A Beguiling Irrelevance?

A. S. Byatt’s latest book of short stories, Medusa’s Ankles. is a joy to read after having waded through a slew of glib novels by young writers seeking to push the boundaries of the form without having mastered it to begin with.

The introduction to Byatt’s book is written by David Mitchell who describes A.S. Byatt as an art historian whose scholarly knowledge of art informs her prose. He says her characters act as conduits for ideas about making art, looking at art and art’s centrality to the mind and the world. For instance she incorporates ideas from John Ruskin “…from whom art lecturers claim professional descent“.   Few writers, Mitchell says,  embed theory in their fiction with Byatt’s boldness and success, with theories of art illustrated by the stories that house them. He uses the word “Ekphrasis” which describes a work of visual art used as a literary device. I’m delighted by the revelation that there is a word for an area I’ve been trying to talk about in the halting prose of a non-writer.  But Byatt’s prose “bestows dignity upon art in all its manifestations.”

In the short story, Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary, she has the character Valasquez say, “the world is full of light and life and the true crime is not to be interested in it“.  It’s an interesting idea, that artists are simply those people interested enough in light and life to devote their lives to translating it into a visual, literary or some other communicable form.
One of the collection’s outstanding stories  is “A Lamia in the Cevennes” in which an artist with a bit of a block falls in love, not with a mythological seductress but with art itself.  As in all her stories this one is in constant dialogue with the readers asking “What is art?“ and “Why do we need it?“ and “What does it do for us?“ and “Why make the damn stuff?” The artist, Bernard, asks himself: “Why bother? Why does this matter so much? What difference does it make to anything if I solve this blue and just start again? I could just sit down and drink wine. I could go and be useful in a cholera camp in Columbia or Ethiopia. Why bother to render the transparency in solid paint on a bit of board? I could just stop.” He could not. “Art is a mercurial lover” says Mitchell in the Introduction. “The artists can no more ignore their art than a character can change the story they appear in, or a Greek hero outwit the fates.”

There are many other authors who wrestle with the point of making art. In his novel, Elizabeth Finch Julian Barnes asks,”Is art a depiction of reality, a concentration of it, a superior substitute for it, or just a beguiling irrelevance?” In the case of a novel, it is easier to understand how the writer, an expert at communicating in language, can help readers to make sense of the world, to understand it and our place in it. But what about the writers’ or artists’ larger responsibilities to society as a whole? Whether a writer, or any artist must directly address and take a strong position on political developments in his/her country is explored at some length and with great delicacy by Colm Toibin in his novel about the life of Thomas Mann, The Magician. In the novel, Mann (and Toibin) conclude that any artist is damned if they do or don’t take a political stand and by extension, suggests that an artist’s first and primary responsibility is to his/her work. He also concludes that barbarism is never far beneath the surface and that art is always the first of its victims. So artists keep alive a sense of grace and beauty that balances violence and brutality.

This is why I read, to hear artists insist that art is not a waste of time, that we are not merely fiddling while Rome burns.  Now that I live in semi-rural area, I am relying more and more on books to provide the assurance that making art is relevant. My new home is one of natural beauty, is visually inspiring and has recharged my desire to paint and draw and make art. But so far I have not met others who struggle with the mercurial lover and tetchy muse that is a demanding art discipline. I have met those who are interested in life & light but do not feel the need to try to capture & communicate it. So it is with gratitude that I read authors like A. S. Byatt who is so unashamedly a master; who excels in her discipline and can confidently push its boundaries into unsanctified areas. An artist who unapologetically defends making art for its own sake because it is so important. Thanks Antonia, Julian, Colm and all the rest.

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