Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
This famous poem is often cited as an illustration of the principle that art changes our perception not only of the objects depicted but the world itself. It came to mind recently as I read a provocative essay by Emilia Copeland Titus in Issue 19 of Barrelhouse. Among other things, Titus ponders questions of forgery and whether a perfect copy of a masterpiece could have the same intrinsic value as an original work. “If the same amount of time and effort
and artistry is put onto a fake Max Ernst painting as was put into a real Max Ernst painting, what’s the difference?” she asks. “We only know about the great forgers of the world because they were eventually caught—I wonder how many fraudulent artworks have moved their unknowing audiences to tears throughout time.” (“Variation on Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” p. 96)
I admit I have no ready answer, other than
some vague intuition about the artist’s vision as opposed to the skill of a talented copyist. But considering these questions led me in turn to meditate on what elements actually constitute a complete work of art. First, obviously, materials: e.g., paint, canvas, stone, plaster, words, sounds, systems of notation, musical instruments (including the voice), pencil, ink, paper, human and animal bodies. For visual and written art, one must further consider subject matter and the objects in
view (even if they may be abstract). Music and dance, on the other hand, seem to be ends in themselves as regards subjects (excepting opera). (Drama is somewhat unusual if not unique among art forms, being a mixture of words and performance. But most plays can stand as written works even without performance.)
The question gets more complex when we add process to the mix. Until Impressionism arrived, works of art tended to be considered autonomous or
at most discrete parts of larger works. The Impressionists were seemingly the first to illustrate both the process of seeing and that of creating the work that documents that vision. Similarly, the Romantic poets brought the lyric first person to the forefront, leading many readers to the (usually erroneous) identification of speaker with poet. But in any case we seem to be following the poet’s thought process as the poem progresses. Who hasn’t visualized John Keats at the window
listening to the legendary nightingale as it evokes a series of powerful emotions?
T.S. Eliot’s well known doctrine of the impersonality of the poet (which was a cover anyway) notwithstanding, modern and contemporary literature have largely foregrounded the process of making even when personas or so-called omniscient narrators are present. This development runs in parallel with the practice of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Cubists,
etc., in visual art.
Music, on the other hand, strikes me as a rather different case, along with dance. While a score may offer great pleasure or edification to a musician or musical scholar, a full appreciation of a musical work, whether simple pop song, jazz masterpiece, or complex symphony or concerto, requires performance. The composer, while she may be discerned in that ineffable element we call style, is less obviously present in the work, unless
she has exchanged her composer hat for that of performer. Dance, of course, requires actual and literal embodiment. (I know very little about that art and no doubt critics and aficionados can discern characteristic touches from the choreographer.) W.B. Yeats famously asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” and the answer is we can’t.
But knowing the creator from the creation? Once we’ve understood that the lyric
“I” is not literally the writer or that an omniscient narrator is not the voice of God, that a painter or sculptor records what he or she sees or feels, are we not inclined to see the writer as an autonomous, external figure to his poem or story? Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era, addresses this notion beautifully. “Flaubert had wanted the artist, lonely as God, to be somewhere outside his work, which is impossible: impossible because words are said by somebody; because—at the furthest remove from the intimacies of breath—a bicycle saddle and handlebars, even when no sculpturing hand molests their shapes, denote by their power to combine into a bull’s head a possibility some human eye has seen.” Further, “all versions of the same plot, whatever the ‘viewpoint,’ have the same system of interconnectedness…. All ways of telling the same story are homeomorphic, even the way that ingeniously lets us suppose that the teller has been removed.”
(Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p. 33)
We speak of a writer’s voice and somehow mean something different from style. We identify stylistic elements—line, color, subject—characteristic of artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Rothko, Frankenthaler, Cassatt and begin to speculate about the source of these things inside the artist. We wonder about some artists’ obsessions: Monet’s haystacks, Degas’ dancers, Susan
Rothenberg’s horses, Henry Miller’s sex, my own clouds and weather systems.
Consider the poem that I began with. Presumably a fiction by one of the most inscrutable poets of the 20th century whose work seems as impersonal as Eliot could only have dreamed, it nevertheless shows the traces of its creator who, though doubtless he did not literally travel to Tennessee, jar in hand, to change forever our perception of the relationship between
nature and artifice, still had to imagine his hand, the jar, the hillside, the flora and fauna, and follow his imagined actions to their logical conclusion.
The artist is never absent.