Notes to Self
What art writing can learn from the lessons of literature
Italo Calvino at his home in Paris (1984)
I have always imagined that ‘creative’ writers confront the blank page accompanied by a coterie of kindred spirits – authors, fictional characters, fantastical creatures or historical figures – with whom they identify or against whom their own imaginations have been shaped. These companions, summoned into what Marguerite Duras once termed the writer’s ‘necessary solitude’, can serve as a comfort or a distraction. I always imagine that these writers have collections of talismans – favourite songs, images, texts or careworn mementos – that surround the workspace or are ritually tucked away and retrieved when required. This (wholly generic) fantasy is hospitable enough to art writers – a somewhat special breed. Because our texts depend on the aesthetic imagination and artistic production of others, we are perhaps more akin to translators than we are to ‘true’ writers. I mean nothing pejorative by that distinction: translators generously lend themselves to texts and to authors, just as art writers lend themselves to art and to artists. In order to communicate meaning, art writers, like translators, must navigate the familiar if treacherous straits of fidelity to, and betrayal of, pre-existing objects and discourses. And they must negotiate how to filter their subjective experience into or out of their rendering.
Most discussions about art writing today, especially those that worry about the role of the critic or the state of criticism, tend to centre on its historical relationship to the discipline of art history and to the vagaries of the art market, or on more philosophical questions of aesthetic judgment. Some accounts insist that the function of art criticism, its injunction to critique, takes precedence over any creative exploration into the gulf that separates the moment we see an art work from the moment we are able to say something meaningful about it. Art writing, as pluralistic and uneven as the genre may be, is tightly linked to an established set of references and intellectual expectations (not to mention such crucial, if mundane, practicalities as word counts, formats, venues, deadlines and fees). Too much writerly attention to the form of a text can lead to dismissive charges of belle-lettrism. And yet there are wonderful art writers who are also consummate storytellers. So I wonder: why don’t more art writers stray from the well-trodden path in order to privilege great narrators, over theorists, art historians and art critics, as their authorial models?
It was on the advice of an artist that I recently re-read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), which suddenly and inadvertently emerged as a precious, potential map to the treasures art writers (and their readers) might yield by simply widening their referential scope. Fifteen years before the turn of the last century, Calvino wrote five of the memos – titled ‘Lightness’, ‘Quickness’, ‘Exactitude’, ‘Visibility’ and ‘Multiplicity’ – for the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The sixth, titled ‘Consistency’, was unfinished and the lectures undelivered when Calvino was hospitalized and subsequently died of a brain haemorrhage.
Calvino’s approach to his themes remains timely. His introduction refers to the waning 20th century as the ‘millennium of the book’, and each of the essays raises the issue of literature’s survival in the face of changes in the world and in world-views, due in part to the relentless accretion of information and the expansion of technology. Calvino’s tone is jauntily sanguine, his faith in literature profound and secure. He is adamant that literature will outlast us all, though an occasional expression of despair pierces his optimism. Calvino outlines a constellation of multi-lingual, temporally and geographically diverse textual and visual sources for his own thinking on writing, which range from ancient mythology and modern poetry to the contemporary novel and the vernacular folk-tale. The purpose of the memos is not just to remind his reader that this wealth of material exists; he seeks to reaffirm a set of values that are specific to writing.
These values are characterized by their interrelatedness and their duality; they are not mutually exclusive, Calvino insists, they ‘do not exclude their opposites.’ Instead the beam cast by his first memo on lightness throws into relief the contrasting facets of ‘a lightness of thoughtfulness’ and ‘a lightness of frivolity’. By citing a Sicilian dictum that ‘time takes no time in a story’, Calvino’s exposition on quickness actually winds up encouraging us to linger on a text. He laments the ‘unending rainfall of images’ that has contributed to an increasing lack of linguistic and literary exactitude, a value that is essential, for example, to the meticulous description an art writer relies upon. Yet, in his essay on multiplicity, he also celebrates the wide-angle view of ambitious, far-reaching projects swelling with knowledge, as well as the spinning of non-linear tales that spiral into other narratives. He ends with a plea to recognize the multiplicity of our selves: ‘Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.’
If each life is a multiplicity, Calvino still imagines the writer as fundamentally influenced by two mythological figures: Hermes-Mercury, the fleet-footed god of communication, and Chronos-Saturn, the ponderous god of melancholic introspection. ‘I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury,’ he admits, ‘and everything I write reflects these two impulses.’ These are liberating words of solace for those writers, including me, who sometimes find the extroversion and sociability the métier of art writing requires at odds with the thoughtful, slow and empty time needed to process what I have seen. I’m no wallflower, but I do find myself, chin in hand, eyeing the Mercuries with envy.
Visibility is the value we might most readily associate with the task of the art writer, as a principal aim is to conjure up the visual and direct a reader’s focus to it through textual equivalents. The beauty of Calvino’s writing resides in its constant and joyous shuttle between the verbal and the visual realms. Few have excelled as he did at identifying and cultivating the processes by which words generate mental images and images inspire the manufacture of texts. For Calvino, ‘the word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.’ Shouldn’t we all be flinging such bridges? Shouldn’t we, in this millennium and in honour of his lost memo on consistency, embrace the values Calvino sought to save?