(Editor’s note: This essay accompanies an interview with Damion Searls on new ways of looking at fiction.)
Modest in aim, New Aestheticist art does not want to change the world—to bear witness, deconstruct, problematize. It does not batten onto greater social goals, the kind responsibly fundable with tax dollars. It wants merely to be beautiful.
It differs from the old Aestheticism, “art for art’s sake,” in that it no longer believes in Art as a sake either, as a holy cause. New Aestheticism is art for people’s sakes. It is not antisocial; it aims to please. It is elitist but not discriminatory, for it is open to any and all who care to love it.
MFA programs teach the craft of plot or of poetic epiphany, and a pared-down, smooth style that seems embarrassed of beauty. The dictum to show not tell has led downward to darkness, from, say, Madame Bovary and The Sun Also Rises to a prose that is all shown, that walks on ice in socks: all surface and no depth, like TV at its worst. Quote examples here. But I cannot bring myself to write an ode to dejection.
Nor can writers today draw their aesthetic calling from the visual arts, as Barbara Guest did from Matisse, Frank O’Hara from de Kooning, Rilke from Rodin, . . . Museums have turned away from beauty toward a misdirected populism whose logic Proust refuted 90 years ago already (the people, not the elite, he argues, are the only ones intelligent enough to appreciate so-called-elitist high art; in terms of content, it is plumbers who want to read about princesses, just as much as princesses want to read about plumbers). In truth museumgoers go, when they go, for art, not for pandering and exhibits of billionaires’ speedboats.
Unnurtured elsewhere, the New Aestheticist writer must perforce be a great and wide reader, taking heart from, for instance, classical Chinese poetry, Willa Cather, and van Gogh’s letters, such as the one where he complains of his contemporaries that “they do not admire enough.” Fortunately, the New Aestheticist cares little for self-expression, for his or her own special individual specialness. They are just as happy to see beauty in another’s work as to make it themselves. They tend to be translators. They do not fear accusations of plagiarism. They look backward, and outward.
Some names to conjure with: Peter Handke. Alvaro Mutis. Anne Carson. Their books tend to be short, their long books in sections. In the movies: Kusturica’s Underground, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I and Cleo from 5 to 7, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Only rarely does New Aestheticist art take on political topics, and even more rarely does it have a discernable message.
For all its implicit timelessness, New Aestheticism will no doubt one day be seen as a reaction to its age and therefore part of it, like the Chinese literati in dark times who turned away from a corrupt court to tend to their gardens. Whom has all our genocide testimony helped? Has deconstructing the bourgeois subject of linear narrative served any purpose but to construct an escapist ghetto for intellectuals who might otherwise have been among the best minds of their generation? And then of course there’s the Bush years.
But hear how shrill this all sounds. The New Aesthete would rather be beautiful than shrill. “I don’t know why literary people spend so much time apologizing for their perfectly harmless little books that no one will ever read. You don’t hear generals apologizing for killing people” (Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet).
If you write interesting sentences then people will want to read them if not then not, that is the truth.
Damion Searls is the author of What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, recently published by the Dalkey Archive Press. His abridgment of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is forthcoming from NYRB Classics.
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