Sunday, 2 October 2011
The Dancer and the Dance
Wandering the City Art Gallery last week, I was struck by this thought. Just imagine the ghosts of all the artists were stationed next to their work in an educational capacity, ready to eagerly explain to each visitor the themes, ideas and implied meanings of their work. You’d be approaching the Pre-Raphelite room, and Rossetti himself would catch your eye. He’d wait politely while you scanned his picture before asking, maybe a little nervously; “Do you like it? Oh thanks. That’s nice. It took me ages. How kind of you to comment. See the apple she’s holding? Yes, that one. It’s a metaphor. Any guesses what it stands for? No? Well, I’ll tell you...” The visitor, stifled by the proximity of the painter, over-awed even; intimidated, would soon retreat. On reflection I concluded, I’ll have my art without the presence of the artist thanks very much.
There’s that famous Yeats poem about schoolchildren which he finishes “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Dance, some types of theatre, performance art – these are media in which the artist is the art. Painting thankfully doesn’t belong in that category. And neither does writing.
Recently I’ve finished reading an impressive, ambitious, epically-plotted and at times expertly-written novel. But one chapter ended with these lines: “I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges.” The presence of the writer was so profound here, they may as well have been standing at my shoulder. (“Do you like it? Yes? Oh good! It took me ages. It’s a metaphor, you see...”) I suppose there’s an argument that says as soon as we move from the literal to the artfully figurative, we reveal ourselves. “Here I am,” we say. “Look at my syndetic list of juxtaposed nouns. Cool, huh?” And – I have to ask it, even if I risk exposing my ignorance – what does ozone smell like, exactly? Or,for that matter, gunpowder? Thunderstorms I can do. I can see why seawater might taste a bit like freedom, I suppose. But bonfires? Oranges? It’s risky is all I’m saying. I remember having a short story handed back by my tutor some years ago with the cringe-inducing adolescent simile “like a mermaid trapped in a bell-jar” underlined. Twice. I bridled at the time, but we all know what that tutor meant; no further comment was necessary.
Here’s another thing. Scatter your prose with elevated metaphor, and you run the risk of it bleeding into your dialogue. Later on the same novel, one character, describing another, says “...she was like an ice-skater balanced effortlessly on the edge of her own speed, throwing in joyous, elaborate twirls and leaps just for the hell of it.” What - someone really said that? They didn’t. The author wrote it – and they’re there at my shoulder again, running a finger underneath it as I read.
In his short story Cat in the Rain, Ernest Hemingway describes the sea on a rainy day with these lines: “The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.”
Sometimes you can’t see the art for the artist. But in these lines? Well – you can’t see the artist for the art.
Mermaid in a bell-jar indeed.