Gift or Imposition

Kurt Schwitters, Difficult, 1942–43, collage, 31.3 x 24 in. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

My relationship with design education has been fraught. As both a student of studio architecture, and later a teacher of design theory and human interactions with places, I was dismayed at the degree to which the pleasures of habitation and public life were discounted, or more often, never raised at all. The buildings we studied and were asked to emulate were mostly isolated and irresponsible buildings—vacation homes, world’s fair pavilions, museums, monuments. Even churches and skyscrapers, which do have real work to do, were taught primarily as urban monuments, as moments of inspired jewelry in the city’s wardrobe. The academic study of architecture is all head and no heart. All ideas and no comfort.

The academic practice of fiction is similar. All head, all ideas, all carefully shaped novelty. Stories no longer need to end, they just stop at the moment that the narrator realizes the depth of the shit they’ve gotten themselves into. We talk only to ourselves and those who’ve been similarly trained in academic “close reading.” We admire rather than enjoy.

So I was exactly the right audience for Peter Schjeldahl‘s essay in this week’s New Yorker, “My Struggle with Cézanne.” Schjeldahl is nobody’s fool when it comes to contemporary art; he’s been a professional art critic since the 1960s, along with his other career as a poet. But in this essay, he uses the work of Paul Cézanne as an entry into why so much contemporary art leaves him cold. “You don’t look at a Cézanne, some ravishing late works excepted. You study it, registering how it’s done.” That’s the academic impulse, of course, to understand rather than to enjoy. In a writing program, we can never merely read a story; we have to “interrogate” it, to use the writing-program cliche for reading. As Billy Collins says, we have to tie a poem to a chair and beat it with a hose to find out what it really means.

For Schjeldahl, Cézanne is not the problem but the symptom.

So what’s my problem? Partly it’s an impatience with Cézanne’s demands for strenuous looking. I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased. (Here I quite favor the optical nourishments of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat.) But my discontent is inseparable from Cézanne’s significance as a revolutionary. How good an idea was modernism, all in all? It disintegrated, circa 1960, amid a plurality of new modes while remaining, yes, an art of the museum. It came to emblematize up-to-date sophisticated taste, spawning varieties of abstraction that circle back to Cézanne’s innovative interrelations of figure and ground. It also fuelled a yen in some to change the world for the more intelligent, if not always for the better. The world took only specialized notice. Modernism’s initially enfevered optimism could not survive the slaughterhouse of the First World War and the political apocalypse of the Russian Revolution, which ate away at myths of progress that had seemed to valorize aesthetic change. Dedicated newness in art devolved from a propelling cause into a rote effect. 

“I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased.” This is my own response to so much contemporary art. To quote a t-shirt available in the gift shop of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, “Contemporary art does not love you.” To which I say, well then, screw it. Go bother somebody else.

The bartender and writer Jim Meehan once weighed in on the difference between bartender and mixologist. “A mixologist serves drinks. A bartender serves customers.” And this is the principle that I try to hold in my work of all sorts. People don’t come to my house to have a drink; they come to my house to have an evening of conversation, and a nicely made drink is something yummy and fun to talk about for a few seconds. The drink is at the center of our attention for all of fifteen seconds. People don’t read stories to be instructed in literary structures; they read to leave their own lives for a bit and be welcomed into the lives of others. And people don’t go to architecture, at least not many of us. We go to work, or we go to a store, or we go to church for those purposes, and if we’re lucky, the building makes the experience of our work or shopping or worship a tiny bit more graceful.

I am dedicated to the principle of offering pleasure to my readers. And the more difficult the subject matter, the more comforting I try to make the form and the diction of the stories. Our work can be willful, an imposition of our ideas. Or our work can be a gift, a generous offering that takes into account what pleases its recipients.