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RANT FROM JUNE 1998
"Art for Art's Sake"
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     Strange thoughts and memories come to mind, reading Gene
Bell-Villada's ART FOR ART'S SAKE AND LITERARY LIFE.  As the
printed word became industrialized and commercialized around
1800, many artists and most poets were simply crowded off the
stage.  Their response was a repudiation of the commercialization
process, and of the values of "bourgeois society."  They could
not "make a living" from their art; those who needed to make a
living somehow had to become part-time artists.
     Who makes a living writing poetry?  A few writers of fiction
have become multimillionaires, but most have not even made a
living.  In our time the commercialization has advanced to the
point that most fiction and poetry writers cannot find
publication at all, much less make a living at it.
     All this makes my thoughts drift back to what now feels like
a previous incarnation.  Even while I was in theological
seminary, I did not believe there should be a paid clergy.  I had
come to see that certain "off-beat" denominations, like the
Quakers, Amish and Mormons, had the correct idea -- everybody
made up "the laity" [the people], and "professional" functions
like preaching and praying with the sick were assigned to
selected unpaid "volunteers," mostly elderly men.  There were no
"holy orders," no separate class of believers who were in charge
of it all -- all the people shared all the tasks and functions in
a democratic fashion.
     In spite of my clear understanding of all that, and my deep-
down belief that they had it right, I did not change
denominations.  I even consented, under a kind of duress, to
become a member of the paid clergy, Presbyterian variety.  One
could not have the task that I felt called to then, without
submitting to ordination.  So there I was, at the very bottom of
the scale, the pay scale, that is, but accepting pay from
people's offerings, nevertheless.
     I felt I had been pulled into a racket, and I always felt
uncomfortable with it, and found myself scorning and despising
those who were really good at it, good at taking large sums of
money for "doing the Lord's work."  After a few years I found I
could not continue at all -- I'm shortening this story at this
point -- I quit altogether and then came to disbelieve entirely
in that "gospel" which I had previously believed should be served
only freely, and for free.  We should have been giving it away.
     And what has all that to do with "Art for Art's Sake"? one
could ask.  Just a crazy thought, no doubt derived from
frustration and exhaustion over attempts to sell this here art
[stories, mostly, in my case, stories converted into books,
collected into books] -- maybe we shouldn't be trying to sell
this art at all.  Maybe we should simple give 'em away, like the
"gospel" in the old days.  Perhaps the stories should be free,
done for free.
     The idea is almost certainly rooted in frustration.  Here I
am, in the hole because of the making of all these books, but
maybe it's wrong of me, or at least foolish, to expect to recover
my money by selling them.  Sometimes it feels that trying to sell
the art spoils it.  I'm convinced that tailoring the art,
altering what it is, in order to sell it, spoils it.  The market
isn't really much interested in truth, and the art must be true.
     It's at this point that I part company with the purists, in
the Art for Art's Sake school.  I do not agree with their notion
that art should have no purpose or no meaning.  I recall vividly
how I bristled when a poetry workshop professor said he wasn't
interested in ideas.  "Who needs mindless art?" I thought then,
and still think.
     Art must serve truth, in my view.  If it doesn't, it isn't
worthy of the time which is being asked of the "consumer."
     The Art for Art's Sake people honor Beauty.  But Beauty is
Truth, and Truth Beauty, as Keats said, or else the allegiance to
Beauty, as if to something other than truth, is a sham.  [Much of
"modern art" is a fraud, but I don't want to change the subject,
yet.]
     My thoughts now switch to the other activity for which I am
paid, caning chairs.  It's an art, they tell me, as in the
phrase, "a lost art," but serious critics would probably call it
a craft, not an art.  For caning chairs I expect some kind of
payment -- by the hour it is not excellent, but it is something,
and I have not yet tried to take advantage of the fact that there
are very few of us able to do it any more.  I find it interesting
that slaves used to do it, and then blind people; neither group
was paid in a fashion that could be called fair.
     I don't do the chairs just for the pay; there is some kind
of other satisfaction in it, too, quite deep, and it feels
related to art.  When I branched into basketmaking at one time
and gave them all away, never selling a single one, that felt
more like art.
     I have never sold a poem.  I sell books, not very
successfully, and some of them contain what I want to call art. 
I have not tailored the stories, or the essays or the rants, to
suit the market, which may account for the "not very
successfully" above.  At the same time I have not figured out how
to give stories away, except orally.  And I guess I'm not ready
to state flatly that that's what I and every artist should do --
be a part-time artist, for no pay.
     I'd like to believe, still, that the most important piece of
art one has to work on is one's own life, and that that life
ought not to be owned, or sold, or for sale, but rather free. 
It's a razor's edge, no doubt, and I guess I'll have to continue
to walk it, gingerly.
     Truth is still the question.  When one can tell the truth,
the rest is extra, including pay, approval and comprehension on
the part of an audience.  Pay instead of truth is clearly not for
me, not at this stage of life -- in that connection I have a
weird sense of gratitude for early-on failure at selling
manuscripts to the commerce-fellows, collected sermons from that
earlier period, for example.
     Getting paid for truth is beautiful.  My wife, Adela, is
doing it -- writing the monthly column, "Southwest Flavor," in
THE NEW MEXICO MAGAZINE.  They are short, precise, memory-filled
cuentos, and she has an audience which loves them and vouches for
their truth and their importance.  She should not give her art
away, and I don't think she's at all tempted to do so.
     Maybe there's no parallel at all between this art stuff and
the old "serving the Lord" business.  It felt like there might
me.  The misery of having to serve certain nasty persons, now
mostly dead, thank the Powers That Be, simply because they were
paying for a clergy/boy, who was I -- all that unpleasantness
came to mind as I was contemplating the unpleasant difficulty of
trying to sell the art.
     Meanwhile, Harry, make some more, and quit bitching...  Art
for Art's sake indeed.
* * *
Copyright © 1998 Harry Willson

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