Tension or rebellion?

In my few available moments during which I can write about being intellectually engaged and curious, I’ve been working on this post. It’s been a “draft” on my dashboard for some time as I work on it. For background, recall that I was reading Octavio Paz’s prose and Dave Hickey’s essays in The Invisible Dragon.




Both writers take up the concept of beauty in art. They approach the topic in different ways, of course, but both make note of the requirement for tension in the work of art. The tension can be of anticipation, expectation, surprise, or of opposition and rebellion. The need for anticipation and turns or surprise in poetry reminds me of Robert Bly’s idea of the “leap” in poetry–in fact, Paz is one of the poets Bly uses as an example of “leaping poetry” in Bly’s classic 1972 tract, Leaping Poetry. I infer that these emotion-forms are related to one another and that aesthetics involves at least some connection between experience (physical, emotional) and mind.

[For now, I will not take up the possibility of calm, contemplative, no-tension beauty.]

Instead, it is intriguing to consider the ways Paz and Hickey interconnect regarding the idea of rebellious art. Also, there’s an agreement between them–not literally, as they are not responding to one another at all–concerning art that is funded by governments. Both critics contend that way lies danger.

Hickey’s essays in The Invisible Dragon were sparked by the controversy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s U.S. NEA-funded photographs. These photographs are beautiful, Hickey says, though art critics of the 1990s dismissed the “beautiful” aspect of the work and concentrated on its “message,” while many other viewers considered the images pornographic and offensive. Hickey says, essentially, to hell with the message; look at the art: is it beautiful, or not?

Hickey writes:

My point here is that there are issues worth advancing in images that are worth admiring–that the truth is never plain nor appearances sincere. To try to make them so is to neutralize the primary, gorgeous eccentricity of imagery in Western culture since the Reformation: the fact that it cannot be trusted, that images are always presumed to be proposing something contestable and controversial. his is the sheer, ebullient, slithering, dangerous fun of it. No image is inviolable in our dance hall of visual politics. All images are potentially powerful. Bad graphics topple good governments and occlude good ideas. Good graphics sustain bad governments and worse governments. The fluid nuancing of pleasure, power, and beauty is serious business in this culture.

Hickey’s prose is such fun! And so provocative. He asserts that Senator Jesse Helms (who began the noisy movement to de-fund the NEA’s support of work such as Mapplethorpe’s) was the only public figure who really “got” what Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic pictures were saying: they really were a rebellion, a transgression–a purposeful confrontation with social norms. That’s what many artists and poets do: throw a wrench into the usual mundanities of life and make viewers or readers pause, react, reflect.

Mapplethorpe’s choice of images just happened to be considered sexually transgressive; and Hickey says that because the USA is a democracy, Helms’ right to protest was as valid as the photographer’s right to make the images in the first place. Hickey loved that there was potential for real discovery in that moment, and gives art critics and academics a hard time for retreating into ideas of First Amendment and artistic self-expression and meaning over beauty. He claims that when it comes to the US democratic culture of the arts, “whatever we get, we deserve–and what we get most prominently is ignored, disenfranchised, and instructed. Then we are told it is ‘good’ for us.” But what is good for us by the standards of a bureaucratic culture is not the original contract between the image and its viewer, even though that is the interaction that ignites the spark of awe we feel when we encounter great art.

“In fact, nothing redeems but beauty, its generous permission, its gorgeous celebration of all that has previously been uncelebrated.”

Hickey lambasts Americans for somewhat mindlessly appreciating what we are told is great art. “In our mild appreciation,” he writes, “we refuse to engage the argument of images that deal so intimately with trust, pain, love, and the giving up of the self.”

Paz’s chapter on the image in poetry dovetails with the argument of images and the intimacy thereof. That’s the contract the viewer or reader makes with the artwork or the poem: we agree to be, potentially, moved; to make ourselves possibly vulnerable to rhetoric, to pain, to love, to beauty, to sudden awareness of what has been overlooked, ignored, oppressed, made alien.

Through image. Through tension. Through a state of contrariness and forbidden looking: rebellion.


In a week or so I do plan to spend more time on Paz, because I find his essays on poetry enlightening on an intellectual and on a more basic/fundamental level. Hickey’s work on beauty relates to writing but is more specific to the visual and plastic arts. I do recommend Hickey for his humorous but incredibly observant role as a socio-cultural commentator on contemporary USAmerican pop culture, academic culture, political culture, and democratic-capitalist thinking. He’s accurate and insightful even when I don’t completely agree with him. He believes whole-heartedly in discourse and discovery through democratic discussion of multiple viewpoints. Check him out. You will want to argue with him.

Spinning & flashing

While traveling, I finished Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre and also Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, two very different books that I’m still churning around in my mind as they intersect on the subject of beauty in the arts.

Hickey’s work has been much more controversial than has Paz’s; but then, he addresses a completely different audience in his book (most specifically art world critics, a contentious bunch to begin with). Both writers spend some time on the idea of rebellion in art, and there’s much to consider on just that topic alone. But I feel as though I need to re-read both books and jot down my thinking because–well, they cover so much that relates to my interests. I cannot keep all of this information, and all of these concepts and revelations, in my mind at once.

My brain’s spinning.

Which is a good thing. To spin is to draw and twist into a thread, to gyrate, whirl, “to evolve, express, or fabricate by processes of mind or imagination” [Merriam-Webster], to twirl, roll and yaw, speed along, etc. When the brain does these things, neurons are firing happily. The brain also needs meditative rest, true, but the whirling of intriguing thoughts is a better activity than the grating stir of anxieties or the dull repetition of too-familiar routines.

About Paz. All of the essays in The Bow and the Lyre are good, but some are better than others–and some just appeal to my interests more than others. The glib aphorisms I complained of earlier turn out to be forerunners of quite thorough explorations into the “what” of poetry and of being. I came away amazed at the breadth of the author’s knowledge, the depth of his close reading, his philosophical forays and his artistic analysis and his creative intuition. We should be glad our Nobel laureates are of this caliber.

Furthermore, coincidentally of course, Paz (writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s) cites Heidegger, who was alive at the time; proto-phenomenologist Husserl; and Deleuze–a philosopher who’s on my to-read list. Also many others, some of whom are Mexican or Spanish poets or dramatists with whom I have little or just passing familiarity, and most of whom are poets and philosophers I’ve read (whew, so I didn’t get too lost in his examples).

My favorite chapter is the one on Image in the poem, but I admire his thinking in so many of these essays. Paz discusses the much-acknowledged need for tension in the poem, a topic I thought I’d already read enough about, but his approach strikes me as particularly clear and apt. Robert Bly has written about the “leap” in a poem (see his small gem Leaping Poetry) and the suggestion of the twist or surprise in a poem is not new. Paz considers the poem as a kind of rebellion because the poem is always outside of the expected cultural norm, because the poem is slippery and cannot easily be pinned down–else it fails. There is also a startling-ness to the good poem–his translator employs the word “fulgurant,” an obscure but specific word meaning amazing in an impressive way–suggestive of a flash of lightning.

The tension need not be so flashy. It can be subtle, but the poem has to have earned its ‘turn.’ How does that happen? Paz says that tension is created in tandem with the reader: the reader is an integral part of the poem. What occurs in the poem (in terms of form, imagery, metaphor, meaning, rhythm, wordplay, etc.) will be unexpected even though the reader anticipates it. In fact, the reader desires the surprise, wants the unpredictable, and the poem will be weaker for the lack of it. It’s like watching a fireworks display. You anticipate the noise, “chrysanthemums” and “fountains,” but you’re never quite sure when exactly the rocket will spew forth its light or what form the explosion will take.

The reader expects change and transformation from the poem, expects puns, twists, leaps, juxtapositions, and all the rest. The reader feels that thrill from a poem when the expectation is justified but the delivery of the surprise nevertheless startles. Paz would say that is a revelation.

And this is only one tiny aspect of this deep and intriguing book. No wonder my head spins, and I feel transformed!