Oct/Nov 2011  •   Salon

A Pot Tries to Call a Kettle on his Pretentiousness

by Tom Dooley

There is a certain kind of art made here in America for a lofty but banal purpose: to enliven the contemporary educated mind... It is art of the day to inform the conversation of the day by the people of the day who need to be reassured that their taste is a little more elevated than that of the woman on the subway reading Nora Roberts. —Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash, "Are our Writers as Lousy as our Bankers?"

Thanks to a link provided by a friend on Facebook, I recently read the September, 2010, article cited above on the state of contemporary writing at 3quarksdaily.com. I have to admit, there's a measure of Cilliers' snarkery and bitchery that appeals to the snarky bitch in me. Who doesn't think, those of us who are arrogant enough to think of ourselves as thinkers, that what we like is great, and everything else everyone else is going on about, sucks? Who doesn't want to think of herself as a "total snob" of a reader? Who doesn't want to think they are having the best possible sex with the hottest possible partners?

Wait, what?


That's the problem I have with this essay. It makes me say, "Ewww."

Which is to suggest there may be a fatal flaw in the whole enterprise of offering the sort of critique Cilliers provides. A flaw I will undoubtedly fall victim to here, even as I attempt to expose it.

In my also not-so-humble opinion, there are a few things that help to define, or perhaps facilitate, great art.

One: purpose.

Art for art's sake is like a story about writing a story, or a poem about writing poetry, or a movie about making a movie. It's almost always going to suck, and if it doesn't, it's still going to suck in a way that makes it the "Urban Intellectual Fodder" Cilliers is complaining about. I believe great artists create timeless, transcendent art because they are trying to actually accomplish something other than create timeless, transcendent art. The more important this other purpose is to the artist, the more all-consuming, maybe the better the resulting art. However deeply felt, this purpose could be as banal as trying to put food on the table or impress a rival or work out a confusing relationship with one's cousin. It could be to fill a gigantic narcissistic hole within one's psyche. Or it could actually be in response to some larger context from which the artist springs to right a wrong or just make a damned point.

Two: selflessness.

In spite of the previous paragraph, great art is not about the artist but rather the consumer. Art about the artist is the equivalent of masturbation. Some people find that entertaining, and I suppose sometimes it can be done well, but ultimately, it's just lame.

Three: humility, also known as editing.

Watching a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino film, one often has occasion to say to oneself, this is where unchallenged artistic license has gone awry. There's something to be said for speaking truth to power, and whatever the source, every artist needs something that tells them when to shut the hell up. The opposite of this is hubris, and hubris does not great art make.

So, what I'm suggesting is, creating a piece of writing essentially about creating pieces of writing, within which one presents oneself as the arbiter of good taste in such matters, with no apparent regard for that voice cautioning one to chill a bit on the snarky bitchery... well, there you have the problem with "Are our Writers as Lousy as our Bankers?" (And, perhaps, with this piece as well.)