Giving avant-gardism the bird

Opinion by Emily Elott
Feb. 22, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. That mischievous 3-year-old got into the paint set again. She dipped her fingers in a couple of different colors and splat them on the canvas in random twirls. You’ll probably buy a $10, bright blue frame using your Amazon Prime account and put this in it. That way, she can laugh at her artistic proclivities when she’s older and has moved onto drawing female nudes in exquisite detail.

Oh, wait.

This painting isn’t the product of little grubby fingers swatting at a leftover canvas.

This is a Pollock. The Jackson Pollock. It’s “Number 18” and currently hanging at the Guggenheim.

Excuse me. What?

You see what I mean, don’t you? Without the context of the Western Art World (capitalization intended), this piece of canvas really does seem like the product of a 3-year-old enjoying herself on a Saturday afternoon.

You artsy types, of course, will take issue with my characterization here. I can already hear the censure:

“You read books. What do you know about art?”

“You’re a student at Stanford — you’re all just coders. Don’t speak the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Look, you clearly haven’t read Erich Auerbach’s ‘Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.’ Otherwise, you’d know that Pollock is playing around with the idea of visual art not as flat, reflective, representative surface, but as a medium for expression of emotion. Can’t you see the panic this painting exudes? For God’s Sake, look at the red!”

Since an article of mine wouldn’t be complete without referencing Woolf in some capacity, I’m going to invoke one of her critical maxims. Woolf wrote two essay collections that function as an ode to the “Common Reader.” Woolf’s animating impulse here is to trust instinct and naked impression. The untrained eye, the common reader, is perhaps as effective at critique as the scholar steeped in lore. This way of thinking cuts through the artifice of intellectual context to evaluate a work as it stands.

This idea isn’t popular in academe. Why would it be? If the commoner’s impression is as valuable as the scholar’s, then our professors are out of their jobs. But the idea is more complicated than that — it’s about retaining a commonness in one’s initial response to a work of art. It’s about seeing what’s really there before adding layers of complicated interpretation.

In fact, I think Jackson Pollock might have wanted me to think initially that his painting was done by a 3-year-old. Perhaps he’d say that there’s something truer about the child’s experience of the world. A child’s fingers and a child’s eye can show us something more acute and penetrating about ourselves than all the paintings of Jesus as a baby in exacting detail ever could.

Yes, I recognize that I’m spitballing here. I’m no art historian. My impression of Western Art is that it’s oversaturated with Jesus babies and I’d like to see something different. But you see my point.

Now I’ll start talking about books. I’m currently in a course called “The Challenge of ‘Ulysses.’” The course reads the James Joyce epic, avant-garde novel over the course of 10 weeks. It’s all we do. “Ulysses,” to Woolf’s common reader, i.e. me, at times resembles complete and utter gibberish.

Take, for instance, this opening line from the chapter “Oxen in the Sun”: “Universally that person’s acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and …” (314).

I won’t make you read the whole thing because it endures for a whole paragraph and doesn’t get any clearer. Honestly, it sounds like something someone might submit to the Bad Faulkner Contest — a dilatory sentence chock-full of incomprehensible jargon.

It helps to know that the entirety of “Oxen in the Sun” is a pastiche/parody of the history of the English language/prose. And this particular sentence, at the very beginning, is a nod to the Latinate origins of English.

Much like Pollock’s expressionist capturing of emotion, the idea of this chapter is, in my opinion, a cool one. The idea of mimicking the development of the English language is, for an English major, what natural language processing is to many CS students: relevant and exciting. Yet, as many CS majors also find when they get down to coding up some AI-related NLP project (look at me with my jargon!), the actual encounter with the idea is not so riveting.

The thing with Pollock, though, is that you probably aren’t going to stand for more than 20 minutes staring at “Number 18” in the Guggenheim. Maybe, if you’re really committed, you’ll spend an hour or two there, and look up the Google Images version later to confirm your hypothesis. But engaging with Pollock’s avant-gardism certainly isn’t the investment of time and effort that reading “Ulysses” is.

For perspective, it takes me around five minutes to read one page of Ulysses. Multiply that by 644 and I’ve now spent 3,220 minutes — or 54 hours — reading the novel. That’s over two days of my life dedicated to one novel. For that degree of time investment, the book better be damn good.

For some novels, the reading experience is immersive and joyous. I think of “Middlemarch” by George Eliot when I say this.

Yet, with each chapter of “Ulysses,” there comes a moment (or maybe five to seven) where I think I just can’t go on. I can’t keep saying the words in my head and having no idea what they mean. I can’t keep circling “metempsychosis” and “parallax” because they’re repeated elements and that’s supposed to be important.

I despair; I curse Joyce; I read his dirty love letters (“Fifty Shades of Grey” of the early 20th century, if you’re interested); I look up photos of him; I text my friend “Joyce iz serial killer”; I text my classmate, the token Joycean, to tell her Woolf is the Steph Curry of modernism; I think of my TA’s hopeful eyes in our 9:30 a.m. seminar, asking about the reading, hoping that we’ve done it; I steal myself to the task; I puff myself up as a pseudo-intellectual; I drink three CoHo cappuccinos; I run a mile; I try again.

Because, as much as I disparage these avant-garde art forms, as much as I parody and deflate Joyce, I couldn’t write like this without reading him first. He’s taught me how it’s possible to give pretentious intellectualism the bird even as you are trying to be a pretentious intellectual yourself. Those 54 hours aren’t wasted — I think?


Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’

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