A Thing of Beauty—for You, Me, and Roger Shattuck


In a book called Candor and Perversion, Roger Shattuck writes, “Forty years ago in a Paris bookstore near the Odéon, I happened upon a large, slim volume of intermingled writing and drawing. That book was the first object I acquired for purely aesthetic reasons.”

Shattuck goes on to lament the altogether passive response others had when, in his enthusiasm, he showed them his prized possession.

Often we find the beautiful in places where others see only a peculiar drabness. If they see anything at all. (Appreciation of the beautiful depends on close observation, an intentional noticing.) So it’s no surprise that Shattuck’s aesthetic tastes were not especially contagious.

When I came across this passage about ten years ago, and then again today in the commonplace surroundings of my living room, what struck me was Shattuck’s ability to recall “the first object [he] acquired for purely aesthetic reasons.” I thought to myself: What was the first object I acquired for purely aesthetic reasons? Is there a “first object”? That is, have I ever acquired anything for purely aesthetic reasons?

And then I wondered: Is it possible to appreciate something for purely aesthetic reasons, untainted by other reasons I might have? It must be, if Shattuck acquired just such a thing. So, If it is possible, how is it possible? And, Is it possible to appreciate an object for aesthetic reasons if it is also appreciated for other reasons?

It’s so easy to ask questions that are not so easy to answer. No wonder we ask but do not stick around for the answer. (Perhaps we inoculate ourselves against guilt about this with the relativist bromide that “there is no answer.” How can one be so confident of this if one hasn’t looked for an answer? Skepticism is such a convenient disguise for intellectual laziness and indifference.)

But I digress.

What I’d like to know is whether you can recall what object you first acquired for purely aesthetic reasons. If so, what was that object?

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Performing on a Guitar—The Milke Way


Amanda Milke imagines musical instruments in the bright colors of acrylic. Maybe I should say she re-imagines instruments in acrylic.

An artist living in Alberta, Canada, Milke specializes in painting with acrylic. Her subjects include musical instruments. That is, she paints musical instruments. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? But when Amanda paints a musical instrument, the instrument is her canvas. The result isn’t just an object with paint on it, but a painting, albeit in an unconventional form.

For example, her painting “Guitar” is a guitar. But it’s also a painting. It’s a three-dimensional work of art whose dimensions are determined by an actual guitar. The guitar itself has been reconfigured. It is a painting. As a painting, it is perhaps no longer a guitar. At the very least, it is more than a guitar.

The “Guitar” may well have been a work of art in its pristine condition, when it was also, functionally, a musical instrument. But it was not a painting. It was a thing of beauty intended to produce more beauty. It began life as a visually beautiful artifact designed as a tool for making beauty with sound. The guitar, it can be said, was meant to be a canvas, but only in a metaphorical sense. The first artist in the history of this single artifact—a guitar maker in Paracho, Mexico, perhaps—never imagined his instrument as a painting. But a maker of guitars knows not what art will be performed by his work of art—or on his work.

Milke has performed a work of art on the guitar. But it isn’t music that she performs, at least not literally. Her performance is a transformance of the guitar. Maybe the music performed on a guitar can also be regarded as a transformance of the guitar. If the guitar was used to compose original great music, that makes the guitar special in a way it wasn’t before. If the guitar was played to soothe anxious hearts, its function is compounded and the guitar has “changed.” If the guitar came to be owned and used by Elvis Presley or Roy Rogers or Andre Segovia, it isn’t the guitar is used to be. These are all ways to regard the transformation of the original guitar.

Milke’s transformation is more radical. It is a representation of a guitar in a way that past musical performances on the guitar were not. The medium of representation is acrylic paint. (I’m not suggesting that a guitar could not be used to play a melody that sounds like a guitar.) Milke’s representation differs from other paintings of guitars. Her representation is enhanced by the infrastructure of the canvas. The object as canvas becomes a painting of a guitar, and not just painting on a guitar. This particular canvas, though, is guitar-ish. And that informs the effect of the painting.

Milke’s painting may be more than the representation of a guitar. It may be a representation of this guitar. There’s a trivial sense in which it has to be. But there’s a non-trivial sense in which the painting may or may not be a representation of this guitar. The guitar-as-canvas has an individual history as a guitar. Milke creates a painting of a guitar on a guitar, a particular guitar. And this particularity may be embedded in the representation of the guitar by the painting Milke calls “Guitar.” This painting may evoke feelings (through memories, for example) about the guitar as it was. It may say something about this particular guitar—how it was played, what sort of person played this guitar, the spirit of the music played, the audience for whom it was played.

If the guitar was her own, the painting may mean something different to Milke than if the guitar belonged to someone she knows and cares about. Her past experiences with the guitar as guitar may inform her present representation of it in the painting “Guitar.” This representation may further particularize the representation, narrowing it down from a range of possible representations, each of which might have meaning for her. The importance of this representation, whatever it is, may override whatever value the other representations would have had for Milke. Comparing this representation with alternative possibilities might enable a firmer grasp of the envisioned representation by the painting.

Consider “Guitar” as a public artifact, viewed by others with no experience of that particular guitar. It is meaningful to ask, “What is represented for them by this painting?” The answer lies in the experiences that are evoked. Who can say what they are or will be? It would no doubt difficult enough for one viewer to express in words the effect this painting has on him. Even the artist may not be able to express this meaning for herself in words. For her, the expression of meaning may be contained in the painting, so that the painting expresses the unutterable, evokes memories too grand for words, reconstructs experiences of the guitar and its music that cannot be repeated in their original fashion, or (and?) produces altogether new and pleasing experiences.

Milke’s imagining of the guitar—the original musical instrument—as a canvas has itself become a part of the guitar’s history. The potential for this imagining was there from the beginning. But it was an unnatural potential. Every guitar has this potential, but this potential is not always actualized. Why was such unnatural potential realized in the case of this particular guitar? Whatever the answer, it sets this guitar apart from all others.

So this particular guitar has a three-phased history. There was the guitar as musical instrument, the guitar behind the “Guitar.” There was (and still is?) the guitar as canvas, the locus of re-creation. And there is now the “Guitar,” a painting.

***

It may not seem so, but what I’ve said about Milke’s “Guitar” reflects a personal response to the painting. The abstractions I’ve expressed are the fruit of my engagement with this work of art. But they are barely “existential.” They say little about my own experiential contact with the object. They do not answer the question, “What resonance does this painting have for me?”

I could leave it at that. But that wouldn’t be very daring.

It has to be said that my experience of the painting is limited. It is mediated by a digital foto of the painting. The foto is of the painting hanging on a wall. It is part of a room. Being present in that room and beholding the painting would no doubt inform my experience of “Guitar.” So my actual experience is conditioned by imagining what that might be like.

Milke is a working artist. She depends on the patronage of others who commission paintings that bear the stamp of her imagination and creativity. So the abstraction from context by this foto may be unavoidable if not deliberate. It indicates what can be done to or for an old musical instrument “The Milke Way.” And it invites, if it pleases, viewers to consider enlisting Milke’s artistic talent to perform something on one or more of their own instruments.

Considered in this perspective, I wonder what instrument I would be willing to surrender to such aesthetic playfulness. Mind you, I have a trumpet and a guitar. Full disclosure requires that I confess to having both a banjo and a harmonica, as well. The harmonica, though a good one, I could relinquish. But I cannot imagine it as a canvas. And it doesn’t have enough meaning for me to memorialize it as a work of art. I would be more inclined to mount it in a shadow box for display on a wall in my study, like a pair of 19th-century pistols.

I still entertain dreams of playing the banjo well enough to please my ear, if not the ears of others. So painting it is out of the question.

I do feel some nostalgia for my trumpet and for my guitar (which, as it happens, was crafted in Michoacan, Mexico). These, I suppose, are conditions conducive to the Milke method of memorialization. But it is also in precisely this regard that I balk. The probability that I will “play the trumpet” is incredibly low. No one in my immediate family has the slightest inclination to learn it. It has sat in its original case, unopened for who-knows-how-long under a section of my desk at home. The chrome latches and hinges on the case have rusted and the lid sports a ghastly sticker that meant nothing to me when I applied it when I was in fifth grade. I don’t even know what “Flying-O” refers to. But I had a casual friend who had a vast collection of stickers and he was willing to part with this one. Maybe I thought it would solidify an unlikely bond if I accepted his gift and displayed it with suitable prominence. I can’t remember.

Have I wandered far from describing my personal encounter with Milke’s “Guitar”? No. These are thoughts dredged up by my contemplation of the painting. The painting caused me to wonder, “Would I do that to one of my own instruments, languishing in a dark corner, but somehow deserving permanent possession and renewed appreciation? The trumpet would seem a good candidate, if acrylic would adhere.

I think I could be talked into a painting of my trumpet. But I would have to be talked into it. I like the idea of displaying it. But I wouldn’t like doing so with it in its present condition. It’s just a trumpet, after all, and everybody’s seen a trumpet. Maybe I just can’t imagine a painting that would evoke the few precious memories I have of playing it.

You see, I’m still talking about Milke’s painting “Guitar.” This is where her painting has led me.

What about my own guitar? Nothin’ doin’. I can’t believe now that I once was able to pluck out a handful of classical numbers. The presence of my guitar is the only remaining stimulus to my memory of those days.
There it is. It’s my guitar. I must have had one for a reason. Oh, yes. I took lessons. I even did a couple of recitals. Hmm. That feels like someone else’s life. Why not paint it and hang it on the wall? No way. My younger daughter plays electric guitar. Who knows? Maybe she’ll mellow and take an interest . . . .

Under what conditions, then, would I yield an instrument of my own to the aesthetic mutations we’ve been talking about?

It would have to be one I’ve owned for some time. It would have to be one I’ve played. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be meaningful. Maybe the instrument would have to carry more meaning than any of the instruments I have. Maybe I would feel silly memorializing a thing I abandoned for lack of discipline. Maybe I don’t want to memorialize my musical lassitude.

Then again, maybe I should. Maybe it would be therapeutic to have before me a brash reminder that my values were skewed. Maybe it would goad me toward greater discipline in new undertakings. After all, the banjo still beckons.

Maybe.

***

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Amanda Milke’s “Guitar” really a painting?
  2. Is “Guitar” still a guitar?
  3. Is it useful to think of the guitar painted in “Guitar” as a canvas? Can you think of another object that might be a suitable but unlikely canvas for painting? What makes a object of this kind suitable as a canvas?
  4. Which instruments are good candidates for this sort of aesthetic transformation? What are the artistic possibilities? Is there another medium besides acrylic that might be effective?
  5. Imagine yourself as the guitar maker. How would you feel if you knew that a guitar you made had been painted in this way?
  6. What kind of meaning would the painting “Guitar” have for you if was a gift to you by a casual friend? How does this compare with other kinds of art you admire or would be willing to display?
  7. If you were to display “Guitar” in your own digs, where would it hang? What would guests say about it?
  8. Do you think it’s possible for a guitar to play a melody that suggests “guitar-ness”? What would instrumental music played on a guitar about a guitar sound like? Compare this with the potentialities for saying something about a guitar by painting it.
  9. Do you have a musical instrument that you don’t play that you’d still like to keep? If so, how strong is your feeling about the instrument? Why do you wish to hold on to it? Would painting it “the Milke way” be an appealing possibility?
  10. If you were to paint an old guitar of your own, what would you want it to look like? What feelings would you wish to evoke? Would you be more likely to commission someone else, like Amanda Milke, or paint it yourself?
  11. If you have an old instrument with a rich history and nostalgic significance, imagine painting it in a way that would represent that richness. What instrument would it be and what would the painting look like?
  12. If you’ve seen the movie The Red Violin, imagine painting it so that the painting reflected the “personal history” of the violin. What do you visualize? Imagine owning a violin and compare the treatment of the “Red Violin” by its various owners throughout its history with the brief history and solitary ownership of your violin. Now suppose you were to paint them both and hang them side-by-side. How would you paint each one and how might you paint them in order to capture meaningful similarities and differences between the two violins?

Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist


Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.

***

Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

Quotations: On Atheism


“I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory.” —Nick Hornby, Songbook

“Agnosticism is not a state in which the mind of an intelligent being can permanently rest. It is essentially a condition of suspense—a confession of ignorance—an abdication of thought on the highest subjects. Generally, however, under the surface of professed Agnosticism, there will be found some more or less positive opinions about the origin and nature of things all of them agreeing in this, that they negate the belief in God. It is not, in the nature of things, possible for the mind to remain persistently in this neutral, passive attitude. It will press on perforce to one or other of the views which present themselves as alternatives—either to Theism, or to Materialism and dogmatic Atheism.” —James Orr, The Christian View of God and the Word

“The number of reasonable atheist questions versus condescending atheist sneers that I have run across just directed at me in [sic] less than one in four.” —SF writer, and former atheist, John C. Wright

Why Book Covers Matter


As a reader, I care about what books in my library look like. As an author, I care about what my books look like. Cover art has its own aesthetic. It should appeal. It should say something about what is between the covers, but without saying too much. And, if you’re a marketing director at a publishing firm, it should have what they call “pop”—it should get a prospective buyer (notice, I didn’t say reader) to turn the book over, to read the blurbs, to inspect the pages. With that sort of investment, there’s a better chance the book will sell (whether or not it’s read).

There’s more to the aesthetic of a book than its cover design. What does it feel like in the hand? How are the pages trimmed? Are they ragged, or clean? What about the paper itself? What is its quality? The font, the margins, the kerning. These all matter.

The cover is special. It’s the most noticed feature of the aesthetic of any book. And yet, for me at least, it isn’t always noticed. Countless times I have perused a book without noticing, much less examining, its cover. Not everyone is flawed in this way. I’m sure that what I don’t attend to directly still leaves an impression via its subliminal power. But when I do notice, this noticing is often the source of two different feelings, which may or may not concur. I’m either bewildered by the art or pleased by it, or both.

What I mean by bewildered is quite simple. I don’t get it. I can’t make heads or tails of it. I don’t understand it. And this is what is arresting about it. The design of the cover confuses me or strikes me as impertinent. I assume that the cover is designed. That is, there’s an explanation why this cover is attached to this book. But the explanation escapes me. This intrigues me, especially if the art is at the same time pleasing.

When I say I’m pleased by the cover art of a book, I mean that it gives me pleasure. This is more difficult to explain. And the pleasure induced by a particular cover may be diminished or it may be intensified by the effort to explain its special appeal. Explaining the appeal of a book cover must begin with a description of the experience induced. And this is remarkably variable.

At any rate, this experience of pleasure may be a selling point for me. I may wish to own a copy of the book as much for its cover design as for any other reason. I may feel this way even if I realize that the book holds this “limited” attraction for me. I may even buy the book. This could explain, at least in some cases, why I have purchased a book at a brick and mortar establishment, even if I could have saved a few dollars by ordering it online. It isn’t necessarily an indication of impatience. It may have to do with an attachment to this particular copy of the book I hold in my hands. It is this one that has provided the pleasure. I will zigzag through the columns of books, each shelved book beckoning hopelessly for my attention. I will stand in line, beholding the book with persistent wonder. I will step up to the cashier and hand over my credit card with satisfaction.

The physicality of this unified experience cannot be matched by a paypal order. I will leave the store “holding the bag,” feeling responsible for my purchase. I may pull the book out and place it on the passenger seat of my car, giving it occasional sidelong glances as I return home, and thus extending the experience of pleasure. The prolongation of the experience adds texture to the experience.

At home, I will leave the book out for awhile, so that the initial pleasure returns for brief instants as I tend to other business. I will wait to “process” the book, to assign its place in my collection. For now, its place is distinctive. It is not just one more book among many. It has a distinctive power over my attention.

To be sure, and thankfully, there won’t be many books like this. Man does not live, aesthetically or otherwise, by books alone. But the quality of life may be improved by the cover of a book.

***

A Book about Book Covers

Links about Book Covers

Quotes: On Art


“. . . there is a tremendous social responsibility that comes with any public act we do, and that includes creative acts, as well.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“. . . Mozart sits down at the pianoforte/And composes music which had been ready/Before he himself was born in Salzburg.” —From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Creating the World,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Form is an integral part of any art because art affirms order . . . .” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

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