Regard this, reader, as a warcry — admittedly inspired by laziness and worry, but fixed and full-throated nonetheless. Today I fly the flag of careless halves in the face of considered wholes. And to illustrate I tumble upwards to 3am, piling piece on piece and pomp on pomp, and leaving the job of sorting the resulting jumble not to the reader — I would never impose such a fruitless task upon those kind and loyal and peculiar enough to scan beneath the title — but to the universe. To hell with craft, he cries, thumping a weak paw on the contrived disorder of his desk; then, reciting the thinnest excuse of all, Life itself is a mess! Is it my/our job to sort existence and regurgitate it into a more intelligible — not to mention palatable — form, for those most afflicted by it, or am I simply to reflect it, to effectively say, Well, I don't know any more than you do, but it's a remarkable likeness, no?
My cry is a pose, of course, but a mess does have its virtues, even when the spectre of a tidier version casts its gloom. Time spent refining could be time spent making more messes. And it is certainly easier this way, if only for the smallest party. But stifled potential does emit a uniquely foul stench, and it can be hard to focus when you discern the need for a few more drafts. Too often the Good gets lost in the What Could Be.
The Art Should Be Fun contingent are ready with the desperate-sounding but grain-of-truth-holding excuse that any ambition to create order out of what we might loosely term 'All this' is itself a fallacy; at least we — or they — are honest about that. Accompanying this view is the contention that art (no doubt refined to 'true art' in the face of contradiction) is not merely an argument told funny, nor is it a soft essay for those especially allergic to academic propositions. The delicate of disposition might well prefer such an alternative, but Art, they argue (adding the capital as they move in for the clincher), transcends. Ask of an essay what could be; ask of art what is. But calling upon the verb 'Transcend' is Patron 101 for escaping the threat of close inspection; in a critical context 'Transcend' becomes little more than a fancy substitute for "It's good, but I can't quite tell you why", but it's spongey enough to scare off would-be contrarians. The better defence, that of questioning the approach and relevance of the study of the arts, is forgotten in the haze.
It is noble, I believe, to curtail the excess of displaced theory, but noble it is not to contemn study for style — style in surface, that is, not service: suspended like a conjurer's tart and sporting an impeccable sheen, but about as transcendent as the same magic trick explained in diagram (TR is for Trope, but let me slip here). It is a funny fact of life that the effort in waxing in one corner roughly equates to the effort in working in the other, and the truly great proponents spin both plates indivisibly, putting the former most to shame. But the question of capacity does enter the picture. Do those who stick to chroming know their limitations, or are they merely too afraid to discover them? Most, I'm sure, would rather not answer that.
The ASBF camp has returned, this time with "Art is respite; life is for rubbing your nose in it." But the unfortunate truth is that this formulation is itself the formulation of those who have never had their noses rubbed in anything. Just as you have to have money before you can have contempt for it, you have to have had a truly wet beak before you can claim art exists elsewhere, and even then too many exemptions will loose the proverbial tin of bait. A suitable tome might be entitled 'Whither Frivolity?', and divide post-Auschwitz authors into cowards and noble failures. But then a suitable tome might also be 'Life From Above', where the silliest sit atop the pantheon and the soft essayists scowl indignant — and untranscedent.
What are we left with? Not enough to justify the question mark, that's for surtain. The H in Auden ain't exactly up to defending this stance by example. But if we can't counter the stinging print on its own terms — and we can't —, we can at least call on our youth, where it remains, and tell 'em to fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine.
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