Friday, September 7, 2007

On the nature of art

How pompous a title is that? Perhaps I should delete this post before I write it. Anyway, good piece from Slate, my favorite online mag, about Jack Kerouac's On the Road Again. While I haven't read the book (much to my friend MQ's disgust), my general point is simply not about the book, but on the general thesis of the piece:
Which is why it's no wonder that On the Road, a book that we've termed an
American Sacrament, is almost as widely and passionately viewed as an American
Sham. This started around the time the novel was published, when Truman Capote
insulted Kerouac's prose as "typing not writing," and has continued until this
afternoon, as shown by the profusion of readers' spitballs aimed at our rather
reverent discussion here. (One of these can be found under the heading
"Kerouac's 50 years of Crap," and it's not even the unkindest.) Would the novel
have been better as a memoir, you asked in your last note. Don't know. What I do
know is that there are countless detractors out there who don't regard it as a
novel at all but as a load of pretentious mental slobber. It might or might not
reflect true-life events, but it's still, to the skeptics, a bucket of foamy
word-slop that, for some devious or self-seeking reason (canny marketing by its
publishers? The doltishness of our nation's youth? The narcissism of baby
boomers who see the novel as their own creation myth?) has been borne along like
a chalice all these years and deserves, at long last, to be tossed back into the
gutter where its shiftless characters so often slept.

This discussion to me, while seemingly tangential, is actually the very heart of what the book was about. Or any book, movie, painting, poem etc. is about. It is not what the book says, or how it says it, or the detail of its prose, or the power of its central theme, or the detail of
its characters, or the passion of its writing. While all of these are independently worthwile, interesting, and engaging, to me the essence of art is simply that it got us going in the first place. I reject the notion that there is an objective 'good' or 'bad' about human art, yet I relish the argument about whether it is good or bad!

Even the haters in the above paragraph have emerged as better, more informed, more dynamic, more human after reading the book....even if they thought it was a huge piece of shit. People are thinking, and talking, and feeling, and debating about this book. They argue endlessly, and take positions, and think of new perspectives and new concepts. None of the actual opinions are material (at least to me), but it is the creation of those opinions that warms my heart, and makes me confident that the human race is in good hands. We'll be all right.

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