Art and Reality

NEW JERSEY - Do we still need art? Though it horrifies me, the question occurs to me more and more. First, I should say that without art, my life would not be meaningful. What the reading of serious literature, the enjoyment of serious art and theater did for me as a child was to teach me not to accept life's concrete givens. Art stands as testimony to all the barriers society erects before the individual. Art tells you that things don't have to be the way they are. It tells you that nothing, not class, money or pedigree, can crush a natural gift. It tells you that you, as a mere mortal, can create something beautiful and lasting from Nothing.

Lee Siege,

31 de março de 2013 | 02h00

And beyond social or material consideration, art speaks most fundamentally to your solitude, to your mortality. The bond of illumination, formed suddenly, in silence, that exists between you and a work of art speaks to a quality that is durable beyond time, beyond rational comprehension. It means that even if there is nothing after this life, there is a life within and around us whose ineffable, unquantifiable riches are infinite.

Even 30 years ago, here, in the American context, I knew people of all ages who turned to art with a passionate need for its gratifications. I now feel that fewer and fewer such people exist. Perhaps my perception of art's increasing insignificance is a consequence of my middle age, when life's practical matters become more profound than life's profundities. But even younger people seem to hunger for something more real than what the imagination used to provide.

There is a wonderful quote by the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska: "All the best have something in common, a regard for reality, an agreement to its primacy over the imagination". I have always taken that to mean that the greatest art - Shakespeare and Tolstoy; Raphael and Goya - discovers the truth rather than fabricates it. I think that what is missing in art now, in this country, is this primacy of reality over the imagination.

In literature, there is a glut of fancy language, self-conscious style, overwrought and mechanical conceits. The same goes for the visual arts, in which the achievements of the past weigh so heavy on the present that so much of what is done is either conscious derivation or pastiche, or unconscious imitation. Everyone is currently talking about the conceptual artist Sherrie Levine, who has been around for decades now, and who still takes photographs of famous photgraphs. The highest praise I hear for the much-praised novelist Jonathan Franzen is that his work recalls the fiction of John Updike. Even in popular culture, on the sensationally popular American Idol, for example, all the contestants are copying someone original rather than trying to come up with something original themselves.

Because art now is so humble, so derivative, so daunted by what came before it, more and more people seem to be turning toward the literal to find an outlet for their thirst for reality - that thirst for reality that used to be satisfied by art. And perhaps, too, the freedom once obtained by the imagination has, historically and relatively speaking, been won by social advances. More and more people are born with the freedom once attained only, spiritually and intellectually, by immersion in great art.

Whatever the reason for the withering away of art, the results are fascinating. There is now a new kind of energetic bond between reality and the imagination. More and more works of art are based on actual events. And more and more works of nonfiction or documentation are done with imaginative power.

One of the prime forces behind this is the cable television company, HBO, which is like some floating contemporary bohemia. Television series like "The Sopranos," "Boardwalk Empire", or "Girls," HBO films like the recent "Phil Spector" - about the music producer convicted of murdering a young woman - for all the differences between them, have in common that primacy of reality over the imagination that Szymborska spoke of. Though they are works of popular art, they have the power of reality, transformed by the imagination, that audiences once experienced when reading "War and Peace" - set during the Napoleonic Wars - or watching "Richard III" -about a real monarch. At the risk of sounding excessive, HBO's creations have the power of the great Italian or Northern Renaissance artists, who also painted from reality, transfiguring it before your very Eyes.

What to call this new, still burgeoning style of art? Perhaps we could call it reality-based art, rather than artistic art. I see it growing all around me - in the new book about Scientology by Lawrence Wright, which rises to the level of art, and the most recent movie by director Paul Thomas Anderson, "The Master," which seems to be all about Scientology, and which is a work of art that rivets you with the power of reality.

The French sociologist, Auguste Comte, once divided epochs into two categories: organic and critical. Organic epochs are times of great creativity, in which one artistic movement after another unfolds, flourishes, and gives way to its successor. As I have written before, there has not been an artistic movement in American, in any of the arts, for perhaps 30 years. Instead a critical spirit has dominated the culture, a spirit expressed by parody, pastiche, imitation and outright derision of earlier art. Even "reality television", with all of its defamations and disfigurements of real life, is a disgusted plea for more reality.

America's critical epoch has been the rebellion against art by people who hungered for reality the way certain groups of people in this country once hungered for freedom. Now, reality in America seems to be making a comeback, even as the country's politics become more and more unreal.

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