Just as poets and painters use different media to send messages, literary and visual-art audiences require different vocabularies to understand what they read or see. A riff of well-chosen words or an interplay of color has a visceral appeal, but the sensual experience varies. A person accustomed to silently skimming a novel or reading a poem’s smooth syllables aloud might be baffled by a canvas vibrating with complementary hues or by a sculpture’s sublime balance of shapes.
In Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, British author Jeanette Winterson performs the crossover feat of “reading” visual art and literature. Most of her revelations arrive via the library and not the gallery, however. As the author of experimental novels including Oranges are not the only fruit and Sexing the Cherry, Winterson is accustomed to expressing creative ideas through words. Unsurprisingly, she finds artistic guidance in other women and men of letters.
The author confesses, with uncharacteristic humility, that art once bewildered her. She may exaggerate the case, but she does convey the rare sense of discovery and awe that one feels in the presence of a masterpiece. She speaks of the “emotional exchange” between artist, artwork, and audience; for her, paging through a rare, signed edition of a book amounts to ecstasy: “In your hands, a book that was in their hands, passed to you across the negligible years of time.”
Winterson’s experiences suggest that it’s never too late to become a connoisseur. After a childhood devoid of art and reading material (with the notable exception of the Bible), she rebelled by taking a job in a library and eventually becoming a scholar of modernist authors. She was well into adulthood before she acknowledged that the power of the brush might equal that of the pen—odd, considering her passions for salon-keeper Gertrude Stein and for the multitalented Bloomsbury group. In her 1995 Art and Lies, Winterson fictionally explored the philosophies that she now returns to in Art Objects, a volume that is one-quarter artistic and three-quarters literary in nature.
In Art Objects’ title, “objects” should be read as a verb; true art forcefully “objects” to complacency, rather than hanging inert over the couch. Winterson, determined to have a stake in the action, visits museums and chooses Roger Fry as her art-appreciation tutor. (“It may seem hopelessly old-fashioned to have returned to Bloomsbury, but…if books, music and pictures are happy enough to be indifferent to time, then so am I,” she writes.) Winterson recommends that a person spend an hour contemplating a single piece of art, just as a book lover settles down with one work of literature. “The public gallery experience is one that encourages art at a trot,” she writes, pitying those who merely glance at an exhibit before exiting toward the gift shop. She compares a museum’s selection of mainstream-acceptable posters to reprints of the literary canon: “Books that will not cooperate nor disappear sooner or later get the Modern Classic treatment, in a bid to familiarise them at the level of challenge.” Her points are well-taken: How many Vermeer groupies herded into the National Gallery on a strict schedule, bumped shoulders past their idol’s work, then obtained a glossy copy of Girl With Pearl Earring for their living rooms?
Winterson portrays herself as a newcomer to visual art, yet her confidence never wavers, and her sophisticated opinions sting. She speaks forthrightly and develops a repertoire of soundbites that a drawing teacher might bark at a lazy student: “Art does not imitate life. Art anticipates life.” “Art is metaphor. Metaphor is transformation. [Virginia Woolf’s] Orlando is metaphor, is transformation, is art.” “Art is enchantment and artists have the right of spells.” She does not fear critics, and strategically smites those who would fault creators:
We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant. This is not arrogance; of course they can absorb in a few moments, and without any effort, the sum of the artist and the art.
Winterson strides sure-footedly through painters’ and sculptors’ terrain. But before long, she steers the reader toward the bookshop, where she feels more secure. This proves to be a permanent rerouting. Where Art Objects’ lively opening chapter
comments on visual expression, its subsequent essays dwell on
genre-busting printed matter. While the conclusions apply to all art, the focus is the novel and how to reach beyond the tired Victorian plot. Critics from Edmund Wilson to historian Peter Gay have already weighed in on this topic, but Winterson deserves attention for her insights and her manner of distilling complex ideas.
The author’s main interest is feminist autobiographical fiction—which affords her the opportunity to mention her first-person Oranges are not the only fruit in the same breath as Orlando and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. When she’s not indulging herself, however, Winterson skillfully argues that there is a need for new adventurousness in writing. The average reader wants a narrative with an obvious buildup, climax, and resolution, but the books that raise a ruckus and outlive their authors are those that test boundaries. Winterson compares William Wordsworth’s autobiographical The Prelude to Stein’s Alice B. Toklas, commenting that “both [authors] were able to take a well-known, well-worn form, formula almost, and vitalise it by disrespecting it.” She advises readers to be patient with unconventional works and to adjust to whatever pace a book or poem sets: “To trust is to submit to the experiment, to stay the course, to sit up late and wait,” she writes, admitting that sometimes “[m]istakes will be made.”
Winterson noticeably celebrates her own individualism along with that of her precursors. Her punctuation, specifically her placement of commas, subtly interrupts reading’s natural rhythm and focuses the attention on key words and sounds. She toys with run-ons, pauses, and alliteration in her praise of Woolf’s prose style: “Open any of her work at almost any page and you will find fine descriptive passages that have nothing to do with the watery impressionism of lesser writers. Hooked on a well-thrown line of words, is landed, a fine fat fish.” This intentionally poetic approach does not always succeed, as in one metaphorical flight about how language can fail even the boldest of authors:
Woolf can gallop English. She can ride her hobby-horse as hard as Uncle Toby. She can speed the rational world to a blur and halt in a second to make us see for the first time a flower we have trodden on every day….Sometimes she goes too fast or takes a high fence badly. She is unhorsed. She gets back on….Those who go with her know that the name of her horse is Pegasus. Virginia Woolf has a gift of wings.
Winterson’s heart is too much on her sleeve in this passage, yet she does exhibit the courage to be fanciful as well as steely. She expects nothing less than brilliance from art and artists, but holds herself to the same standards.
Art Objects revels in creativity and intellect, and aims to innovate as it critiques. This book renews curiosity in the visual, the verbal, and everything in between. And Winterson’s call for literary experimentation may prove persuasive to serious artists, even those unmoved by modernism. “A work of art is abundant, spills out, gets drunk, sits up with you all night and forgets to close the curtains, is your friend, offers you a disguise, a difference, a pose,” Winterson writes. It’s a tall order, but when art objects, there can be no compromise.CP