Wednesday, July 18, 2012

`A Luxury Product or Mere Ornament'

The father of a colleague is, among other things, a cabinetmaker, an artist in wood. We commissioned him to make two Adirondack chairs for the patio behind our house. In advance he sent us detailed plans, a supply list and an invoice. He suggested we use unfinished cypress, and we agreed. His son delivered the chairs last week and they are sturdy and elegantly designed. Rain brings out the reds and oranges in the grain, and the chairs are a pleasure to look at, touch and sit on. In short, they are beautiful. In a recently reprinted article first published in 1937 in The American Review, the Ceylonese philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy asks “What Is the Use of Art Anyway?” and answers, in part:

“…art is simply the right way of making things, whether symphonies or aeroplanes. The normal view assumes, in other words, not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler and parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist, skilled and well contented in the making or arranging of some one thing or another according to his constitution and training.” 

Coomaraswamy’s rebuke to shoddiness, ugliness and narcissism will sound quaint to sophisticates, as will the exclusion of idlers and parasites. He derides art that is principally “a self-revelation or self-expression of the artist,” and contrasts it with the “normal but forgotten view of art, which affirms that art is the making well, or properly arranging, of anything whatever that needs to be made or arranged, whether a statuette, or automobile, or garden.” 

Let’s add a poem. Over the weekend I read an essay by a contemporary poet-critic in which he dismisses the “well-made poem,” as though there were any other sort worth reading. He associates “well-made” with dullness and unimaginative conformity, when in fact that pretty closely describes most so-called experimental work, poetry or otherwise, and most work undertaken by the earnest, sincere and resolutely confessional. No, a well-made poem ought to be at least as well-made and useful as a chair. Its parts ought to cohere. It ought to mean something, give pleasure and work. Otherwise, in Coomaraswamy's words, "it has no real use, but is only a luxury product or mere ornament.”

No comments: