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?
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.