“Art as Distraction To Poetic Eyes: How Art Serves to distract us from tragedy as exemplified by W.H Auden’s Musee “Des Beaux Arts” and James Joyce’s “All Day I Hear The Noise of Waters”
Plato openly shun the idea of imitation in art, while Aristotle argued that art, in any form, is an expression of creativity and as such should not accurately mirror life. Plato, on the other hand argued that when one imitates in art, the result is a cheap 3rd hand …
Plato openly shun the idea of imitation in art, (Grande) while Aristotle argued that art, in any form, is an expression of creativity and as such should not accurately mirror life. (Hopkins) Plato, on the other hand argued that when one imitates in art, the result is a cheap 3rd hand imitation of what is actually real – Plato considered art to be the ultimate expression of life and as such should not be an imitation of it, otherwise, art becomes a substandard copy – no one can accurately imitate life, so to speak. (Grande) Aristotle, on the other hand, explains that art is not accidental, that a certain degree of permissiveness should accompany the enjoyment of art; that man is rational enough to know that art does not attempt to mimic life; rather life is presented through art from the view point of an artist, not as a copy, but as an interpretation. (Hopkins) These two philosophers here are referring to the concept of mimesis or imitation in art. On the basis of these arguments, it is easy to conclude that neither philosopher denies that art has something to do with life, one says that it should not mimic life, the other says that it should interpret life on a creative level – two arguments that do not meet in any level. However, what could be derived from these arguments is a common statement that beauty as well as the other components of art serve to distract the audience from tragedy.
No matter how tragic a subject matter is in any art form, the end result is always a beautiful piece of artistic creation; in fact, the more tragic a tragedy is, the more beautiful the resulting art piece usually becomes. This inference can be discussed in the context of poetry and the visual arts.
In poetry, emotion is concretized so that this emotion is conveyed to the reader of the poem through imagery. Imagery is achieved with the use of various devices like the figures of speech, symbolism, rhetoric, or allegory. Visual artistry is in no way different because while poetry’s objective is to convey the emotion in a significant human experience, so is the objective of visual arts, but on a more superficial level. The only difference between the two is the medium used to convey these emotions. So how do these two art forms convey beauty and as a result distract the audience from tragedy?
Poetry is able to do this because of the careful arrangement of words and statements while visual art is able to achieve this with the strokes of a brush, the harmony of images and color, and the use of light and shade. Regardless of the subject matter in both art forms, the ultimate objective of the artist is to create a good poem or a good painting. It is this end objective that makes for the creation of beautiful art forms in the end; and as a result, even if a poem talks about death, the poem itself becomes an object of beauty, or if a painting is about oppression, the finished painting itself is a source of pleasure and entertainment for the viewer. If art cannot allow man to see beauty, then what other purpose does it serve? Now, to illustrate this further, it would be best to consider the poems ‘Musee Des Beaux Arts’ by W.H. Auden and ‘All Day I hear the Noise of Waters’ by James Joyce.
Both Auden’s and Joyce’s poems are lamentations but of different levels, Auden’s is an extrinsic lamentation while Joyce’s is an intrinsic lamentation, so, Auden’s ‘About suffering they were never wrong/…It’s human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’ (1-4) becomes Joyce’s ‘He hears the winds cry to the water’s/monotone’ (5-6) Auden’s outward expression of indifference in these lines is attached to the fact that he uses everyday images to magnify the perception of human suffering, while Joyce takes on this same indifference but on an internal level, an indifference that occurs within the voice and not the way the voice perceives the indifference to be. Auden achieves a certain degree of vista in these lines by giving the audience a chance to see this indifference from their own point of view, while Joyce, invites the audience to feel this indifference from the voice’s point of view (with ‘voice’ the ‘I’ in the poems is referred to and not the authors themselves). In Auden’s poem, distraction is again tackled on a panoramic level with the lines “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure;” (14-17); this same distraction becomes intrinsic in Joyce’s “Making moan, / Sad as the sea-bird is when, going / Forth alone” (3-4) Auden refers to this distraction as intentional as the people in the ‘Icarus’ painting seem to disregard the tragedy simply because they choose to, while Joyce illustrates this same kind of distraction, but this time internalizes it in the voice, the voice recognizes this distraction and chooses to slink back into himself. From these lines one can easily perceive that not only do both poets consider art as a distraction when viewing the human condition, but also as isolating, this including their own art form. As previously stated, it is the beauty in art that gives it this isolating or distracting quality. Hence, these lines quoted from the works of Auden and Joyce actually tackle a deeper subject matter, but because of the intrinsic beauty of their work, the deeper significance becomes something that is not easily noticed unless the pieces are afforded critical readings or are given various levels of meanings. It is interesting to note, how, in their work, both of these authors set out to achieve the intended function of poetry.
A certain degree of inaction can be perceived from both of these poet’s work – such inaction being accurately related to their perception of art – that a poet’s obligation is not to cause a direct response but to facilitate an audience response by conveying an accurate emotion; in the passage from Auden, “That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” (11-13) conveys the exact same feeling of inaction as in Joyce’s closing lines “I hear the noise of many waters / Far below. / All day, all night, I hear them flowing / To and fro.” (9-12) The former, again, to convey this emotion, uses scenes from the painting, while the latter uses rhetoric, but both poets convey the exact same emotion. Notice also how in the poem of Joyce, the word ‘hear’ is repeated over and over again, but the voice in the poem does not offer any resolution to this ‘hearing’ phenomenon; in addition, the word ‘hear’ is different from ‘listen’ hence, the general tone of inaction in the poem.
How then, if both poets consider art to be a distraction of our ability to perceive the human condition, do they go about achieving the matter of chronicling significant human experience in their work? Going back to the argument on mimesis, what Auden does in his work is he provides a literary version of the Icarus painting that he interprets in his poetry. Plato considered, this poem is already a third hand piece of art, however, Aristotle would consider this an original interpretation of a piece of art that very likely, would not allow any other interpretation aside from the visual elements that it presents. Joyce, on the other hand writes about inner discord expressed as external isolation in his poem – while this is a first hand interpretation of a significant human experience, it would still be considered second hand in the context of Plato, the significant human experience being the source or origin material. Beyond the arguments of these two philosophers, what is evident in both of these poems is that both of the pieces do not intentionally distract the audience from the human condition, rather, they interpret the human condition in a way that reflects beauty and this method can in turn cause the distraction. Essentially, the intention of both poets is not to distract but to ‘write beauty’; it is just inevitable that because of this beauty focus from the human condition is diminished, but the intensity of the emotion conveyed does not change, hence a validation that both poets actually serve the purpose of poetry or their art form which is to convey accurate emotions through their writing.
Joyce poem came from a collection known as ‘Chamber Music’ (Joyce) alluding to the sound of urine when it strikes a chamber pot, however, on the issue of distraction it would also help to notice that another component of beauty in poetry is the intrinsic musicality of the poem. In Both Auden’s and Joyce’s this particular quality is present further contributing to the abstraction caused by beauty. Here, in both poems, we can see the role of music – another art form in the propulsion of beauty that is the source of all abstraction. In the lines, “Sad as the sea-bird is when, going / forth alone, / He hears the winds cry to the water’s / monotone” (3-6) two features contribute to the poem’s musicality, the first, being the line-cutting which provides a rhythm as the poem is read and the second is the rhyme in the words ‘alone’ (4) and ‘monotone’ (6) This same musicality is achieved in the poem of Auden with the example, “How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting /…/ Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating” (5,7) Auden, however uses a different technique to achieve this musicality; first, he also has the terminal rhyme in the words ‘waiting’ (5) and ‘skating’ (7) and second, he has internal feminine rhymes in the words ‘reverently’, ‘passionately’ (5), and ‘specially’ (7) On closer perusal, it will be noticed that in comparison to Joyce’s poem, Auden does not consider line cutting in the musicality of his poem. The long, wordy lines in Auden’s poem makes the poem read like prose, however the brevity and conciseness in the lines of Joyce allow a more distinct rhythm in the poem. Based on these observations in can be said of the two poems that the level of distraction coming from musicality in Auden’s piece is considerably lesser compared to that of Joyce’s piece. This is somehow expected of both writers because Auden was more inclined to narratives of pieces of visual art, while Joyce was more inclined to music, hence the tangible musicality in his poems. On the outset, this musicality also serves to increase the poem reading pleasure and so intensify the degree of distraction – poems with more musicality are fun to read but are more difficult and cryptic to understand as opposed to prose poetry which would be the quality of Auden’s work.
These two pieces could also be compared in relation to their take on modernist literature. Modernist poetry is considered to be an attempt to break away from the traditional forms of literature; hence, modernist poetry is characterized by the absence of meter and/or rhyme, or both, the avoidance of elaborate, archaic language, and the use of heavy imagism. On the issue of subject matter, modernist poetry tends to be more realistic and concentrates on negativity. (Grimes) Although Auden might be considered less modernist because of the period he was in, his work on ‘Musee Des Beaux Arts’ shows evidence of the negativist point of view which is common in modernist poetry, hence the lines, “About suffering they were never wrong, / …/ that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow /…/how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster” (1, 10-11, 14-15) In these lines, it is clear that Auden, despite the beauty in his poem, focused on the negative aspects of the subject matter, validating suffering (1), hopelessness (10-11), as well as indifference to tragedy (14-15). Joyce, on the other hand, was more modernist in his writing especially is his espousal of the ‘free verse’ form as would be noticed in his poem ‘All Day I hear the Noise of Waters’. As mentioned earlier, the musicality in this poem comes from the unconventional line cutting which is common in modernist poetry; notice also his allusion to pessimist and negativism, in the line, “The grey winds, the cold winds are blowing / where I go.” (7-8) as well as “Sad as the sea-bird is when going / Forth alone” (3-4) The latter refers to natural phenomena to create the tone of sadness and isolation, while the former talks about remoteness; two very common themes in modernist poetry that often deals with human realities – to consider in these types of poetry is the existence of the significant human experience in the subject matter. Both poets also make use of heavy imagism in their work, as in the lines “the sun shone / As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green” (17-18) from Auden, and the same lines mentioned above from Joyce. This imagism, as opposed to imagery, is the direct reference to actual visual images instead of using these images to refer to something else. Whatever deeper meaning is read into these poems is entirely up to the reader, as is expected of modernist poetry.
Now, on the matter of significance, the argument is if these two poets actually inject some sort of function into their poetry. For this, the discussion should focus on what the poets achieve with their poetry. In Auden’s poem, the lines, “the sun shone / As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green / Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” (17-21) the function of the poem is clear – to offer a commentary on the work of art being described in the poem; a commentary that focuses on the disregard of the artist of the emotional and ethical significance of the scene being depicted. In the same manner, Joyce offers this same feature in his poem, that is, having it perform a particular function, in the lines “Monotone. / The grey winds, the cold winds are blowing / Where I go.” (6-8) the poem functions as an inner conscience for the reader; that abject disregard or indifference can and will cause someone to feel melancholic or lose confidence in him/herself. These functions of both poet’s work simply show that indeed the poets are able to achieve what they have set out to achieve when writing their pieces.
The issue of beauty being the distraction in art is therefore validated in these two poems, however, it has to be understood that this particular function of art in general, which is to present the human condition with beauty as the platform, is not necessarily consequential; in effect, what art does, if the works of these two artists are considered, is it offers a panacea to the human condition. This can neither be good or bad because in reality, there is no beautiful tragedy, hence, in the context of the arguments of Aristotle, art being a means of creative expression and a medium of entertainment, (Hopkins) the literature of these two poets have lived up to that particular expectation. On the matter of significant human experience, the two poets also consider this element in their work, making their work offer a deeper insight into things other than just allowing these pieces to remain as insignificant objects of beauty. Beauty and art cannot be separated, hence, the audience can either do one of two things in going beyond the distraction that art offers; one is to consider this distraction as a necessary affinity to art and simply perceive the emotion offered by the art form on a distant level, and two is to immerse oneself totally in the art form and enjoy all of its features, the beauty, the emotion, and the deeper insights offered. Either way, an audience remains confident in the fact that both methods of appreciation would keep them safely in the domains of beauty – isolate them from the actual emotions in the art form, but only to a certain degree – a degree associated with appreciating art on the level of human creativity, expression, and entertainment. Nevertheless, it has to be finally recognized that although the beauty in art can distract the audience from the deeper insight, it has to be settled once and for all that this does not only apply to literature, but to art in general and if this particular function of art is taken away, then there would be no art to begin with. The artistic experience is, as mentioned earlier, a multi-level experience, or an experience that involves all the senses. In this context, it is expected that art should be perceived as something that is able to influence all of the senses of a human being and cause subtle changes in these senses – in this particular feature of art, the distraction is no longer considered a distraction but simply a new level of experiencing the art form, or a new detail in the multi-sensory experience, notwithstanding the emotional aspect and conveyance of emotion closely associated with the art of literature.
In closing, it is appropriate to consider that whatever form of art is given due attention in any particular situation, only one thing will always emerge and that is the intrinsic pleasure that one gets from the artistic experience. It may sound barbaric at times, to experience pleasure from experiencing the human condition through the eyes or mind of an artist, but no one is forced to seek morality in art. Morality does not exist in art because it is a means of expression and as such, is not an act in itself. ‘Spolarium’ (Luna) , which is a painting by Juan Luna depicting oppression, torture, and abuse is considered a beautiful piece of art despite the brutality of its subject matter, in fact it is priced beyond imagination. If people dismiss art as something that clouds the mind and separates man from the reality that he knows, art will not exist, because as a matter of argument, art is simply there to offer an alternative dimension, an alternate view of reality, and a more privileged front row point of view of the drama that is life.
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