Monthly Archives: February 2013

The often made assertion that most people read and write less now with the advent of smartphones and tablets and other such teletechnologies is patently absurd.  It is only necessary to watch people interact with their devices a short time to see that they actually do little else but read and write for considerable portions of their day, churning out more words with their thumbs than writers of the past were able to accomplish with pens or typewriters or computers.  It is not the case that people read and write less.  Rather, it is the case that what they read and write, to a degree that no one could have expected, is the minutia of each other’s lives, the commonplaces of their immediate social relationships.  The culture of the device has made this fact seem obvious and natural, and yet, no previous generation could have imagined that reading and writing would come to serve this purpose, that the personal and the commonplace use of the written word would come to eclipse any artistic, political, economic, or practical use of the written word, at least in sheer volume, that the verbal chatter of our kitchen tables and office water coolers and gym locker rooms would become the dominant literary mode of our time, not in a form that tries to raise it to any artistic or practical significance, but in a form that revels precisely in its commonness, in its insignificance, in its detachment from any greater social or political meaning, because to our great relief, we have at last discovered a literature that will not disturb, by any means, the isolation of our own lives.

There are beer bottles — two hundred? three? — lined along the plate rail, just a foot from the ceiling, like mismatched soldiers in uniforms pulled from seldom-used closets, faded over long years, passed down from fathers, perhaps grandfathers, but still worn with pride, even with scuffs at the elbows and tarnish on the buttons, even with the meaning of the medals now forgotten.  They stand a curious guard over what comes and goes — the ales and the porters, the scotches on the rocks, the occasional glass of wine, the even more occasional mixed drink, an order that disconcerts the bartenders and quiets the regulars, because it is does not befit the honour guard.

Whereas the fundamental gesture of hospitality is the invitation, and the fundamental gesture of community is the greeting, so the fundamental gesture of friendship is the referral or the recommendation.  Friendship is not even possible without this gesture.  It is essential to friendship that each friend be continually directing the other to what might delight and please, to be constantly saying to the other, “Meet this person; walk this path; read this book; explore this place; listen to this song.”  This referring is the very fabric , not of friendship itself, but of the place where friendship takes place, where it is discovered, where it is grown.  Without it, there can be no friendship.

The work of art, be it visual, literary, theatrical, musical, or anything else,  implies a division between the artist and a public, even if the position of the artist is multiple and undefined, even if the position of the public is occupied only by the artist.  This division is, or should be, only a provisional one, as when the artist continually functions as a public for the work of art as it is being created, as when the public is driven by the work of art to make art itself.  In practise, however, the division between artist and public is too often understood as absolute, or at the very least as surmountable only by the greatest difficulty, where the artist as genius produces the work of art almost entirely without influence, as an original work, and where the public passively receives this work, permitted only to critique art, never to participate in its creation.

This understanding of art is not supportable.  The figure of the artist as original genius is an obvious if persistent falsehood, in every case, and the figure of the passive public, though all too real in most cases, is the very antithesis of art.  If the public’s experience of art does not result in the creation of more art, than art has failed.  The work of art and its experience should, in every case, without exception, call the public to become the artist, and the work of creating art should, in ever case, without exception, drive the artist to become the public for other art.

A merely disinterested, passive, observing, critiquing public that refuses to participate in the creation of art ensures only that art will be confined to museums and universities, the domain of curators and professors and critics and other professional pedants who are more interested in describing and classifying art than in living through it.  This is not to suggest that the role of the public as critic is without value.  It is to suggest that public criticism must have as its aim the creation of new art, that it is too often concerned only with being criticism, and that criticism apart from creation is the destruction of art.

The public that art creates must never be satisfied to remain only a public.  It must begin to understand that being a public is an inseparable part of being the artist, that the public and the artist lead naturally one to the other, interpenetrate each other, cannot exist one without the other, must never be made to exist in isolation.  Unless the public must become the artist, art fails to be art, because it fails to be lived by those who offer and receive it.

Her posture, more than straight, recurved, like a bow drawn, if not to fire, at least to readiness, a posture filled with anticipation, though all around her, at every other table, people are slouched and hunched, unknowingly confessing their inferiority according to a measure that they do not yet recognize, and though the man who hovers near her, leaving and returning, an old man, perhaps her father, holds himself carelessly too, his hand-knit toque slipping crookedly across his forehead, the velcrow hanging loose on his boots.