Thursday, September 22, 2011

`In the Hope of Finding Surcease'

Terry Teachout reports an “oft-quoted remark” by Henri Matisse that was news to me:

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity, and tranquility, without any disquieting or preoccupying subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a tonic, a cerebral calmative, something like a good armchair that relaxes him from his physical fatigue.”

On my drive home from work, which on a good day lasts thirty to forty minutes, I listen to music; of late, Aaron Copland, Paul Desmond and Blossom Dearie. At home, I’ve been reading Chesterton and the new biography of him by Ian Ker, as well as Ben Jonson’s poems and a recently published posthumous volume by David Stove, What’s Wrong with Benevolence. I don’t watch television but on weekend nights I enjoy watching movies – lately, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo. Each of the artists and works cited serves as a “cerebral calmative” (for me, perhaps not you), and each qualifies without a qualifier as art, whether “high” or “low,” “literary” or “genre,” “bourgeois” or “transgressive.” Terry writes:

“We think of art as something to do, not something to use, and many of us also suffer from the mistaken notion that art must be challenging in order to be good.”

On the same day I read Terry’s post I came across a blogger and putative history professor who criticizes a television show for not permitting “a transgressive identification” with its characters, whatever that means. The show sounds like garbage and I can’t imagine wanting to watch it, but I likewise can’t imagine seeking out the “transgressive” in any part of my life. I’m simply too happy for that sort of thing. Art that sets out to “transgress” is adolescent, like the twelve-year-old who just discovered cursing, and won’t for long command the attention of a grownup.

Terry’s use of “challenging” is worth considering. For some it means difficult, obscure or offensive, and this, of course, is the pose of contemporary art-snobs and egotists, their way of saying, “I think Naked Lunch is funny and you’re offended by sexual pathology, so I’m more sophisticated than you.” When I listen to Blossom Dearie singing “Surrey with a Fringe on Top,” I'm moved, soothed, reassured. Am I any in sense “challenged?” Only in the sense that worthy art enables self-forgetting.

Is Ulysses “challenging?” Early readers mistook the most tightly organized novel ever written for chaos. With time, Joyce has taught readers how to read it. For some of us, it qualifies as a “cerebral calmative” because Joyce’s challenges reward us. The book is funny and touching and almost cosmically happy, a great “yes” of a novel, one that encourages us to happily reread it. “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” says Nabokov, that tireless proselytizer for “aesthetic bliss.”

In the preachers for transgression and other wet-blankets I hear echoes of a mutated puritanism. I’m sorry they can’t relax enough to enjoy themselves. Art is not punishment or obligation. All it requires is the engagement of a willing imagination. Dull art and dull consumers of art deserve each other. In a radio talk, Chesterton asks, “We talk about life as being dull as ditchwater, but is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.” At the end of a long day, I’ll settle for "quiet fun" and happily embrace it. Terry writes:

“To take uncomplicated pleasure from beauty is a wholly worthy activity, and to do it in the hope of finding surcease from whatever may be troubling us is no less worthy.”

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