THE INSECURITY OF ART: ESSAYS ON POETICS
Edited by Ken Norris and Peter Van Toorn.
Volume 11 Number 6.
The political and cultural ferment in Quebec in recent decades suggests that the constraints of the past are being left behind. Dissenting voices are challenging the barriers created by prejudice and conformity. The divergent views expressed in these essays constitute a positive response to the unhappy plight of the artist in a commercial society. Unfortunately, the appeal is to a select few who continue to care about aesthetics in an age of shopping-malls and supermarkets.
The book contains twenty-five thoughtful essays by various English language Quebec poets devoted to problems of craftsmanship and various approaches to translation, including sundry philosophical issues raised by the precarious position of the arts in a swiftly changing world. The contributors include Robert Alien, Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, John Glassco, and Irving Layton. Robert Alien, in his lively essay "Post-Mortemism," discusses the causes of alienation and explores the more questionable aspects of the current avant-garde in Canada. He maintains that no art can be worthwhile that does not awaken humanity from its self-indulgent dreams and guide it toward a more mature and balanced understanding. In the eloquent essay by Louis Dudek, entitled, "Whatever Happened to Poetry?," the author comments on the "massive barbarization" of western society and explains why poets in particular have rebelled against a collectivized and stultifying environment. He demonstrates that the aesthetic concept of literature has been under attack. Analytical philosophers, yielding to a fashionable extremism, have inveighed against "the dreariness of aesthetics" and encouraged a rash of adolescent pranksterism. Anti-art, anti-philosophy, anti-theatre—all testify to the fact that art is in deep crisis at the same time that it is attracting so much notice. Poetry, too, is in eclipse during a period when there is an urgent need for poetic vision as an instrument of higher knowledge. Dudek, alas, is somewhat vague as to how this superior Gnosis is to be achieved.
Kandinsky, a member of The Blue Rider Expressionist group and a pioneer of non-objective art, regarded art as a potential means of spiritual regeneration. The same applies to Julius Langbehn in his "Rembrandt as Educator" (published in 1890). Today, heady varieties of avant-gardism have spawned a preponderance of gimmickry and a gleeful debunking of conventional norms. As an example of the remorseless pull of violence and primi-tivism in modern poetry, Dudek alludes to the work of Michael Ondaatje and Bill Bissett.
Art, as Collingwood asserted, should serve as a bulwark against the erosion of consciousness. There are several contemporary writers who seem to mistake anarchy for freedom. These writers reflect the cultural disarray of a war-ravaged age. The artist, Joan Miró, is reputed to have said: "I want to assassinate painting." Musicians, like Sylvano Bussotti, Mauricio Kagel, and John Cage appear to be motivated by a similar barbaric impulse.
Stephen Morrissey's striking essay states that both art and life require an intrepid search for total freedom. Art, he says, should not be used as a shelter. What is needed is a new order of consciousness, an affirmation of life in defiance of programmed human relationships. Human beings, problematic to their depths, cannot lay hold of ultimate commitments with a smug and easy security.
Dethroned gods are powerless to help us; we cannot retreat into the rubble of outmoded beliefs. The modern temper has permanently altered our conception of the universe. Who is now inspired to compose a classical sonato, or to paint in the manner of Lorenzo Monaco or to churn out a long narrative poem in the florid style of Tasso or Ariosto? As for trendy absurdities, they must be taken in stride, with due regard for human susceptibility to unreason. Serious artists, meanwhile, will dedicate themselves to unveiling an underlying reality. As Paul Klee wrote: "Art does not reproduce the visible, it renders visible."
Despite its limitations, The Insecurity of Art may be recommended for its glowing insights and untrammelled vision of human potentialities. Robert E. Wheeler, Gananoque, Ont.
Anne Locatelli, Elliot Lake S. S., Elliot Lake, ON.
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