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Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery Paperback – February 4, 1997
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In these ten intertwined essays, one of our most provocative young novelists proves that she is just as stylish and outrageous an art critic. For when Jeanette Winterson looks at works as diverse as the Mona Lisa and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, she frees them from layers of preconception and restores their power to exalt and unnerve, shock and transform us.
"Art Objects is a book to be admired for its effort to speak exorbitantly, urgently and sometimes beautifully about art and about our individual and collective need for serious art."--Los Angeles Times
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Wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong, says the lonely voice of one Jeanette Winterson, author of a beautifully piercing set of essays collectively entitled `Art Objects' (the second word is read as a verb). Winterson makes many excellent points in this work, but for my money the best is her call to objectify art, especially the appreciation of art. A work of art is its own thing, and deserves to be taken on its own merits. If it fails at this, ok, but we need to stop seeing everything in art reflected through our own subjective prism; otherwise we risk lowering it to entertainment and diversion. We already have plenty of that; besides, art deserves better.
This seems a fresh idea, but Winterson points out that it's actually quite old -- we've merely forgotten as we've been soaked with a century and a half of Victorian frumpiness. Most of history has taken art for what it is or could be; only in our self-possessed 20th century have we demanded that art come to us personally, not actually ventured ourselves out into the artistic universe, a strange and difficult land. Winterson's historical perspectives need more flesh, but she's chosen a good villain. At her toughest, Dickens and Trollope come in for some hard knocks. At her most generous, she extols us to keep reading Victorian literature; if only we would stop writing it as well.
This would be some of the best art criticism I've read in years if it stopped there; fortunately, she presses on. If we can't subjectify art, how do we know it's worthy, good, revolutionary? We know already -- the answer is in us. Winterson points the way: look to the tools, the precision, the craft. Language is the writer's tool; how is it used? Examples are drawn from the aloof moderns -- Woolf, Stein, Eliot -- to great effect. New subject matter is not what they're after -- didn't Shakespeare pretty much exhaust every plot anyway? No, art aims higher: at new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing.
I don't think Jeanette Winterson an optimist, though she ends on an up note. She rants aplenty. Art -- especially new work -- is hard, and society likes soft. Art is currently being shunted off to the wasteland of entertainment (been to a museum lately?), off to do battle with cinema, popular music, and the great Satan itself, television. And it is sure to lose. We are simply too much in love with nostalgia, with art that "works for us." So what are we -- those of us who claim to care -- to do?
Ms. Winterson doesn't draw up a list of commandments, but I could venture a bold guess. Buy (yes, purchase) new art; voting with your wallet is one of the best ways to push work forward (see the Renaissance church for an example). Stay with a work of art for awhile; let it work on you. Don't dismiss everything within the time it takes to say "I don't like it." Appreciate the artist's craft; look for exactness. Most of all, when you're moved by something, ask yourself why, on a profound level. Is it because you made an emotional connection with the work, or the work made a larger one, say, with the world?
`Art Objects' is stuffed with stunning insights; I've not highlighted this many passages in a book since college. I suspect, however, that the author might cackle at my review. She writes in her last essay that she is perplexed by the question "what is your book about?" She appropriately finds that words to answer this question are unnecessary. The book is about itself; read it and find out.
This anecdote serves to create the tone of the book, an intense and honest meditation into art and art making. Winterson, weaves us through her meditation through a very readable style and by using very general terms. She simultaneously addresses the novice, to those well versed in the concepts of art history and theory of art criticism. I say this because the questions, what is art?, what is the fuction of art?, why practice art?, are basic questions that can be addressed by all levels of understanding-and it is those questions Winterson addresses. Though she begins with visual art she reverts to her expertise in the form of literature. But, the concepts are easily translated into the other art forms.
However, in her opinions of what is beauty and what is art, Winterson can seem a bit idealistic in her views of art and art making. She professes to be a little out of sync with current society(her confession)-which could be taken as a person who revers the past and therefore is a bit 'old school' in her approach to the topic, however, she does not pretend to be a final authority on the topic either.
But,the 'beauty' of this book is it can be a starting point and a gentle guide for the novice into the ongoing conversation of art and art history as well as an eloquent reminder of fundemental concepts in a splintered conversation of art theory and criticsm.
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