The following review appears in Gently Read Literature, a site of reviews (see link on Blogroll for the complete volume of reviews), and my story “Call It A Hat,” which appears in the anthology “Art From Art,” gets a big old shout-out. Also, in the interest of exhilarating art, I gift you with this image from the streets of Paris.
Sam Kerbel on Art From Art
For an artist to reveal his or her muse is to disclose the inner workings of an aesthetic work. In other cases, or perhaps simultaneously, the work itself exposes the artist. When Lord Henry Wotton asks Basil Hallward in the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray why he refuses to show his painting, Basil replies, “I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”
The short story collection Art From Art, edited by Stephen Soucy, puts these competing notions on full display. A Los Angeles-based writer/filmmaker and founder of Modernist Press, Soucy has assembled thirty-eight short pieces of fiction that draw their inspiration from works of art both real and imagined. The nature of these relationships, however, proves more complicated than they may seem. Does knowledge of the influencing artwork or art form reveal the most important aspects of the story it inspired? Or is analyzing the story itself the key to understanding the relationship between writer and art?
A fervent postmodernist may cite Barthes or Foucault and claim that this dilemma is entirely irrelevant, since both involve the identity of the author—who is, of course, dead. But if one replaces the author with the story’s characters, this equation suddenly becomes intriguing. The question then becomes whether a pre-existing knowledge of the artwork at hand provides meaning for the story, or whether the story itself has more to do with the art as it interacts with the principal characters.
Consider Tracy DeBrincat’s exhilarating story “Call It A Hat,” whose action takes place primarily at a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As the story progresses, the emotional state of the protagonist, Lydia, becomes seamlessly intertwined with that of the music, obviating the need for any knowledge of the pieces in question. As she listens to a concerto by Shostakovich, for example, the narrator observes that Lydia “slipped away on the opening flourish for trumpet and piano, then down the broader, darker themes underscored by the strings and the solo trumpet’s solemn sustained notes.” By the time Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is performed, Lydia’s mind has fully assumed the agitated qualities of the piece:
The music crashed and thundered with jarring percussion and offbeat rhythms. Lydia’s mind leapt to one possible future. Some Saturday afternoon, with her husband Franklin out returning videos and Lydia home in her pajamas, holding a fan of glossy Polaroids of anonymous body parts, red, shiny, engorged; opened and spread by manicured fingers, wrists with gold watches. Quick! What kind of watch did Franklin wear? A brown leather band. Was is cracked? Crocodile? A gold face…
The Shostakovich and Stravinsky fuel Lydia’s dizzying state, which in turn perceives the music as increasingly frenzied. Lydia does not simply coexist with the music; the two form an intensely symbiotic relationship that gradually generates a similar effect on the reader.
While Art From Art explores the relationship between art and audience, it does not totally ignore the role of the author. Along with bios, Soucy includes brief statements by the authors describing the pieces of art that triggered their writing and the circumstances in which the stories were composed. And like scholarly introductions to famous works of fiction, these concise declarations may limit the scope of the reader’s experience if read before the story itself.
Despite this caveat, the author statements serve a critical purpose: rendering the artistic process in action. The brilliance of Art From Art as a concept lies both in its presentation of the inter-relationship between art and writing as well as its exploration of how human beings experience art. In some pieces, including “Call It a Hat” and Richard Zimler’s breathtaking story “Stealing Memories,” art plays as overt a role as Dorian’s portrait in Oscar Wilde’s novel. In others, like “Flesh, Blood, and Some of the Parts (Le sang du monde)” by Marshall Moore, art exercises a more subtle yet equally powerful influence, both regarding the story’s plot as well as its style.
Soucy notes in the introduction that “it was easy to discern the best of the bunch” from all the submissions he received. But among the present selection, several works stand out in their treatment of the artworks that inspired them. Besides the three aforementioned stories, Anne Whitehouse’s “A Visit to the Stock Exchange” and Sean Padraic McCarthy’s “The Man Who Walks Beside the Sea” rank among the most compelling and well-crafted in the collection. At almost four hundred pages, Art From Art could have benefited from more serious cuts.
Nevertheless, the result is a pristine volume that presents itself as an aesthetic object. Filled with stunning visual art, Soucy’s collection defies the digital allure of the e-reader age (if there is one) in its exquisite presentation. This is not an accident. Another story, “Scanner Days, Starry Nights” by Martin Rose, depicts a world where digital museums—financed by global banks—incinerate original artworks. Rose’s personal statement may as well be Art From Art’s raison d’etre: “In our virtual world, we have lost our connection to fearless, artistic sensibility, and seek to destroy it.” Whether self-aware or not, this warning validates the need for more books like Art From Art, sounding the call to preserve artistic authenticity in the digital age.