A great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

September 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it.  Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting?  But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter. (I do not believe the two can be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can).  Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth?  (“A great literary work can encompass a visual masterpiece only if it radiates the same moral truth” says Damian Flanagan, but does he know what that means?)  Did he think the work really accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art?

All these ideas are tired 19th century claptrap and only bore and exhaust someone like me who believes a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any other wise truth, and everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all; and who does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims).  GIGO, say computer specialists, meaning “garbage in garbage out”, i.e. that starting out from false first principles can only lead to false conclusions:  what wonder we have the art theory — and the art — we do if we started out with all that nonsense?

But there is an extraordinary beauty to several sections of the novel, and the last chapter is absolutely breathtaking.  In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original:  much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:

Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.

But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses us with profound sadness on the one hand and the urge to reflect on absolutely everything, the way Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus do.  That it represents a universal scene — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.

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