Exaggeration as Verisimilitude
In an earlier post, we started to talk about the history of art, and we spoke about it in the context of cartoons. For it seemed to me that, when we think about the caves of Lascaux, or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Picasso's "Guernica," or Paolo Uccello's work, that we begin to see that the history of art is not about the representation of the real so much as the representation of the exaggeration of the real. In other words, we have standards for what we should consider important in art history - art should look this way, art should be some variation on tromp l'oel, art should learn how to draw, art should look at things and learn how to draw a woman's body, art should look at a vase in class and, based on the form of vase, take that form very seriously and then devote one's life to drawing exactly the form of that vase as it sits on the table amidst the vase of flowers and the reeking of memento mori - but of course, even if this is part of the philosophy of how and why art is taught, I'd guess or imagine, in MFA programs or BFA programs, I wonder sometimes if there is a weird gap in this kind of philosophy, where we inculcate values about what art is that is not endemic to art at all.
How do I mean? A certain fanciness derives from MFA culture (writing and art, though I know more about the writing probably) and therefore the institutions of our culture, so that museums often feel, despite their best intentions, like staid and exploitative purveyors of the work of artists that they simply attach to their logos when it becomes time, when it becomes convenient. I am not saying this to question the motives or intentions of people who work as curators, or patrons of the arts, but rather that sometimes the very abstraction of an institution can get in the way of the lived experience or the falling in love with a work of art, or art more generally, and this abstraction is the antithesis of art, be it some idea about museums or school, based on bad experiences, that makes one avoid these things for the rest of one's life, or even weird ideas about artists totally disconnected to what it means to actually life a life devoted to one's art. Art comes out of a desperation, and is lifelong, beginning really when one is born; it's not really a hobby, and if it is, it probably won't be very interesting or lasting. It comes out of a need for survival, and often it involves ways that people parent themselves and, in doing so, learn how to find their voice and tap into the needs of their inner kid, especially if this inner kid experienced trauma growing up.
Think about Federico Garcia Lorca, for example, the great Spanish poet. He lived in New York City for a time, and attended Columbia University. I have not read his biography, but I can imagine that, when he was there, he was not "Federico Garcia Lorca," the greatest Spanish poet who ever lived. He was Federico Garcia Lorca, a person who took classes, and rented a room somewhere, and wrote poetry, and lived life, and thought about life, and read books, and discovered his own symbology, based on the tradition of Spanish song and literature he loved. Later on he published poems and became a public figure, but my point is that art begins in dark corners, in sad, lonely rooms, in out of the way places, in the very conditions of outsiderness and exile that many people in the world spend their entire lives trying to avoid or forget or escape. It is fundamentally a marginal act to create art and be an artist and life a life devoted to it, and therefore there is something at the center of art that is fundamentally beautiful and vulnerable, like Martha Nussbaum's description of luck in The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Artists are people who learn the meaning of the right kind of aloneness, which needs a kind of solitude, even in the world, to find one's voice, as I imagine Lorca experienced walking around the city and seeing it through his eyes.
To see the world through one's eyes is to experience a kind of phenomenological exaggeration, since aesthetic perspectivism, the rule of both Nietzsche and Shakespeare, not to mention Harold Bloom - whose notion of misreading is incredibly important here - means that individuals, mature individuals, cast their vision on the world, across the stage of the world, in unique ways, idiosyncratic ways, for that's what the meaning of vision is, i.e. the opposite of homogeneity. All the greatest works of art are derivations on Emily Dickinson's "A certain slant of light," since although we live in a unified world, we cut swaths in it in our own ways, carve up and down space so that we can find how we need to see the world and communicate or express it if we are to live with any degree of integrity or actuality or character. But what's interesting here is that, though we invoke things - rightfully, I think - like character, which suggests forms of destiny or fate, and therefore also raises questions about spontaneity and freedom, we are also speaking of exaggeration, which we don't often think of in relationship to character, in the same way we don't often equate in our thinking a straight line with something outside the line, a squiggle, a series of bubble-looking things, a string of beads, Cezanne's apples or wafers, the clouds of Marsden Hartley, Picasso's "Guernica," or the strangeness of the posing of Manet's model in "Olympia," as though artifice were forced into something that became natural-seeming, when in reality it would have involved, in life, I would imagine, an excruciating degree of contortion, awkwardness, confusion, maybe some moments of levity, who knows, perhaps sexual attraction, a break for lunch, boredom, a scratch on the shoulder, an errant thought, all of which is not really in the picture, but also is, in a way that seems as if we had mistook reality for the exaggeration it actually is.
Reality is exaggerated because there is no standard for verisimilitude, and shouldn't be. We should not think of fancy aristocratic portraits of white rich people and say, "that, right there, damn it, is what art is, that's it, c'mon everybody, we found out what art is, pack up your bags, we're done." There are no hard and fast rules for representation, in the way in which Richard Rorty discussed the abomination of the notion of an "intrinsic reality," and the way it is better to think of vocabularies if we are to make sense of the difference between jazz and rock n'roll for example, or abstract and representational art, or, to use Rorty's examples, the difference between Galileo and Newton. These genres and scientists prove that there is no one way of doing anything, and that the danger is reification, of thinking anything is one way, which I suppose is one of the lessons we learned in the notion of the fallacy of the master narrative in postmodernism, as long as we don't confuse this with the avoidance of authority at all.
Visual art, I suppose, is a history of different people coming up with different self-images, also in Rorty's terms, and therefore different forms of verisimilitude, different notions, based on experience, of truthfulness, but there is no standard of truthfulness or verisimilitude, and if there was we'd immediately get bored. Art is, fundamentally, mannerist, and therefore fundamentally exaggerationist. I suppose this is why museums or institutions more generally can be dangerous, because even if they show an artist's work, we should not equate the artist, his or her life or his or her work, with the institution. Allen Grossman writes about this phenomenally in one of the best essays I've ever read about why people create art, "My Caedmon: Thinking About Poetic Vocation," from The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle, which is an astounding book and does not get enough attention at all. Here is Grossman writing about artists and institutions (and when he speaks of poetry, we can read this as a metaphor for all the arts, and the poetic principle as the kind of Kafkaesque law, (akin with the notion of character as destiny, even if transposed into a kind of perverse and caricatured version) outside the law, governing how and why art is created and endures):
The work of poetry, whatever else it may get done - to whatever other purposes it may be directed - intends to bring the world to mind as a depiction, and then to give it away to an institution [...] that regulates its powers, that is to say, assigns meanings, reasons for credence. But the discourse of poetry is not ever identical, nor is the depiction it affords, with the ideology of the institution that supplies its grounding. (my italics)
The poetic principle requires institutions (religious poetry is normative in our civilization), but also by its nature always escapes or exceeds them. In this sense, the poetic principle more like sanctity, which is prior to all institutions that mediate it, that it is like civil order, which is inscribed upon order of another kind. (Grossman, 7, My Caedmon: Thinking about Poetic Vocation, The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle)
I suppose this is why, whenever a different kind of artist is thrown into the mix of the accustomed artist - think about James Thurber, or Al Hirschfeld, or the tradition of children's literature within the field of literature, or Jules Feiffer, amongst T.S. Eliot, or Ernest Hemingway, or Norman Mailer, or Mark Rothko - then we are given different patternings of what an artist can be like, and what a life can be like, and what different kind of styles, or verisimilitudes, or ideas, or visions, or mannerisms, are available to us as thinking, feeling, imagining human beings. It's not a matter of choosing, but of falling in love, which is why Harold Bloom wrote that "influence is not willed."
I suppose that is one of the strangest aspects of art - the way in which the best forms often feel like someone is not trying in a way that feels simultaneously like someone tried harder than anyone else ever in the history of trying. In other words, art - literature, music, visual art, hybrids - needs to have both an artlessness and an artfulness, an ignorance and a cunning, an irony and a sincerity, a child-like quality and something more mature, a homeliness and a comeliness, an ugliness and a beauty, and the exaggeration, the finished work of art - be it cartoon, comic strip, graphic novel, painting, sculpture, installation art, puppet show, performance, what have you - is fundamentally, even in its most tragic forms, preposterous, a lie against time, but a lie that somehow, through habit, through a kind of loyalty to one's mind and heart as it develops over time, through the listening to the muse against the sphinx - and not, contra Michael Clune, through the abnegation of habit, as he argues in Writing Against Time - helps us make sense of time, and history, without which we would be completely lost.
But it is the act of contortion, the exaggeration, the caricature, that is not only the finished product, but the reason why we create art, since art is born from suffering, and therefore all reifications of any sort, like all unhelpful forms of abstraction, are attempts to confuse the public image with the expressionist scream, to confuse the art with the life, to look at Marilyn Monroe as a sex symbol without thinking about her suicide and mental illness, or any public person without considering the reality of the private life, and I think the history of art - like the history of any discipline - is often in some sense strangely this way, a matter of pushing reified narratives down our throat, wanting us to accept certain ways of thinking about things, various whitewashings, various ways of avoiding the ugliness of life, the misery, the difficulty, the suffering, but also of course the hard-earned joys, the achievements that comes out of hard work, and patience, and the willingness to work for what one believes in, or values, or loves. We always want our joys to be only joys, or our sorrows to be non-existent, but joy comes from sorrow, and when we only focus on joy we begin to pretend, and that is the royal road to reification and therefore to a kind of sanitized psychosis. Sometimes I wonder if there is a greater mental illness in our society from normative and decent people than there is in people with actual mental illness for this reason - we always want to present a picture, a story, that is without ugliness, that is co-dependent, or seeks approval before character development, and that therefore does not acknowledge the role that exaggeration, weirdness, idiosyncrasy, difference, plays in our lives indubitably, because of the nature of human existence, of just being a human being. All histories of art, as Bloom knew, and as Emerson wrote of in "History" in Essays: First Series - "there is properly no history; only biography" - are stories that we tell, and they can be helpful or not depending on the maturity with which they're told. If we live our lives focusing solely on the pretend, on the public image, on the bid for external validation rather than internal, that we mistake the caricature as history, rather than representation; we deface and erase actual lives and histories, which are not the stories we read in any sense of the term when we begin thinking there is a set and standard way for anything. Exaggeration, through cartoons, through different ways that human beings figure out how to represent their own violence through art - think of John Ashbery's poetry, Virginia Woolf's prose, the successful experimentations of James Joyce, the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh - are examples where people must find new forms, not because they are images in a wikipedia article, but because they were people who never stopped to think that there was only one form of verisimilitude, and therefore refused to suffer in a dishonest way, through games rather than through the power that love brings through art. The only true exaggeration is fear; and love, to be love, is a form of exaggeration, though if we try and define it any further, we limit what life and art, or art and life, can be. Suffering forces us to exaggerate, but not lie; and the best works of art are honest exaggerations, ethical and aesthetic, that make play into a virtue, while eroding every attempt to act as if pretending, avoiding suffering, avoiding honesty, were anything but the worst and most laughably bad kind of theater. Bad art is bad art because it is as much unethical as it is unaesthetic, and the worst people deliver the worst lines, like villains at the end of a Scooby Doo film. Art is a noble thing, and a vulnerable thing, but it is also a needful exaggeration; and it is only when we take life too seriously, or confuse it with representation, that we become sad people in a boring movie, rather than actors with the ability to be free in the play of our lives.
Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886