It’s been said that a true artist doesn’t ever lose sight of reality: she stylizes it. It’s been also noted that a good painting often looks more real than reality itself.
The reason both of these things are true is that art — which includes literature — is selectivity.
Selectivity is the process of choosing from among innumerable specifics that which you wish to present.
Here, for example, is a still-life of grapes, as depicted by the German painter August Laux (1847 – 1921):
Here is another still-life of grapes by Buck Nelligan of Ashburn, Virginia:
Note how in both oil paintings, the subject-matter is identical and unmistakable: red grapes. But, for all their similarities, note also how very different these two paintings are.
The thing that accounts for the differences and similarities is what each artist has selected to paint.
Observe, for example, that August Laux selected a droplet of water, which Buck Nelligan did not. Observe the shadows, observe the one hanging from a nail, the other a cord. Observe the cloudiness that both have given to their grapes. Observe the clarity, or its lack.
Now take the following literary depictions of autumn:
Down at the stonework base, among the stump-
Fungus and feather moss,
Dead leaves are sunken in a shallow sump
Of energy and loss,
Enriched now with the colors of old coins
And brilliance of wet leather.
An earthen tea distills at the roots-groin
Into the smoky weather
A deep familiar essence of the year:
A sweet fetor, a ghost
Of foison, gently welcoming us near
To humus, mulch, compost.
The last mosquitoes lazily hum and play
Above the yeasting earth
A feeble Gloria to this cool decay
Or casual dirge of birth.
(An Autumnal, by Anthony Hecht)
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too —
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
(To Autumn, by John Keats)
Stylization is the artists evaluation of those facets of reality that he or she chooses to present. In essence, it is the artist saying to us: Yes, I regard this as important enough to include in my work of art.
In this way, the artist’s method of execution — i.e. style — as well as the artist’s choice of subject-matter, gives an in-depth glimpse into the artist’s soul.
And we, in turn, disclose our soul in responding — or not — to a given work of art.
This is the way in which art is a branch of philosophy.
4 Responses and Counting...
“And we, in turn, disclose our soul in responding — or not — to a given work of art.”
I became aware of this when I saw a Picasso (Portrait of Dora Maar) for the first time. Something about the power of that painting gave me a rush like nothing I had ever felt as a response to a work of art. There were other famous works in the exhibit, but the Picasso may as well have been there alone in a room, and me with it. The next day I checked out every book in the library about Picasso and read them voraciously. I obsessed over the artist for a long time, trying to get at something within myself that had been moved by what he’d uncovered in the subject.
And did you, Ms. Dean? Did you get at that something within yourself?
Yes I did. By the light of the moon, with that bold Spaniard on the pages propped between my legs, I did find that something he’d uncovered, that deep hot caldera where I seethed inside like Dora Maar, slashed at the seams and smeared with the artist’s paint, pinned to his canvas, the two halves of me split and exposed to the world.
Stop looking at me like that, Mr. Pulp.
I can’t help it.