Or, what makes great art great?
I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna for what seems like forever. It’s a long book, and I’m not really getting into it, so I haven’t done that thing one does when one is really into a book, that devouring that makes even a thousand-pager read like a tweet. However, there is one scene I’ve kept going back to in my mind. It’s one of those famous-people-stories-told-thru-a-not-famous-nobody-who-just-happened-to-be-there type book, and so there’s a scene between the main character, a young aspiring writer, and Frida Kahlo. She says to him:
I think an artist has to tell the truth . . . . You have to use the craft very well and have a lot of discipline for it, but mostly to be a good artist you have to know something that’s true. These kids who come to Diego wanting to learn, I’ll tell you. They can paint a perfect tree, a perfect face, whatever you ask. But they don’t know enough about life to fill a thimble. And that’s what has to go in the painting. Otherwise, why look at it?
There’s nothing here that’s particularly earth-shattering as far as artistic philosophy goes; Kahlo goes on to recommend to the narrator that he go do some hard labor, “eat some terrible greasy tacos,” and “have sex with some Mexican boys.” It’s the old the-artist-must-suffer-to-make-great-art belief, and that’s too pat an idea to give credence to. For one thing, some people can suffer their whole lives and never be the deeper for it. Also, the whole idea that there is something more real or worthy of philosophy in hard labor and anonymous sex is beneath considering, a fiction of the well-to-do who have never spent a day sewing buttons in a shirt factory by necessity rather than choice. Finally, Kahlo here seems to imply that the only art that qualifies as such is that which enlightens or educates, and that’s just not so. What about entertainment? Can pure entertainment without a didactic element never be art?
All these caveats aside, however, I kept thinking about this scene as I plodded onward. I had just had the pleasure of reading “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” by Mohja Kahf for the first time, which you can read here. My thanks to fellow Duhamelite and poet Dustin Brookshire for introducing me to this poem by posting it on Facebook. What floored me about Kahf’s poem is how familiar it was—it’s a poem from the point of view of the granddaughter, Kahf herself, one assumes, watching her grandmother, a Muslim, perform the title act. It’s prayer time and she just happens to be at Sears, and so she goes through with the ritual despite the outraged stares and finally interference of the “respectable Sears matrons.” Being the daughter of Cuban immigrants, I can so relate, as my students might say. I don’t remember any one particular culture clash as definitive as this, but I do remember having felt just this way many times.
Well, not just this way.
I kept waiting for the poem to favor either the grandmother or the matrons in some way, but it never does, and that surprised me. I was expecting either a condemnation of the matrons for their sheeplike adherence to expected social behaviors, for their inability to see the Muslim woman washing her feet as anything but some kind of barbarian, or, conversely, a condemnation of the grandmother for her refusal to adapt to American expectations of acceptable behavior, possibly fueled by the granddaughter’s embarrassment at being able to see the behavior from both points of view. I thought I knew “this kind” of poem—it would probably favor the matrons, and end with regret at not having appreciated the grandmother and her culture more.
Maybe I was projecting, but probably I was just expecting the usual moves in this scenario, and Kahf didn’t make them. Instead, she presents the event almost comically, a perfect balance of two opposing yet equally valid attitudes. She seems to relish the misunderstanding and revel in its inability to be resolved. The poem winds up being a wonderful—and refreshing—statement about our common humanity even despite our sometimes radical differences.
This, I believe, is Truth of the kind that makes great art. A lesser artist would have met my expectations—one culture would be oppressed yet superior, the other appear superior but turn out to be narrow-minded and inferior, and both the poet and the reader would be enlightened by the experience in most predictable ways. How wonderful that I didn’t read that poem, again!
I’m sure Kahf must have suffered in her life, all of us do. But what she did here in this poem is not just rehash some kind of suffering, but process it in a surprising and, yes, an enlightening way. I will never forget this poem, and I’m likely to remember it every time I get involved in a culture clash, which is pretty often.
What Kahlo is most right about in the advice she gives Kingsolver’s protagonist is that mechanical correctness is not enough to produce great art. I suppose this point is most evident in films, which sometimes feature amazing technical feats but yet are not great art. Sometimes a small, low-budget film will amaze you in a way that no blockbuster multi-million dollar special effects extravaganza can. Great art must have both great craft and, for lack of a better term, great truth.
These truths, however, can’t be easy truths. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is a gimmick, not a revelation. Don’t confuse fairy-tale type morals or catchy bumper-sticker wisdom with real truth. Do you have to “suffer” to acquire insight such as Kahf’s? I don’t know. But I do know that you have to cultivate thoughtfulness. You have to read good books (of course), those that will challenge—not confirm, challenge—your concepts of right and wrong. Watch good films that do the same. Expose yourself to art, and it can help you grow without first-hand suffering. Kahf’s poem “taught” me in a way that decades of cultural snafus I’ve experienced first-hand failed to do. I was so stuck in my us-vs.-them mentality that I was rewriting Kahf’s poem into more familiar territory as I was reading it. She jogged me out of it, made me see an old situation in a new, in a better, way.
So, you want to create great art? It comes to this: cultivate your moral sense as much as your craft. Look for great art in ambiguity, in the messy terrain of real life. Sometimes you might find it in a greasy taco, sometimes it finds you in the bathroom at Sears. What matters most, however, is not how many Mexican boys you sleep with, but how you frame that experience in light of what you believe is true, right, good. The great artists are always questing, questioning, experimenting, revising. Maybe that’s where the cliché about hard living comes from, why so many of them drink and fuck and smoke and die. We tend to glamorize this particular view of the artist because it appeals to everyone’s desire to break the rules, but it’s not in their breaking that art is created. Emily Dickinson is widely revered as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, and apparently she barely left her house. But she thought about everything—the simplest act acquired enormous significance. She turned the buzzing of a fly into a meditation on life and death.
Maybe you’ve come here, like Kingsolver’s protagonist, to get some words of wisdom from a more experienced artist. Sadly, I can’t be your Frida. About as close to her genius as I may ever come is the ability to grow my eyebrows. But I do know good art when I find it, and all of it has that one thing, and one thing only, in common. Call it truth, call it moral complexity, call it philosophy, call it mojo if you like, but get your hands on it any way you can, or you’ll never be a real artist.