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“Froth” and “Cloud Formations”

“You know,” the painter said, “that art froth, that artist fornication, that general art-and-artist loathsomeness, I always found that repelling; those cloud formations of basest self-preservation topped with envy…Envy is what holds artists together, envy, pure envy, everyone envies everyone else for everything…I talked about it once before, I want to say: artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers, and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet, its disgusting cramps, its peripheral puffings and swellings, its pustular secretions…I want to say: artists are the great emetic agents of the time, they are always the great, the very greatest emetics…Artists, are they not a devastating army of absurdity, of scum? The infernality of unscrupulousness is something I always meet with the thoughts of artists…But I don’t want any artist’s thoughts anymore, no more of those unnatural thoughts, I want nothing more to do with artists or with art, yes, not with art either, that greatest of all abortions…Do you understand: I want to get right away from that bad smell. Get away from that stink, I always say to myself, and secretly I always thought, get away from that corrosive, shredding, useless lie, get away from that shameless simony…” He said: “Artists are the identical twins of hypocrisy, the identical twins of lowmindedness, the identical twins of licensed exploitation, the greatest licensed exploitation of all time. Artists, as they have shown themselves to me to be,” he said, “are all dull and grandiloquent, nothing but dull and grandiloquent, nothing…”

This screed, delivered by Strauch, the oft-contradictory, and therefore largely unreliable, painter, failed painter, that is, in Thomas Bernhard’s Frost (a book I’m in the middle of reading, right now), strikes me as particularly pertinent to a discussion of the artist’s imagined and actual place in contemporary American mainstream culture. While I certainly don’t agree with its thesis as a whole, that is, with its position that all artists and art can be defined and ultimately dismissed in this way, I do think it may serve as apt criticism for much of what’s shoved down our throats as art by mainstream media, and, sadly, what appears all too often in independent media. While I certainly disagree with Strauch’s assertion that all art is by definition a failure, that it is a ruin at best: what he calls an “abortion”; Strauch also perhaps elevating here a purity of form, of idea, perhaps in some subservience to some  Platonic ideal, another idea I’d reject; I will say, however, that I, too, am often repulsed by what passes for fiction (I’ll limit my thoughts here to fiction, but I can easily point to many examples of art from other disciplines that have sickened me) these days, and find myself pushing away from texts as if it were some heinous smell, the kind of stink that sticks to your clothing, enters into your nostrils like some kind of snake, only to coil around your stomach, making you want to vomit. How often I’ve felt like what I’ve read was indeed “corrosive,” that it tore away at my eyes and ears like so much acid. How often I’ve felt, with a nod to Freud, that some so-called artists are like toddlers just learning to get rid of their waste, who run to their parents for praise and approval anytime they’ve left some urine or feces in the potty, exclaiming, “Look at what I’ve done!” How often I’ve bemoaned how so-called writers pleasure themselves (alas, in their pleasuring offering little of interest for others to find pleasure in), who then conglomerate into annoying circle jerks; each one offering his or her “disgusting cramps,” “peripheral puffings and swellings,” and “pustular secretions” for all the world to admire. How often I’ve felt that what people make and then have the audacity to show off are as evanescent as the “froth” and “cloud formations” that Strauch rails against.

I’ve had enough of it. Fortunately, though, there are writers out there who, like Bernhard, provide sustaining, intelligent, provocative, challenging, critical, exemplary works of art for me to consider, reminding me that even though there’s a mountain of froth out there, there’s still so much to admire, to learn from, to be inspired by.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

3 thoughts on ““Froth” and “Cloud Formations”

  1. But John, what would we have to write about if we didn’t have these clouds? I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now and still somehow I think we need them now. The illusory nature of these works spurs some to take more chances.

    1. I suppose the best I can do in response to your response, which I’m reading as light sarcasm, is to quote Wallace Stevens’s “Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds” (a title consistently botched, where “On” is used instead of “Of”):

      Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns,
      Meekly you keep the mortal rendezvous,
      Eliciting the still sustaining pomps
      Of speech which are like music so profound
      They seem an exaltation without sound.
      Funest philosophers and ponderers,
      Their evocations are the speech of clouds.
      So speech of your processionals returns
      In the casual evocations of your tread
      Across the stale, mysterious seasons. These
      Are the music of meet resignation; these
      The responsive, still sustaining pomps for you
      To magnify, if in that drifting waste
      You are to be accompanied by more
      Than mute bare splendors of the sun and moon.

      With all due respect to the ever-reliable Eleanor Cook, who in A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens, rather snippily dismisses this poem as “not quite liv[ing] up to the promise of its title,” this poem is, perhaps, Stevens at his acerbic best. He chastises “Gloomy grammarians” for their words, which amount to so much noiseless noise; and lambasts “Funest philosophers and philosophers,” those lamentable ushers of death or evil all, for their suggestions, their hints, their aura, their air; which are really “the speech of clouds,” this last bit perhaps an allusion to Aristophanes’s play, The Clouds, itself a satirical attack of intellectuals in Classical Athens.

      1. Seems he wrote this around the time of “The Comedian as the Letter C.”

        I was just readin in the Longenach book on Stevens – The Plain Sense of Things – about Stevens’s second silence. Coinciding with the birth of his daughter.

        His last poem before the silence was “Sea Surface Full Of Clouds.”

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