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Posts Tagged ‘Jeanette Winterson’

27 OCTOBER, 2014

The Paradox of Active Surrender: Jeanette Winterson on Ignorance vs. Distaste and How Learning to Understand Art Transforms Us

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“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

I recently attended an event at which a celebrated public radio personality attempted to interview a celebrated artist. “Attempted,” because he clearly did not understand her work and the spirit from which it sprang. His attitude of not-getting-it wasn’t a storytelling device — the kind where an interviewer feigns amicable ignorance in order to include the audience in the finding out — but a petulant child’s fit. The fact that he is brilliant at his own work perhaps only confounded his frustration with not being able to understand her art, to connect with it. The event was painful to watch because the first task of a great interviewer is humility — sublimating his ego in the service of letting his subject shine; the second and more arduous task is understanding, which takes a deliberate investment of time, intention, and effort. It was painful to watch, but also shrouded in soft pity — endearing, because he was merely seeking to connect with her work and needed a sherpa in understanding it. His chief fault wasn’t so much doing it in public, without having first made those necessary investments, but in presuming that it was the artist’s duty to be that sherpa herself. (The artist, I should add, handled the situation with remarkable patience and poise.)

The task of the audience in witnessing such tragicomedy is not to judge but to seek to understand — not to add to the effrontery by flagellating the interviewer’s laziness of understanding with the audience’s own in turn, but to see what went awry and glean from that a larger insight about that delicate dance of giving and receiving, of mutual connection and comprehension, that is art.

That is why the incident reminded me of a beautiful essay by Jeanette Winterson titled “Art Objects,” found in her magnificent 1996 collection Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (public library), in which she illuminates with exquisite precision the many layers of misunderstanding that happened here, which also happen so frequently when someone issues a dismissive or critical denunciation of art from a deep place of I just don’t get it.

Chauvet Cave Drawings (c. 30,000 BC) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Winterson begins by recounting her own awakening to art after years of feeling no interest in the visual arts. “My lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others,” she confesses with hindsight’s lucidity. As she finds herself in Amsterdam, she also finds herself a stranger in a strange land in another way. Suddenly beholding that dormant power of art, she writes:

I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog-dumb. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak. Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.

We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.

Winterson begins longing for a guide, “someone astute and erudite,” “a person dead or alive” with whom to “think things over,” and is gripped with the way in which understanding art doesn’t obey any of our familiar problem-solving methods. (Art, after all, is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be allowed.) She writes:

Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Artwork from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for details.

With that, Winterson considers the heart of that active surrender that art requires of us:

I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.

She finds her sherpa in the celebrated art critic Roger Fry and his “life-delighting, art-delighting approach, unashamed of emotion, unashamed of beauty” — a mind so singular that he became the subject of Virginia Woolf’s only biography. Fry, Winterson felt, allowed her to approach a work of art “without unfelt reverence or unfit complacency.”

Slowly, subtly, as she educated herself in the language of art, Winterson began to feel her way of seeing evolve. She echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art thrives on “emotional infectiousness” and writes:

What has changed is my capacity of feeling. Art opens the heart.

But art, Winterson observes, also takes time (that unfortunate interview increasingly gave the sense that time was the missing ingredient of understanding) and commitment. Among the essential obstacles that must be overcome before we can begin to appreciate art, she argues, is the experience of increasing discomfort. Noting that “ordinary life passes in a near blur” — which cognitive science has demonstrated convincingly — she asks:

When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake? … We find we are not very good at looking.

Artwork by John Vernon Lord from 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for details.

We are also bedeviled by increasing irritation, which Winterson captures with wonderful humor: “Why doesn’t the picture do something? Why is it hanging there staring at me? What is this picture for? Pictures should give pleasure but this picture is making me very cross. Why should I admire it? Quite clearly it doesn’t admire me.” This notion of admiration reflected back, in fact, is entwined with the way in which our ego — like, perhaps, the anecdotal interviewer’s ego — is often what stands between us and the active surrender to art. Winterson writes:

Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer. The true painting, in its stubborn independence, cannot do this, except coincidentally. Its reality is imaginative not mundane.

When the thick curtain of protection is taken away; protection of prejudice, protection of authority, protection of trivia, even the most familiar of paintings can begin to work its power. There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa.

But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about the painting but the painting has discovered a lot about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.

It is often said that art — some art, or much of art, or much of some of art — is an “acquired taste.” But Winterson’s central point is that art — all of art — is an acquired ability:

If I can be persuaded to make the experiment again (and again and again), something very different might occur after the first shock of finding out that I do not know how to look at pictures, let alone how to like them.

[...]

Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent. Better to pretend that art is dumb, or at least has nothing to say that makes sense to us. If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it… We avoid painful encounters with art by trivializing it, or by familiarizing it.

In one of her most potent asides, Winterson laments our cultural mythology of art and money — that toxic notion that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” that making money and making art are mutually exclusive — and returns to the wildness of art:

We are an odd people: We make it as difficult as possible for our artists to work honestly while they are alive; either we refuse them money or we ruin them with money; either we flatter them with unhelpful praise or wound them with unhelpful blame, and when they are too old, or too dead, or too beyond dispute to hinder any more, we canonize them, so that what was wild is tamed, what was objecting, becomes Authority. Canonizing pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out. Not only pictures suffer like this, all the arts suffer like this.

Artwork by David Hockney from his illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for details.

Echoing Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Winterson considers the ongoing dialogue between past and present, those infinite circles of influence of which all art is woven:

The calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make it new. I do not mean that in new work the past is repudiated; quite the opposite, the past is reclaimed. It is not lost to authority, it is not absorbed at a level of familiarity. It is re-stated and re-instated in its original vigor. Leonardo is present in Cézanne, Michelangelo flows through Picasso and on into Hockney. This is not ancestor worship, it is the lineage of art. It is not so much influence as it is connection…

The true artist is connected. The true artist studies the past, not as a copyist or a pasticheur will study the past, those people are interested only in the final product, the art object, signed sealed and delivered to a public drugged on reproduction. The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way. The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else). If the true artist is connected, then he or she has much to give us because it is connection that we seek. Connection to the past, to one another, to the physical world… A picture, a book, a piece of music, can remind me of feelings, thinkings, I did not even know I had forgot.

Echoing Oscar Wilde’s memorable notion that art requires of us a “temperament of receptivity,” Winterson writes:

Whether art tunnels deep under consciousness or whether it causes out of its own invention, reciprocal inventions that we then call memory, I do not know. I do know that the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.

With this, Winterson arrives at the crux of our difficulty with understanding art and our tendency to mistake our misunderstanding for a failure of the art, to presume that our problem with understanding it is the artist’s problem — the heart of what went awry in that unfortunate interview. Winterson writes:

There are no Commandments in art and no easy axioms for art appreciation. “Do I like this?” is the question anyone should ask themselves at the moment of confrontation with the picture. But if “yes,” why “yes”? and if “no,” why “no”? The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the “yes” or “no” has nothing at all to do with the picture in its own right.

“I don’t understand this poem”
“I never listen to classical music”
“I don’t like this picture”
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant.

Artwork by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' Click image for details.

Winterson adds a reflection on the elements of subjectivity and our duty in factoring it in:

An examination of our own feelings will have to give way to an examination of the piece of work. This is fair to the work and it will help to clarify the nature of our own feelings; to reveal prejudice, opinion, anxiety, even the mood of the day. It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too. If they are what we say they are, they will stand the test, if not, we will at least be less insincere.

What art does, Winterson suggests, is pierce our deepest sense of identity, that illusory solid self that keeps us separate from the universe:

When you say “This work has nothing to do with me.” When you say “This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/élitist etc.,” you might be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you might be wrong because the work falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting. This denial of imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world. Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the “I” that we are.

A love-parallel would be just; falling in love challenges the reality to which we lay claim, part of the pleasure of love and part of its terror, is the world turned upside down. We want and we don’t want, the cutting edge, the upset, the new views. Mostly we work hard at taming our emotional environment just as we work hard at taming our aesthetic environment. We already have tamed our physical environment. And are we happy with all this tameness? Are you?

[...]

The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art.

And this, I suppose was the effrontery of the interviewer: his public admission of not having made the effort — of not having cared to make it. Winterson touches on what the deeper reason might be:

I worry that to ask for effort is to imply élitism, and the charge against art, that it is élitist, is too often the accuser’s defense against his or her own bafflement.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'My Favorite Things.' Click image for details.

In a remark particularly ironic in this context, she adds:

The only way to develop a palate is to develop a palate.

[...]

The fashion for dismissing a thing out of ignorance is vicious. In fact, it is not essential to like a thing in order to recognize its worth, but to reach that point of self-awareness and sophistication takes years of perseverance.

The problem, she points out, isn’t one of personal failure but of cultural bias:

I am sure that if as a society we took art seriously, not as mere decoration or entertainment, but as a living spirit, we should very soon learn what is art and what is not art.

[...]

If we sharpened our sensibilities, it is not that we would all agree on everything, or that we would suddenly feel the same things in front of the same pictures (or when reading the same book), but rather that our debates and deliberations would come out of genuine aesthetic considerations and not politics, prejudice and fashion… And our hearts? Art is aerobic.

Winterson turns to what happens in that magical moment when a work of art is beheld with understanding, with active surrender, and enveloped by receptivity:

There is a constant exchange of emotion between us, between the three of us; the artist I need never meet, the painting in its own right, and me, the one who loves it and can no longer live independent of it. The triangle of exchange alters, is fluid, is subtle, is profound and is one of those unverifiable facts that anyone who cares for painting soon discovers… The totality of the picture comments on the totality of what I am.

As she considers how art makes visible “those necessary invisibles of faith and optimism, humor and generosity,” “the sublimity of mankind,” she peers into the depths of its essence:

We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector’s item. Art objects.

The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die.

[...]

Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art. If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question “What has happened to our lives?” The usual question, “What has happened to art?” is too easy an escape route.

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery is a transcendent read in its totality — Winterson goes on to examine such subjects as imagination and reality, the ecstasy of words, and the semiotics of sex. Complement it with her provocative reflections on adoption and belonging and time, language, and how art sanctifies the human spirit.

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21 JULY, 2014

Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading, and How Art Creates a Sanctified Space for the Human Spirit

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“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

In September of 1994, beloved British writer Jeanette Winterson joined Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel on the air for a spectacular conversation, later published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library) — the fantastic collection that also gave us Chinua Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility.

Winterson — who was raised in a church and began writing sermons at age six with the intent of becoming a missionary, only to leave home at age fifteen after falling in love with another girl — reflects on what the preacher’s technique has in common with the artist. (After all, if the commencement address is the modern secular sermon of our time, it’s no wonder that the genre’s greatest exemplars are delivered overwhelmingly by celebrated writers.) She considers what evangelizing can teach a writer about compelling storytelling:

Of course it was extremely useful training to be brought up in an environment where you must attract other people to your way of thinking, you must win them over; it’s the art of persuasion, it’s rhetoric in the old-fashioned sense. I learned how to handle language and the spoken word and the written word, and I learned how to persuade. That’s what preachers do, that’s what preachers are, and the most successful preachers are the ones who are able to convince their audience that the audience themselves have got it wrong and the preacher’s got it right. And the artist tries to do this too—there are close parallels — except the artist does it in its own right, for its own sake, not for some higher purpose, not for God. You can see from the look on somebody’s face whether or not you’re persuading, and that does translate itself to the way you then write. It’s not that you have an audience in mind, it’s simply that you can imagine what will perhaps tilt the balance in your favor, how to get underneath the barriers and the defenses which people normally put up to protect themselves from intrusion.

Contemplating her greatest learning from the Bible, Winterson complements Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the glory of language by considering the liberating power of words:

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

Illustration by Sydney Pink. Click image for details.

When Wachtel points out Winterson’s signature sensitivity to “the artifice of language and its limitations,” the writer responds:

Yes, it is artificial, but it is, as yet, the best way human beings have found to communicate to one another their deepest, their most difficult, feelings. And that is the preserve of poetry and of true fiction, to put roots down through the surface into the subsoil of the human heart and to draw up those elements that would otherwise lie locked there, unheard, unspoken, perhaps unregarded. Language can do that, and I think that it is the duty of the writer to go on pushing language forward because if it’s not developing, if it’s not growing, if people aren’t using it in unique and different ways while at the same time regarding its tradition, then that language is going to start atrophying.

For Winterson, indeed, the artist has a moral obligation to this forward-facing elasticity of form. Echoing Henry Miller’s memorable assertion that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” she adds:

Art forms must always change… You cannot stop in art, you cannot fossilize art in a redundant form, and you cannot take a point in history and favor it above any other point and say, ah yes, this is the way to do it. If you want to read nineteenth-century novels, there are plenty for you to read, and you may as well read the real thing and not go out and buy a reproduction. Personally, I loathe reproduction furniture; I’d rather have something made by a living designer, just as I’d rather have something made by a writer now who, whilst recognizing patterns and traditions, is prepared to go on pushing the experiment forward.

Winterson argues that ordinary readers are much more receptive to the type of experimentation that pushes art forward than professional critics can be:

Readers, I think, are more sophisticated on the whole than critics. They can make the jumps, they can make imaginative leaps. If your structure is firm and solid enough, however strange, however unusual, they will be able to follow it. They will climb with you to the most unlikely places if they trust you, if the words give them the right footholds, the right handholds. That’s what I want my readers to do: I want them to come with me when we’re going mountain-climbing. This isn’t a walk through a theme park. This is some dangerous place that neither of us has been before, and I hope that by traveling there first, I can encourage the reader to come with me and that we will make the trip again together, and safely.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

One of Winterson’s most pause-giving points transcends the realm of art and touches on cosmology and philosophy. Reflecting on her intense use of history in fiction, Winterson reminds us that time is an abstraction that both contains and responds to our experiences, and examines the relativity of “reality”:

I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time. As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it; as far as we know, it is yet another construct of ours, this worship of the clock and the idea that there is a past and a present and a future which trot along obediently in line and never swap places. In our own lives we know that that’s not true because human beings seem capable of moving imaginatively, backwards and forwards, of pushing out of the body. I think of it really as an out-of-the-body experience — that’s not something that only shamans and New Age hippies have. It’s something that we all have quite often in our lives. And I wanted to bring that into fiction because it seems to me to be a more honest reality than the rather dull reality of the clock.

Responding to a line from her novel Art & Lies that Wachtel cites — “The nature of a work of art is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world, but a world in itself.” — Winterson expounds on the limitations of time and, in the process, shines a beautiful sidewise gleam on what all great art does for the human experience:

Art & Lies is a journey into deep inner space, and the characters in the book are not characters in the physical sense that we know them on the street or perhaps even in our own lives. They are consciousnesses. They are ways of talking about ourselves, writ large, as we might be, more than we are. I know that the world of Art & Lies is a strange one, but it is a deeply emotional one and it is one which probes and peels away at the complacencies and habits that we take for granted and drag behind us as so much baggage in our lives. The worlds that I create are always worlds where it’s possible to find new space, not to be cluttered any more, to leave behind things which perhaps drag you down, things that you don’t need. In the book there is this freedom from gravity that we’ve been talking about. It is a sanctified space. And when you come out of it, what you do is up to you; but for a while it puts away the clutter and the jangle of modern life and gives time, infinite time. It may take four hours to read the book but actually it takes an entire life. The journey that you make is not one of the clock: it’s an interior one, and in it you travel through time, through space, through place.

To Wachtel’s question of “why sanctified space,” Winterson answers:

Because it’s a space that has been cleansed of other associations. It is itself, it’s coherent, it’s self-realized, it exists in its own right. Every work of art must be that; it must be a closed world. That is, you must be able to enter it and find it coherent and orderly, and be able to return to it to discover things you hadn’t found at first. But there is something cathedral-like about it: it’s a place where you can rest, contemplate, refuel and go out again knowing that it remains there for you. All art presents a sanctified space.

And in order to be able to craft this sanctified space, Winterson argues, the artist must come at it from a place of love. Echoing Ray Bradbury’s spirited defense of the right motives and Bukowski’s poetic homage to the only reason to write, she tells Wachtel:

If I wasn’t in love with language, what right have I to be here talking to you? What right have I to put pen to paper? It’s more than a job: it’s a life, it’s a vocation, it’s everything to me, and I must fulfill myself in that way and by fulfilling myself, I hope that I can give the best possible work to my readers.

But for a writer to do this wholeheartedly, Winterson — whose habit of reading five hours a day is rivaled only by Susan Sontag’s — argues for the essential, systematic immersion in language:

Unless I have a thorough soaking in all writers who have written in English then I cannot call myself an English writer. It’s a fantastic language, and to be ignorant of it as a writer is a sin that must exact the ultimate penalty, I think. If hell exists, that’s why one would go there, for calling oneself a writer and not knowing anything about English literature.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Winterson returns to the role of art in human life and society — something she has since explored beautifully in a short essay — and adds to history’s most memorable reflections on art:

Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself. It gives you a kind of self-reliance. We all feel powerless and we can’t really manage to do anything because there’s just so much. I want to try and cut through those feelings of apathy and powerlessness and be a kind of rallying point, offer a rallying cry, to people who would otherwise feel dispossessed.

Wachtel, an elegant interviewer, springboards this into the grand question of how to live — perhaps the only common denominator between everything I read and write about here on Brain Pickings — to which Winterson answers with equal elegance:

It’s an individual answer, and it’s certainly not an answer that can be got easily. It’s the answer of a lifetime. It seems to me to be the work that we are here to do, to answer that question — first of all in our own lives and then as a community… But I do think [the question] has to be asked, and if people then begin to ponder on it and ask it of themselves, then that is a good thing. I do believe that when you start asking these questions, you find the answers that you need, if you’ll put in the effort, even if it takes a lifetime.

But the answer art gives us is that of many lifetimes. Winterson speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that, as Mark Twain once bluntly put it, everything is a combination of second-hand ideas, that art builds on what came before, that to create is to uncover existing relationships. Winterson reflects on the very origin of the word “invent,” which originally meant “to come upon” rather than to “devise” or “fabricate” out of nothing:

It’s from the Latin invenire, which means to come upon. This takes us back to Plato’s idea that we are in a continual state of remembering, that the human life span is to remember, to remember the things that we are, that we can be, that we’ve left behind — to remember the glories of the soul, as Plato would have seen it.

[...]

[For the artist] it is a question of always going back and uncovering what is already there because the artist is something of a dredger: you have to let down your net and pull up things from the mud, from the silt, that are unrecognizable, that have been forgotten, that have lain disused and ignored for a long time. You bring them up and you clean them off and you look at them and you bring them back into the present where they can speak, where they have a place. I think it’s a dual role of dredging and of cleaning, but then also of re-creating so that you are always offering something that is right for your own time, that is new in itself.

'Down the Rabbit Hole' by Lisbeth Zwerger from Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance, Winterson returns to art’s function as psychoemotional therapy, its power in fortifying our psyche:

To learn how to heal yourself seems to me to be the most important thing that you can do because at that moment you are genuinely self-reliant, and if other people hurt you — as they will — it won’t matter because you have now in your own hands the tools of healing.

[...]

I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honorable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn’t believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that.

More Writers & Company, a sequel to Wachtel’s first compendium of interviews, is a superb read in its totality, featuring conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

Complement this one with Winterson on adoption, belonging, and how we use storytelling to save ourselves and the value of art to the human spirit.

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04 FEBRUARY, 2014

Jeanette Winterson on the Value of Art to the Human Spirit

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“What art does is to coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous.”

It has been argued that art is everyday therapy for the soul. For Tolstoy, art was a profound source of emotional infectiousness. For Oscar Wilde, it was about receptivity. Amidst recent discussion of the value of the humanities and whether literature makes us better people, one has to wonder whether art does or should, too. What, exactly, is the value of art to the human spirit? That’s precisely what celebrated writer Jeanette Winterson — whose recent meditation on adoption, belonging, and how we use stories to save ourselves remains a must-read — considers in a 2006 essay, adding to history’s finest definitions of art:

What art does is to coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous. The so-called uselessness of art is a clue to its transforming power. Art is not part of the machine. Art asks us to think differently, see differently, hear differently, and ultimately to act differently, which is why art has moral force. Ruskin was right, though for the wrong reasons, when he talked about art as a moral force. Art is not about good behaviour, when did you last see a miracle behave well? Art makes us better people because it asks for our full humanity, and humanity is, or should be, the polar opposite of the merely mechanical. We are not part of the machine either, but we have forgotten that. Art is memory — which is quite different [from] history. Art asks that we remember who we are, and usually that asking has to come as provocation — which is why art breaks the rules and the taboos, and at the same time is a moral force.

Complement with Winterson’s wonderful answer to a child’s question about why we fall in love.

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