My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Here the Literary Is Numinous
“If we have a sense of the mystery of life, we know there is far more than just this apparent world. But whatever lies beyond eludes our grasp. We sense its presence, but cannot rationally understand it — much less prove its existence. It teases us at the fringes of our perception.”
Multiple strands weave the tapestry of this book. To draw one of these from the finely woven whole …
The darkest narrative thread in The Drawing Lesson addresses the direction of the arts — specifically visual — that stubbornly persists from the beginnings of the past century. Mary Martin has a quarrel to pick not only with the claims of relevance but also with the assertions of cutting edge significance in so-called modernist art that has grown rather long in the tooth since figures such as Duchamp and the art world of the time proffered a moue to the aesthetic achievements of the ages and, in his case, came up with a soiled urinal, and then a moustache and goatee upon the Mona Lisa in their stead. Today’s touring giant rubber duck represents the perhaps inevitable infantilization of such soulless efforts. A case can, of course, be made that the challenges posed to artists by the incalculable horrors of the previous century could very well have them adopt the foetal position or, taking the human spirit into account, the teenager’s rebellious angst — one of the more enduring cultural achievements both in film and music of these times, not to mention in literary works such as The Catcher In The Rye. On this latter note of the verbal arts, the Biblical flood or plague of vampire and zombie novels would bear witness to the present self-indulgence in the writing world. It would seem that the powers of creation can but quail before a century of holocausts German, genocides Cambodian, Rwandan, and nuclear — to name just a few.
In a world where anything goes, it will happen that some carefully thought out anything might very well hit the mark with lasting force. Witness the Chinese performance artist who covered himself in honey and fish oil. Here I am, he proclaimed to his government, willing to feed these humble flies in this wretched toilet and yet you will do nothing in face of the nation’s millions of female infanticides.
It is something of an irony that the hero of The Drawing Lesson — referred to as “the artist”, whose art is firmly in the traditions of the past (“the Rembrandt light … seems to come from within the painting itself rather than from outside”), wins England’s coveted Turner prize. Work recognizably in the spirit and accomplishment of the eponymous William Turner has of late received little acknowledgment of this kind. Stretched canvas no longer proves worthy of the prize. The artist’s nemesis Rinaldo, whose conceptual work again ironically is apt today to be favoured but in the novel is not — feels himself overlooked for the sake of yet another rehashing of the lyrical and “numinous” — haystacks and sunlight — whose homiletic bias present so-called rational times had long felt to have given the lie to.
“For Rinaldo, only the inner world of the mind, independent of the visual, was worthy of exploration. Wainwright’s winning the Turner was a joke — a slap in the face to all contemporary artists.”
“[He] would have said that those forms, that light meant nothing — they were nothing but the random product of millions of cells dancing a meaningless dance in his brain.”
Rinaldo proves, unexpectedly, to be something of a salvation for the artist who recognizes something in his antagonist’s nihilistic passion that he must deal with in his own life (“the collision of … serenity and horror”) and that his art as well needs to engage for him to move forward.
“Emotion, he thought, is what makes us human.”
Ms. Martin’s bold reintroduction of concepts of the divine and one’s muse into the making of art is a welcome change in our secular times. In the words of the artist,
“‘If you are open and believe that the divine infuses everything in the cosmos, you see this light everywhere and in everything.’”
“‘Some quality, an essence, within the muse is like a candle flickering in the dark, illuminating everything in those rooms.’”
“‘… if you still retain some sense of mystery and imagination, then you are certain there is something beyond this external, dimly perceived world. That is the other. Sometimes you find it in yourself, sometimes in another person, and sometimes just out in our daily world or in a dream.’”
“‘The only proof that it exists is the fact we spend our lives seeking it. It’s that longing, that yearning that is the inspiration for all creativity.’”
One might even detect the nihilistic and the numinous performing a delicate dance within human consciousness:
“… was there any single truth or simply a myriad of individual momentary truths? Perhaps life was only a fragile tissue of conjecture.”
A single experience of the numinous can prove sufficient to guide a life and, eventually, redeem it as comes with the discovery of a few lines written by a recently deceased father who preferred to devote himself to his roses than show an interest in his writer son:
“When I was young, I saw in a dream
A golden castle covered with roses,
Not in the sky, but deep in the woods, here on earth.
It told me the meaning of all life and the universe.
Tears ran down my face — for it was only a glimpse
Which never came again.”
In addition to these metaphysics, Martin can write one hell of an uncomfortable dinner scene, in Venice no less.
It might be argued that Rinaldo is a straw man easily knocked down and that many instances of conceptual art have great significance. While this might be so, it is also true that much of it produces the opposite effect. Today, a used couch found on Craigslist is deemed worthy of exhibition. An artist’s soiled, detritus-strewn bed commands million-dollar figures. These instances plucked from a self-replenishing harvest go far beyond giving pause. In the general public and among many in the arts, eyes roll and stomachs churn. Catch the response on video and submit it to the Turner committee!
The Drawing Lesson accomplishes its push-back against nihilism by having the artist not commit apostasy when faced with his own limitations and not refute personal vision when another’s concept offers little more than a scrawl across its artefact. Instead, he engages and thereby adds another tenet to his quiver — “Only by enraging the status quo could one ever create new art.”