Monday, July 23, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
ACCIDENTAL WORKS OF ART
This week, I propped myself up in my study and read my way through James McNeish’s memoir Touchstones, while opera CDs blared out from my sound system.
Among them was a two-disk recording of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
I picked it up for almost nothing ($3 I think) from a Warehouse bargain-bin about five years ago. It is the recording of a performance by a provincial Italian opera company. The cast features no names that anyone would recognize. The orchestra belongs to the provincial opera house. Nothing illustrious about it.
Much as I love opera, I am not a trained musician and I do not have the ear to distinguish the finer grades of musicianship. Yet even I can tell that this is a mediocre performance. The Figaro isn’t able to set off the real fireworks that some baritones can produce with the Largo al Factotum. Like Susan Kane in the movie Citizen Kane, the poor mezzo playing Rosina almost muffs the sustained high note of the sentimental song Una Voce Poco Fa in the singing-lesson scene. I’m sure professional music critics would savage it and direct me to much better recordings of the opera.
Yet I love this particular recording more than any of the thirty-odd other recordings I have of complete operas. Its imperfections are part of its charm. Because of badly-positioned mikes, I can hear the creaking of the stage every time the singers have to move. The sound-balance is way out of whack, so that sometimes what is being sung on the one side of the stage is barely audible.
The effect on me is like really being in the provincial opera house where it was recorded. I am there to enjoy a second-rate company doing its very best – and I do enjoy it.
This is an example of what I would call an “accidental” work of art. I’m sure the singers and musicians didn’t aim for mediocrity, and the sound-engineers were doing their very best – but the real and beautiful thing they have produced has nothing to do with their intentions. It is quite accidental. If they were all a bit better at their jobs, the recording would be quite unworthy of note.
This is not a unique specimen of the “accidental work of art” phenomenon. There springs to mind a very well-known example.
Probably no poem about cats has been reprinted as often as Christopher Smart’s lines on “My cat Jeoffrey” [yes, that is how the name is spelt in the original].
They are the ones that begin
“For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.”
There are 74 lines in the poem in all, although most anthologies (and musical settings of the poem) reproduce only some of them.
But ironically, what we have here is at most half of the lines as they were originally conceived and written. Confined to an 18th, century madhouse, Smart planned a huge poem to be called Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”). It was to be written in the antiphonal style of the Psalms – strophe and anti-strophe. A verse beginning with “Let” would be answered by a verse beginning “For”. But this work was never completed and has survived only in fragments. Some of the fragments have “Let” verses only and some of the fragments have “For” verses only. And when it comes to the “my cat Jeoffrey” lines, all we have left are the “For” responses. It’s like having the right-hand side only of a written page.
So, while noting and admitting the observation and lively use of language poor Kit Smart displays, here is a great poem which has the form it has only because of an accident. I wonder - if we had these lines as Smart wrote them, would the “Let” verses have smothered up the greatness of the “For” verses from the world, and made readers pass them over so that they never became a classic?
“Accident” can, of course, mean an artist being interrupted in his/her work and never completing it as intended – but in the process leaving something better than was consciously intended. Perhaps Balzac’s best short story is Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (“The Unknown Masterpiece”), about an artist who obsessively works and works and works for years at a canvas which he believes will be his greatest work – and in the process manages to smother and blot out the inspiration that originally fired him, leaving an overworked, uninteresting canvas as the result. The implicit moral is that a great work might indeed have been produced if the artist had been stopped soon enough. Knowing when to abandon things is a key to creation. Accident, interruption, thwarting an artist’s conscious intentions, may produce much good art. (And don’t get me started on the person from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge’s writing of Kubla Khan).
I am intrigued by this idea of accidental works of art.
Here abandoning my own verbosity, and inviting you to submit to this blog your own examples of accidental works of art, I leave you with a poem of mine that brushes the theme before moving somewhere else.
THE THING ITSELF
An accidental work of art
the rusted hand-saw missing teeth,
smooth and half-unbolted wooden handle.
A partner of the borered shed
with slats burst open to the day,
half-in, half-out, a ryokan by chance.
Each turned by time. Function is lost
where art is the decay of use
articulating dead utility.
The blind cat crouching on the fence
no longer hunter, takes the sun,
its artistry self-centred uselessness.
The sheepshank that supported weight,
gnawed and discarded, stroked by rain,
transmutes into a short-term Henry Moore.
Time burns out the stain of use.
Alzheimic or incontinent,
the old are time’s last art. The thing itself.