with no tonality. We get much of the visual art of the 20th century.

Sure, the Chaucer crowd get it wrong sometimes. Okay, a LOT. Those ivory-tower eggheads are always looking over each other's shoulders, biting their lower lips and hoping not to embarrass themselves. Painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, it doesn't matter: they're all hoping to discover the next Van Gogh, all afraid of holding forth the next Jeff Koons.

Of course, it's not like we Beowulfs are perfect. After all, we brought the world the Da Vinci Code.

22 comments:

Sidney said...

That's a good breakdown. I think I'm a Beowulf even though I'm in the academic world again. I'm in a very liberal program. :-)

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post. Count me in the Beowulf camp.

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent breakdown. I'm definitely Beowulf. On occasion I can appreciate something from the Chaucer side but it better come dressed down to make me think it's slumming.

cs harris said...

I'm afraid I've always liked books that straddle the two--a good story, artfully done. I remember a publisher once told my sister that her books were "too literary to be popular, and too popular to be literary." That's what I like, but we're obviously a small market. Once in a while someone like James Lee Burke or John Connolly manages to rise to star level, but they're rare.

Actually, I think there was a time the Chaucers of the world told better stories than the modern examples of that camp.

Steve Malley said...

Sidney, I feel your pain. A few years getting my degrees was plenty for me, even in a small but lively liberal arts college!

Shauna, somehow I don't figure the NEA grant-holders are going to show up for this one. Too busy dunking manuscripts in hobo-urine to be edgy...

Charles, check out PYRES by Derek Nikitas. He's literary as, but he wrote an actual, you know, *story*. It's got meth-addicts, bikers, porn, everything!

No zombies, though...

CS, check out PYRES, too. Certainly a foot in both worlds.

And pity the poor Chaucer-types: they can't tell better stories. Once the judges start to sniff out linear narrative, character and motivation, the Arts Board funding tends to dry up. Tenure tracks start to close. One's colleagues laugh derisively.

The Chaucer-model has always been a closed and hermetic world, but now instead of cozying up to a tyrant (excuse me, king, industrialist, etc.) the Chaucerian's path is closer to rising through the ranks of the Freemasons: lots of secret signs and handshakes, etc. In their increasingly self-referential world, reaching out to the reader is tantamount to heresy.

Or, to put in more Beowulfian terms, they've crawled so far up their own asses that something's died in there.

Riss said...

Ok. So I'm not entirely sure how I feel about these ideas. On one hand, I want to shake my fists and rally with the Beowolfians for the honest, the truth, all that bohemian, nitty gritty, jazz blues, "once more with feeling" stuff. And tell the assholes to stick it. On the other-there's something to be said for success. Ok, not that Beowolfians don't succeed, you prove that, I prove that to some degree though by these terms I might be more of a Chaucerian though I don't know if that's true or if that's something I would want to be true given the slant that this is written at...which is, of course, your prerogative since it's your blog-and success is a loaded word, I'll grant that too. But just because you find people to fund your or you get the richie rich to sniff in your direction and actually pay you for what you do..with their very real money, doesn't mean that your stuff loses heart or soul or any of those qualities that put you in the second camp to begin with.

Sell outs suck and I don't advocate it because it's a nasty trait (coughGwenStefanicough) but I think there's a fine line between those in the camp that crawls between rich peoples fat white asses to make their money and their "art" and whatever, and those "purists" who make art because they want to make it and who don't care if they don't make money or this or that because they have their art....two extremes obviously and yet...there's this middle zone that I think can be achieved. Hopefully...otherwise, I'm full of it. Which is ok too.

It's hard to discuss this sort of stuff because no matter what side you write from there's a tendency to sound pissy that the other side is there at all...or that one didn't somehow make it into that camp or the other...which I don't believe is the case. You either define success for you and become happy with it or you don't and then you die. For that, I don't think there is a true middle.

Anyway...good post. (c:

Riss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Riss said...

Ok. So I'm not entirely sure how I feel about these ideas. On one hand, I want to shake my fists and rally with the Beowolfians for the honest, the truth, all that bohemian, nitty gritty, jazz blues, "once more with feeling" stuff. And tell the assholes to stick it. On the other-there's something to be said for success. Ok, not that Beowolfians don't succeed, you prove that, I prove that to some degree though by these terms I might be more of a Chaucerian though I don't know if that's true or if that's something I would want to be true given the slant that this is written at...which is, of course, your prerogative since it's your blog-and success is a loaded word, I'll grant that too. But just because you find people to fund your or you get the richie rich to sniff in your direction and actually pay you for what you do..with their very real money, doesn't mean that your stuff loses heart or soul or any of those qualities that put you in the second camp to begin with.

Sell outs suck and I don't advocate it because it's a nasty trait (coughGwenStefanicough) but I think there's a fine line between those in the camp that crawls between rich peoples fat white asses to make their money and their "art" and whatever, and those "purists" who make art because they want to make it and who don't care if they don't make money or this or that because they have their art....two extremes obviously and yet...there's this middle zone that I think can be achieved. Hopefully...otherwise, I'm full of it. Which is ok too.

It's hard to discuss this sort of stuff because no matter what side you write from there's a tendency to sound pissy that the other side is there at all...or that one didn't somehow make it into that camp or the other...which I don't believe is the case. You either define success for you and become happy with it or you don't and then you die. For that, I don't think there is a true middle.

Anyway...good post. (c:

Shauna Roberts said...

Gosh, Riss, you must really feel strongly about this to post three times. :-)

After reading what Riss wrote, I thought about WHY I'm in the Beowulf camp. As a reader, it's because I want stories with plots, a

n ending, and characters that develop. I'll read literary fiction if it has those elements.

As a writer, it's because I want the largest audience possible, I want to make as much money as possible, and I want to make the world a better place. Genre fiction is where characters may become braver, kinder, more honorable, more thoughtful, or better in other ways. In literary fiction, the message is often the futility of personal action and of life in general. Genre readers instead absorb the message that hope is powerful, choices make a difference, and right can win out if people are brave enough to act.

For example, in Charles' horror novel Cold in the Light, several people risk their lives to help strangers. I found that powerful and moving, and hopefully I'll be a better person for having read the book. As a writer, I want to affect people like that.

Are anyone else's reasons for declaring themselves Beowulfians (or Chaucerians) similar?

Lana Gramlich said...

Interesting fodder for the mind here (in a GOOD way.) Kind of makes me feel somewhat idiotic for filling out all of those applications for art grants lately, but you never know!
As an artist, I'm not really going to pay much attention to my "audience" at all. I'm keeping the focus where it belongs--on what I really WANT to create. My art is for me. If others like it, that's just a bonus! I guess that's a luxury authors don't have. I don't envy you that!

Lisa said...

The most important words in this post for me are "Best advice I can give ANY artist is, know which camp you belong in and work as hard as hell in that one."

I think perhaps literary fiction may be getting too spirited a beating these last couple of days. It's far too broad a category to make any general statements about its deficiencies. I'll restrict my own comments about the literary ivory tower to living, working writers. There is only a teeny tiny percentage of writers (and painters) who apply for or receive grants and of those, I don't think anybody is making a living from them. A recent article in Time about the new poet laureate said the pay for that post is $35K a year! Among the literary elite (prize winners ought to fall into this category), a guy like Cormac McCarthy, who seems to have gotten nods from "real" readers and critics alike (despite his disdain for quotation marks) lived like a pauper and a hermit for most of his writing career. From what I can tell, he wasn't writing to please anyone but himself. Most of the new literary fiction I've read, in fact, has come from relatively unknown writers. Some of it is excellent and some of it isn't. I haven't read any that's bad. I'm not sure what writers are the intended recipients of the ill will toward literary fiction.

Just as there are plenty of books that fall into the lit fic category that miss the mark, there are plenty of zombie stories that even a zombie lover couldn't love.

Many readers cross comfortably back and forth and dip into both literary and more commercial types of fiction...

I guess what I'm not understanding is the animosity toward literary fiction. There are genres I don't care to read or even see the merit of, but somebody likes them and I don't feel compelled to attack them...why do people seem to feel compelled to vent about literary fiction? I don't think you could even get an agreed on definition, or get the people who want to criticize it so harshly to name more than one or two recent works that commit all the sins lit fic keeps getting tagged with.

This is something I've noticed ever since I started blogging and I feel a lot of love on this blog, so I have to ask the lit-fic haters -- why do people get so fired up, and what is all the venom based on? Lit fic sure isn't taking market share away from anyone and John Updike isn't hurling insults at Harlequin...what's the deal?

Bernita said...

And then there's Shakespeare who falls between your two.
I was trained as an academic but am a Beowulfian - which I guess proves the adage about silk purses and sow's ears....

SQT said...

I'm lowbrow and make no apologies for it.

Steve Malley said...

Riss and Lana, you've caught the essence of the *real* struggle: stay true to your art and work out funding as best you can. As Lisa points out, it's not easy on either side of the fence.

Shauna, lit-fic does indeed specialize in the down ending, doesn't it?

Lisa, your remarks are right on the nose, and I do feel a little ashamed. I'm going to try to give you a full and honest accounting in a moment.

Bernita, come to think of it, theater *is* the bridge between two models: productions (even back in the days of the Globe Theatre) don't get mounted without access to wealth. They don't stay open without bums in seats.

SQT, you and me both.

Steve Malley said...

To clarify a bit:

Artists in EVERY medium do their best work when they stay true to their internal mission.

While (or despite) making art, artists have an ongoing need for 'three hots and a cot'. In our current society, this means money.

There are two main ways of reconciling this: 1) get a chunk of money from someone. 2) get pocket change from a whole bunch of people.

Either way can lead to fortune and fame. Both ways are likely to leave the artist in poverty and obscurity. Neither funding source is 'selling out', though doing work that feels false and hollow is no good for the soul.

Somehow, the two camps ended up with a lot of animosity for each other. Supposedly, the Chaucers have the respect, the Beowulfs have the lucre, and both have disdain for the other. Except that (in some art forms) the Chaucers aren't getting the respect. And in all art forms, only a few 'stars' get the lucre.

As Lisa reminded me, we're all in this together. Sorta makes me feel like a hobo kicking a beggar or something...

So why do it?

Steve Malley said...

Why beat on lit-fic?

For me, there are three reasons, none of them good.

1) Confusion. Straddling two worlds, visual art and literature, I tend to see the two as alike. But the fact is, high-art literature seems healthier to me than high-art painting (or whatever they're calling it these days). Or maybe less sick. More on that in a minute.

2) Immaturity. I had the strange and dubious advantage of what currently passes for a 'classical' education. TO say I was a square peg in a round hole is putting it mildly, and I do still carry some animosity from those days. I'm ashamed of it but there it is.

3) Dissatisfaction. This is the closest to a good reason that I have for beating on literary fiction: dissatisfying reading experiences. Time and again, I get sucked in by lush, gorgeous imagery and lyrical, poetic tone. I slow my reading to accommodate eccentric punctuation, etc. I get sucked in to the characters and their quiet, intimate struggles.

And only in the final pages do I realize that the conflicts may not resolve. Or the book ends with a downbeat deus-ex-machina. (Couple try to work things out, but she gets cancer and dies. Great.) Or the book just trots to a halt, and nothing much comes of anything. At the end of a book like that, I usually want my time back. And because all that lovely language sucked me in, I feel a bit betrayed.

Joyce Carol Oates gives me the down endings, sure, but she also uses standard punctuation, so I can read my way to the characters' oblivion at a reasonable speed.

These days, when I'm standing in the bookstore with a literary book in hand, I check the acknowledgments page. The more prizes, awards, fellowships and grants helped the author to finish the book, the less likely I am to read.

I blame a form of cultural cancer, going back to the 50's. Those arts boards and prize committees favor lyricism over story. And such narrative as there is needs to be as relentlessly downbeat as possible.

For what it's worth, I find the cultural cancer on the Beowulf side just as worrisome. I mean, I'd take any amount of Karen Finley's performance art over Reality TV. Sure, she's naked and whining about her childhood while she pelts herself with raw meat, but so are they. And she won't use the word 'journey'...

Riss said...

I don't know why Blogger insists on making it post what i say like, 90 times. I sorry...I didn't do it. (c: Regardless-Lisa, I think you said what I was trying to say but was a bit too I dunno what to clearly express. So thanks.

Steve-I think I get it more now knowing a little tidbit about your artistic learnings and the such...and yes, Lisa is right...we are in this together. It goes back to the idea of an Anti Artist. You either make art or you don't. You're either in it for the work and your own desires/needs whatever to create or you aren't. Just admit it either way. I think the playing field is evening in some ways...there are, in KC at least, a lot of opportunities for artists in general. Not just those with a bunch of money or a good sponsor.

And...here's a thought-if people are pissed off about the way things are going or the groups that people are sorted in to...DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Make a choice, call a committee, get something going. Don't just sit on your ass and look over the fence at the "cool kids" and wish you were there or wish that things would change.

It's a matter of perspective which can be dictated by your past. I have an "ivory tower" mucho money's worth education. Great. Doesn't make me a genius...what separates me is the fact that I'm willing to knock on doors, write letters, apply for anything and everything I think I can get and them some and work and work and work until I find that sweet spot where I feel like I'm accomplishing what I set out to do. And that goes for writing and making "art".

Barbara Martin said...

I'm more a Beowulf myself, although I did like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (the translated to modern English version).

Lisa said...

*ducks back in, a little sheepish* Yikes, I didn't mean to cause trouble :)

Steve Malley said...

Riss, it's so inspiring to watch you set out on this crazy ride. I can't wait to claim I knew you when! :)

Barbara, lot of great Chaucer-funded artists out there: my own university sheltered Robert M Pirsig and Alex Haley so that Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and ROOTS could be written.

Lisa, don't be sheepish. It's fun to see some spirited discussion, and you and Riss really did help clear my thinking!

FANCY said...

One idea get more idea and that most make everyone look like the master of idea...This most be the most dizzy comment I have left...*LOL*...

I'm curious who you will pick for the awards...I'm really look forward to it. :)

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