Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Unphotogenic Art Form

“Of all things written, I love only what a person has written with his blood.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Think hard: have you ever seen an interesting movie or documentary about a writer? In the past several weeks, I have seen documentaries that did wonderful jobs of portraying two very different art forms: musical composition and painting. A Labyrinth of Time gives us American composer Elliott Carter, while the truly gonzo, loopy documentary Condo Painting shows us the painter George Condo at work. And this is the key: we see these artists at work.

We see Carter working with musicians, hunched over the piano sorting out a composition problem, conducting an orchestra; and when he wasn’t doing much of anything, the filmmakers showed him wandering the streets of his beloved Manhattan with his compositions as background music. With Condo, the visual “photogenic” aspects of his art form are even more obvious; I have a hard time imagining a boring documentary when your raw materials are paint and turpentine and canvases where new work is constructed as the camera watches.

And there’s the problem with writing. There is nothing visual about it. with Carter and Condo, we get to see them doing their art – and it is exciting. Watching a writer do his art is about as exciting as watching a tree put out new growth rings. Making a film in which the main action would be a writer writing would be a disaster. Films about writers always show the writer living his life, not doing his art. There is basically nothing to show.

The other problem with writing as an art form is that (until recently) there have been very few non-traditional outlets for the writer’s craft. We’ve all heard the story (probably apocryphal) of the woman who kick starts a photography career by hanging some of her work in a local bank lobby. We’ve all heard about the actor who got his start acting off-off-off-Broadway (or even doing street theatre). We even have the unforgettable image of Basquiat bombing the walls and subway trains of New York City with his spraypainted art.

Maybe blogs like this are what we writers get to have other than the all-too-rare experience of publication. Maybe the internet is how our art finally gets to be photogenic. Maybe what we’re doing out here is bombing the digital subways with our art.

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