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I had an interesting conversation recently about the definition of art, which is a shockingly difficult subject to try to tackle. Merriam-Webster provides the following:

“Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.”

So, I guess that settles that. But, one question I grapple with a lot is: “What value does art have, and what makes art good are bad?” To me, an important part of the equation is honesty, honesty and having something to say, having a purpose. I know that sounds trite, and maybe obvious, but I do think it’s a useful standard by which you can differentiate P.T. Anderson from Michael Bay.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve recently resumed my efforts at tackling the awe-inspiring literary monolith that is “Against the Day”, and that of course naturally raises questions about the artistic merit of Thomas Pynchon, a writer whose work I value highly despite my (and pretty much everyone’s, I assume) near total incomprehension. Some would argue that reading of this kind is merely an intellectual pissing contest, that people only bother with Pynchon and his ilk for the bragging rights, for some kind of badge of cultural sophistication — and It’s easy to dismiss anything avant-garde as a kind of aesthetic emperor’s new clothing — as a bit of creative hornswoggle championed by those afraid of seeming foolish. And yet, I feel that by struggling through something so out of the ordinary, so unique, one cannot help but grow; a work that so thoroughly rejects all conventional methods of storytelling and expression forces us to examine norms and assumptions we might have taken for granted or have been unaware of entirely, and simply by experiencing such staggering and unconventional genius, one’s sense of possibility is somehow expanded. To rephrase, it is one thing to witness a craftsman who has mastered a given form, and another — at times more valuable — thing to see one invent a new form altogether.

This is a pretty flawed analogy, but when I play blues guitar in the subway, people routinely ask me: “Who do you think was better, Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan”, to which I invariably respond that there is no comparison — one was deeply creative, and the other was a master technician — they were pursuing different goals entirely. Although, it must be said, the latter certainly could not have achieved what he did without the innovations of the former. That, incidentally, is a fairly important point: Forward thinking artists like Pynchon provide the raw material that can later be refined into something a little more mainstream, a little more palatable (In Pynchon’s case, the most obvious SRV analogue is David Foster Wallace). Everyone, no matter how conservative their tastes, owes a debt to the avant-garde of previous generations for laying the foundations on which whatever styles they might actually enjoy were built. Seriously, like, even if you only listen to baroque music, at some point in the distant past some tasteless and contemptible iconoclast must have stubbornly insisted on shoving that terminally hip third in between the sacred roots and fifths of chant.

Beyond that, though, there is, to a certain sort of person, something so deeply necessary about the avant. There is an almost alien quality to Pynchon’s work, seeming to exist in an alternate universe in which everyone is expertly conversant in some obscure branch of math, science, the arts, or something similarly challenging and illuminating, and in which all of the everyday squabbles and flirtations to which we are accustomed take place against a backdrop of universal search for meaning and understanding (in which even the minor characters participate), with rigorous debates and academic rivalries erupting in bars and causing general chaos throughout cities with the same primal urgency that is in the real world reserved for fans of rival sports teams. I cannot claim to be nearly well educated enough to inhabit Pynchon’s world, but there is something so deeply nourishing about it’s existence; to witness the monumental degree of mismatch between this undeniably great writer and the larger society — it is as though he has found the world we live in inadequate, and has therefore been compelled to construct a more interesting one, and yet, has seemingly done so without an ounce of escapism, instead creating a thing somehow more genuine than the everyday, a thing with a message so profound it can only be delivered by way of complete sensory overload, persisting in this tendency until confusion becomes a welcome and desired part of the experience — is a powerful balm for a certain kind of spiritual malaise. Incidentally, I made that sentence deliberate overwrought. Consider it a tribute.

But, of course, this is an exercise in futility; if there were a way to explain the meaning of a true work of art or to distill the experience in an essay, then there wouldn’t be any reason for it to exist in the first place. I’m tempted to postulate that the value of art is paradoxically linked to the ways in which its value is indefinable. Indeed, how can a person explain the meaning of a thing that’s primary purpose is to convey that meaning, a thing that was likely born of an artist’s overwhelming desire for a level of communication unattainable by other means.


The following comments are for "Ham-Fisted Meditations on Art and the Avant Garde"
by DromedaryLights

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