Margaux Williamson: A few days ago, I took a walk with the writer Sheila Heti. We got onto the subject of artists talking about art. She had a lot to say about this and I was curious to hear more. I asked her if she would write about it for Back to the World. I’m really glad I asked – my friend sent me this incredibly smart and dead-on post this morning:
By Sheila Heti
I am not sure how to set down my anger in a way that is coherent – this anger that suddenly hit me a month ago, or maybe a few weeks ago. I spent most of 2012 publicizing my novel, How Should a Person Be? – touring and doing interviews and whatnot. (If you had asked me, a few years ago, what a year spent promoting a book might look like, I would have said it was impossible to do. But I have spent the better part of a year doing just that – and my friends, oy vey.) Anyway, I just looked up a month ago from all this and heard some complaint that I had been deaf to – a common thread of criticism about my book which wasn’t so much about the book (I think) as a proposition the book was making: that a legitimate thing to think and talk about (especially among people who make art) is the making of art. Suddenly, all sorts of words flooded into my mind that had been repeated all year, but which I had not yet put together as the chorus that it was: that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man.
A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads.
I’m pretty sure the majority of people who complained about all the conversations about art in my book are the same people who bemoan the lack of reading in our culture, who bewail the death of the novel, and who wish America was smarter and greater. Yet how can one claim, on the one hand, to wish to protect the cherished art of novel-reading, and on the other, to denounce as childish, privileged and narcissistic a healthy and normal conversation about art’s importance and the best way to make it – especially when that conversation is happening among, of all people, artists!
I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute!
I have spent a lot of time among fellow writers in New York, and although I count many of these people as my beloved friends, I rarely have a conversation in that city about art that does not either begin, end, or quickly turn into a conversation about the writing business – about agents and advances and gossip about other peoples’ advances and complaints about not getting reviewed here or there. In Toronto (that childish, infantile place) – or the Toronto that I depict, and that I am and have long been a part of – to turn a conversation in that direction would feel embarrassing. Not because we have so much money or do not need money as much (I don’t know anyone with a trust fund here), but because it would mean taking time away from what is more important and more vital, and which should be at the core of what we’re doing, and which we want to be doing better.
Perhaps this is “uncool.” As Dave Hickey once said of Richard Serra: “He says, ‘Let’s go look at art,’ so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.” Richard Serra is one of the artists I was thinking about most intently while I was writing my book – so to learn this from Hickey (a few years later) made sense. Probably that’s why Serra’s art provides so much to think about. What place does cool or hip have in any of this? Looking over my bookshelf at my most beloved writers – Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Vonnegut – this is not a club of cool people, but a club (if it is a club) of those who could never be considered cool. A person can only be cool about what they do not care about. And these people cared more than anyone.
I am not saying that my New York friends or certain reviewers don’t actually care about art. They must. What I am picking up on is the distaste for bringing that caring into public. Caring about art is almost illicit, something one does in the privacy of one’s home, like masturbation. Well, sex and orgies are much more pleasurable than masturbation, and talking about art with other people is much more pleasurable than thinking about it alone. In any case, one can and should have both.
Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward. Like Occupy, it speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.
If my book can be placed among those that create possible worlds, I suppose it’s a world in which artists can talk about art with dignity, because there is nothing to ridicule there.
If conversations about art are “privileged,” then it is also a privilege to talk about injustice. And maybe it is! Yes, I suppose it is a great privilege to be able to speak about art and justice. It is a great privilege, also, to be alive. And yet we do not all stab knives into our chests. It is a great privilege to be so far advanced in human history that writing and reading exist for so many. Yet that these things don’t exist for all, does not mean that those who read should poke out their eyes with sticks. All these privileges are meant to be taken. And used.
Finally, narcissism is something that begins and ends with itself. The artist is not narcissistic; she looks at her self in order to talk about other selves. She then creates something and gives it to the world. Someone who does this could be considered narcissistic in her personal life; only her friends and family know for sure. Yet people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster. We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject. If we as a culture hate art, and this past year has made me suspect we do, I can only think it is because we are afraid to look at ourselves. And we hate the artist because she can look, and does.