** A Few Words About Art **

08 Mar 2006

Oh, what the fuck ...

Well, it's getting late here ... past 2:00 a.m. I was just about to sign off for the evening when I happened across a blog of a guy who is considering whether or not to drop out of his MFA program. That got my wheels spinning and I figured maybe I'd post a quick follow-up to an earlier post of mine, in which I described someone as an "artist" (which wasn't necessarily a compliment). I wasn't going to include this quasi-"tale" in my book but, as I've said above, "Oh, what the fuck." It's "blog-worthy" at a minimum, I suppose. And so ...

I want to explore a topic mentioned earlier -- the concept of what "artistry" is and what it means. As I said in that previous post, "when I say the word artist, I'm referring to someone who has taken his or her talent and applied it in such a way as to be considerably more effective (either in a positive way or a negative way) than all the rest of those in his or her category." With that in mind, here is what was going through my head as I was writing that other post.

Historically, few people have agreed with me on this subject. And, I'm starting to think that I'm just not articulating it properly. But, at some point in my life, perhaps I'll locate some kindred spirits. Let me give you a real-life example of what I'mtalking about. After college, I decided to check out an MFA program in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. So I signed on to this university that was easily ten times the size of the small liberal arts school I'd just finished with. Going in, I thought that being a grad student would come with privileges, such as hassle-free class registration. Well, I thought wrong, of course. It was a freaking nightmare. Right away, I received a call from some old department head requesting that I drop a few of the classes I'd registered for. Apparently, they needed me to step aside in order to make way for some third-year students who desperately needed my spot in those classes (in order to graduate). In a brilliant exchange, they bumped me into a class full of third-year people.

So, instead of taking, say, "Fundamental Concepts of Literary Criticism," they plopped me directly into sort of a "thesis review roundtable"-type arrangement. With the exception of myself and one other first-year who'd been similarly bumped to this class, the rest of the class had their Masters theses in hand the first day. The class' purpose was to go through them all, one class at a time, and offer "constructive criticism." Now, being a first-year, I hadn't written my thesis yet. So, I was asked to scrape together a representative sample of my writing, and we would just go over that when it came time for my turn in the hot seat. (And, that's a truly pathetic story that I won't include here.)

So, we started off on these critical sessions. This was a close-knit group, obviously. Pretty much all of them were decent writers. A few shining stars, and a few I found boring, frankly. But, the group seemed to have developed an incestual clique dynamic that I found unsettling for a university with about eight times more students than the number of residents in the town where I'd grown up. Its effect on me was clear. As an outsider, I couldn't seem to get my words out when they'd ask me for an opinion. Here I was sitting in a group of people who used ridiculously elitist vocabulary, on the fly, absorbed over three years of intense study of esoteric theories about literary criticism. And then I'd make comments like, "Well, John, I liked your manuscript ... I, uh, liked it a lot."

Instead of listening and participating in the classes, I began more or less monitoring them, actively listing the scores of vocabulary words these people used that I didn't know. I became fascinated with how much of an idiot I must have been. I mean, I had no life experience yet, as many of these folks did (many were in their 30s and 40s), but I did at least have a college degree in English. Why the hell didn't I know these words?! In no time, I actually began to dread attending the class. I didn't know these people. I didn't understand these people. And, I didn't feel that I had anything to say that they'd find valuable. But then, something changed.

You see, I found out that there was a bar on campus. That's right, an actual bar -- with beer and pool tables and dark little noooks and crannies in which to squirrel yourself away for an hour. Finding this place was a watershed moment in my educational career. I began visiting this pub regularly for about an hour before this awful class started. Sometimes I'd knock back up to four or five beers if I knew we were going to tackle a manuscript that I felt I might have some opinions about. And, with my inhibitions removed, I suddenly found the class much more enjoyable. (Recall the old saying: in vino veritas.) So, this is the set-up that you have to understand to properly absorb the point I wanted to make about art.

Okay, there I am sitting in this class, half in the bag, going over some kid's MFA thesis manuscript. (For the purposes of this writing, let's call him Diego Rivera, shall we?) So, we were all blathering on about some innovative poem he'd written. I can't remember the subject of the poem, it's been so long ago. But, it contained two words that I'll never forget: "tawdry anus." Look, this was ages before Al Gore ever invented the Internet -- many years before pranksterous emailers world-wide would indelibly brand our minds' eyes with the infamous "goatse." (And, if you don't know what that is ... for Christ's sake, don't ever look it up, as you will regret it.)

Anyway, we're all sitting there talking about Diego's anus poem, and almost universally, people are praising the work up and down. "It's so beautiful," they'd say. And, then the instructor looks to me and asks my opinion. Well, Christ, I didn't know this guy; I didn't know I'm supposed to revere him as the class laureate or something. So, he got some pure, unfiltered, uninhibited Midwestern feedback from me. After stifling a burp, I let out with my own reaction: "Well, I gotta tell ya, Diego ... Everyone here keeps talking about how 'beautiful' this writing is. But, I have to say that when I read the words 'tawrdy anus,' I just don't get overwhelmed with the whole concept of beauty. I mean, let's face it, you're talking about a literal asshole here, right? -- and a tawdry one at that. Now, 'tawdry' is a bad thing, right? -- like all dirty and so forth ... And, by the way, who says 'tawdry'?"

I think I briefly chuckled to myself at that comment, and then continued. "I'm not saying it's bad writing. I'm just saying it's not necessarily beautiful in the usual sense of the word. It's uh ... it's pretty damned effective writing, though. I'll definitely give you that one. You've conjured a solid image in my mind -- just not a beautiful one. But, hey, there are a lot of writers who can't conjure an image like that. So, it's a good thing to be effective ..."

And then, I sort of realized I'd been rambling, completely off in my own drunken world. I'd been looking at his poem while speaking, but I sensed a peculiar silence in the room. So, I looked up at the class and found them all staring at me, their mouths agape more like a school of fish than a school of students. Clearly, based on the above example, I'm perhaps not the most gifted person when it comes to analysis. So, I can't say for sure if they were staring at me as though I'd just publicly blasphemed their revered poet-God, or staring at me as though I'd just said something they too agreed with but dared not articulate. (My gut instinct says it's the former theory.) Anyway, I was tempted to laugh that awkward silence off right there and perhaps make some flip comment like, "Hey, guys, they say opinions are like assholes, too, right? So, I could be wrong ..." But, I didn't. I just pulled a Forrest Gump on them, if I recall correctly. I said something like, "Well, that's all I have to say about that."

By then, I'd been away from the Midwest long enough to appreciate that there are alternate, perhaps slightly more, oh, informed views of the world. I'd of course seen other (much higher-profile) controversies that challenged our notions of beauty and art. But, was this guy the poetic equivalent of Robert Mapplethorpe sans the bullwhip? Did he apply his talent, as I said, "in such a way as to be considerably more effective" than most his peers? I guess I didn't think so.

That class eventually drove me from the program (for various reasons). I met a group of interesting people in the process, though. One guy practiced "zen archery" (something, I must admit, I thought was a joke when he first said it), another confessed hallucinations, another regaled the class with various accounts of his masturbatory practices in front of a picture window. One guy in particular was one of the best poets I'd ever read. The problem was, they just weren't a welcoming bunch of folks.

I don't think that'll necessarily help the other blogger decide whether or not to stay in his MFA program. In fact, I don't think the above story has any point whatsoever. It's too late for a point now, anyway. I also don't think this chapter will make the book version of these Tales. Goodnight all...