Monday, March 17, 2014

Three novels about art, plus

I love art. As the saying goes, I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. Often I feel that I don't have the vocabulary to talk about art. But some writers do.

While nonfiction texts about art might teach me something about technique, form, history, context, I think fiction excels at teaching me to respond to and feel something about art.

Here are three novels that have dealt with art, artists, the art world superbly. (And it's telling that I was unable have yet to get around to review a couple of them.)

Art as business
An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin.

The story follows young and ambitious Lacey Yeager as she climbs through the New York art world, starting in the bins at Sotheby's and finally owning her own gallery. This world is full of art history majors, and generally not people who actually make art.

It doesn't entirely succeed as a novel — I never cared what happened to Lacey. But it's a fascinating glimpse of a world few are wealthy, privileged, or determined enough to see. Steve Martin is a collector of fine art, and this novel is not about art so much as its value, whether to an individual or according to the market.
Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic rewards, but art as a commodity was held up by air.
Read an excerpt.

Note, also, that gorgeous artwork is reproduced within.

Art as an intensely personal expression
The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud.
There's a lot of hate in this novel's narrator. Nora, gradeschool art teacher, rediscovers her artistic drive when she befriends the immigrant family of a new student, in particular his mother, an artist looking to share a studio.

Messud explores Nora's art-making and its concept, which in turn relies on Nora's interpretation of the art and biographies of Emily Dickinson, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick.

It's said of Edie Sedgwick, but it may as well be about Nora, perhaps Messud herself:
When, as a woman, you make yourself the work of art, and when you are then what everyone looks at, then whatever else, you aren't alone.
I can't think of another recent novel that's been so divisive in its reception, so many voices whom I respect decrying that this novel is not worth the hype or critical praise, and it seems to me the lines are clearly drawn along gender and age. For me, that reinforces the point, that art, the creative process, is deeply individual.

Hate it for yourself.

Art for art's sake
What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt.

I loved this novel. It brought me to tears, wonder, astonishment, despair. It's one of the finest novels I've read, ever.

Written from the point of view of an art historian with some artists as characters, it describes the (near?) contemporary art scene and facets like installation art such that I almost think I understand them.

In equal parts family saga, thriller, meditation, I'd say its primarily about love and loss. But its imbued with art, peopled with artists, who do art, who live and breathe art. It makes not just the characters' artistic visions come alive, but the very idea that there exists such a thing as artistic vision becomes crystal clear, and it makes me wonder how anyone could live without art.
"That's the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what's in front of you. Cezanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt." He stopped and smiled at me. "Because that's what we're sure of."
Sample it here.

Coincidentally, I finally downloaded some of Hustvedt's back catalogue last week. And I was thrilled to discover that she has another novel freshly released, The Blazing World, about a woman painter negotiating New York's art establishment.

Mark Rothko on the Transcendent Power of Art and How (Not) To Experience His Paintings

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