Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Artistic ponderings

The second book I read for the Non-Fiction Five challenge was Jeanette Winterson's essay collection, Art Objects. There is so much in it! I found it quite wonderful; she makes you work for the insights she provides, which are plentiful. I'm so glad that this challenge encouraged me to finally get around to reading this; it's been on my shelf for a couple of years now. It is one I'm going to reread in order to marinate myself in all the brilliance I only sampled the first time through.

One general comment on the entire book -- throughout her essays Winterson uses "she" to refer to the artist under discussion. That affected me greatly, more than I thought it would. The use of "he" as a generic pronoun is not gender neutral. The casual assumption from this female author that the artist she is in dialogue with is also female was, for me, quite dazzling.

The title essay is the longest, and deals with Winterson's discovery that paintings can be as rewarding as writing, if you give them the attention they deserve, not just a glance as you dash through a gallery. The attention given to a piece of art is what makes it speak -- if we say blithely that 'it says nothing to me', she suggests we are really saying we have nothing to say to it. Art is vital to a conscious life, and she makes it clear that the title is a verb, not a noun. "...the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects."

In the very intriguing essay "Writer, Reader, Words ", there are insights that could apply to novel readers like ourselves: "The Greek myths warn us of the dangers of recognising no reality but our own. Art is a way into other realities, other personalities. When I let myself be affected by a book, I let into myself new customs and new desires. The book does not reproduce me, it re-defines me, pushes at my boundaries, shatters the palings that guard my heart."

Included also are two related essays about Virginia Woolf, both lovely and erudite and inspiring. I'm encouraged to reread The Waves (one of Winterson's favourites) which I first read about ten years ago, and see what I make of it now. I loved it the first time, simply as poetry, and wonder if I'll appreciate it even more now.

There are so many thought provoking lines in this book; I can hardly choose which ones to share. One that I really liked, though, was in the piece "Imagination and Reality". In discussing the value of art she states "the world is not flat and neither is reality. Reality is continuous, multiple, simultaneous, complex, abundant and partly invisible. The imagination alone can fathom this and it reveals its fathomings through art."

I feel as if I should follow Stefanie's Emersonian example and examine each essay minutely for all the depth of intelligence contained in each one. But then I would probably never (or very belatedly) produce any kind of reflection, and I just want to share the wonder of this book, and hope that anyone else with a copy laying about will pick it up and finally read it. It repays close reading tenfold. I loved it.


  1. I understand how Art Objects can make you want to re-read Woolf. Actually, more than that - it makes me want to check out all the Vintage UK editions of Woolf that Winterson co-edited.

    I re-read Art Objects from time to time, and each time I read it, it still sparks a deep emotional chord from within. It is truly a celebration of art and literature, and seeing. Truly making effort, and spending the time to see.

    And I believe in her message, and her mission - that Art has the power to challenge and transform us - but only if we have the courage to open ourselves to engage with Art.

    It's almost like falling in love.

    I can see I'm getting all emotional about the book. So I'll stop here. So glad you like Art Objects.

  2. Yes! The power of Art to challenge and transform, and to encourage us to aspire to excellence in our lives. And the key element of mindfulness, of consciously striving to understand and to contribute.

    There are so many things to take away from this reading; I know I'll reread this often. Like you say, it is a very emotional as well as intellectual experience. I'm glad someone else loved it too!

  3. What a gorgeous cover-this one is definitely going down on my tbr list. I love The Waves as well! I need to reread it one of these days. :)

  4. Gee, I will have to get a hold of this one. I think the title essay sounds fascinating.

    I first heard of Jeannette Winterson by seeing her on that PBS series, On Faith by Bill Moyers. If you haven't been able to see it, check it out. He interviewed a lot of authors (including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood) about their thoughts on faith.

  5. This sounds really great. I think I'll have to put it on my list. I don't love Winterson's fiction, but this looks thought-provoking. Thanks for the review!

  6. I have never heard of this author before. I will be looking for her work now.

  7. This sounds like a marvelous book. Somehow I have managed to acquire quite a lot of Winterson's workk without actually reading it. I'll have to add this one to the mix and hope that I get around to them all someday!


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