Gerald Brenan on how art should be judged

I’m meeting with the Pen2Paper Meetup group at seven tonight. At lunch I brought along my folder of short stories. I was newly impressed with how thick the file was and how many stories I wrote between 1988 and 1989. I had always remembered those stories as being overwrought, prose too flowery, plot limited to self-indulgent, self-fulfilling stories. I read three stories this afternoon. Two brought tears to my eyes. Hmmm…

Gerald Brenan in his preface to  his 1951 survey, The Literature of the Spanish People (as opposed to literature written in Spanish), summed up his philosophy on art criticism. Every work, he wrote, whether a poem, novel or painting “can be anything—that is to say, can have any form or content—so long as it evokes feeling.” That’s a to-the-point as anything I’ve read about what art should be. He writes further, “I believe that one of the principal functions of art and literature, second only to the immediate delight and elevation of mind they give, is the manner in which they display the range and diversity of mind and experience open to human nature—thus putting us into the skin of persons very remote and different from ourselves and so mitigating our chronic state of self-imprisonmennt…” Works of art are to be valued “by the depth and quality of the experience they convey, rather than by their moral or ideological rightness. Ethical considerations only come in when they affect that experience by extending or diminishing it.

I’ve started so many prose works—I call them “text products” which hints at how I feel about what I have been doing—since 1989 but have not finished a single piece, not even a paragraph-long work. The bug for writing apparently came to life then as quickly went away. In a similar way, I wrote poems in 1972 filling a steno notebook then the flourish ended. These past two years I’ve trained what creativity I have to shooting images. I have been most successful shooting models. After processing three images from the four-hour shoot with Austin yesterday I hazard to think yesterday’s shoot was my best so far. Both Austin and his girlfriend, Jacqueline, whom I shot in April, were so into the shoot. I was tired when we finished but felt we’d done something worthwhile. Austin too felt it. He told me he’ll recommend me to the clients at the gym where he works as trainer.

Rereading my short stories reiterated a truism that I’ve found time and again. Memories are unreliable. What little we remember of the vast amount of sensory and mental events that stream through consciousness 60 seconds a minute, 24 hours a day, 24/7 has been edited into what Asian meditation teachers call ego. What fits our idea of who we are might stay to validate ego but even what remains often is misperception. Ego reshapes events. Art is reshaping events into something meaningful. Both art and ego are constructions of the mind. Why not go for art since ego or “reality” is just as perniciously false?

About orlando gustilo

Digital content producer, photographer, writer.
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