Friday 20 September 2002

Beauty and sadness

Despite the impression I may have given, I’m not entirely immune to sentimental things. Twenty years ago, when I was married, my wife and I went to see An Officer and a Gentleman. Midway through the utterly improbable ending—when Zac Mayo graduates from officer training and strides into the paper mill to rescue Paula Pokrifki from a life of drudgery, with Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes belting out Up Where We Belong—I turned to my wife with tears streaming down my face and said: “I don’t care if it’s sentimental bullshit, sometimes that’s just what we need.”

So I was fine with Loren Webster’s disagreeing with my post in support of Mike Golby that the role of art is to “show how things really are,” to strip away sentimentality. Loren wrote:

revealing the “truth” in this sense is only one aspect of art. An equally important role is to show what life “can be,” to hold up models of what we want our lives to become…

I would argue that both are real, and both are the domain of the true artist. The artist does not have to choose one or the other to be an “artist,” though contemporary art critics certainly seem to have come down on the side of angst and despair. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other, though, seems to be a distortion of reality, a distortion of truth, whatever that might be.

He’s right. Yet though I have no difficulty laughing or kidding around, I do have a deep-seated preference for art suffused with sadness. Loren’s positive view of sentimentality springs partly from his experience of receiving some precious gifts as a child, despite his family’s being “poor.” My distaste for sentimentality was formed in childhood too, from observing the gap between the words I was told and the reality I experienced. I think that’s why I associate bleakness with “how things really are.”

It’s why I adore the photographs of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and (some would say, unfairly) dismiss Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson as sentimental hacks. And why I never missed an episode of Seinfeld, whereas other sitcoms hardly interested me at all. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were simultaneously real and funny, because the humor was based upon an essentially pessimistic view of human nature.

So it’s sentimental perfection that I object to (see Adams and Cartier-Bresson), as Loren picked up on in his following post:

Unfortunately, Jonathon is also right that the “perfect” family is probably over represented on the web, while there is far too little exposure to those who are struggling to transcend their background. As an ex-teacher and ex-caseworker, I know that far too many people are caught up merely trying to survive and have neither the desire nor the ability to express the pain that they are feeling publicly. As a result, they are often stereotyped and shoved aside while less-deserving, but more vocal, “chosen” people try to design the world to fit their needs and punish those who don’t fit in.

Because Mike Golby has the desire, the ability, and the courage to express publicly the pain he is feeling, his writing must inevitably be unsentimental. So although I can see some stylistic similarities, I was surprised that Loren identified Mike as the “Kerouac” of blogging, since Kerouac has always seemed a deeply sentimental writer to me. (I need to spend some time re-reading Loren’s Kerouac essays.)

Ultimately, though, I prefer unsentimental art because I find it more engaging. I agree with the sculptor Louise Bourgeois when she said: “Happy people have no stories.”



I wonder if there is a sort of melancholia that distorts in a similar way (though opposite direction) as does sentimental perfection.

I'm too much of a melancholic myself to know.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on 20 September 2002 at 11:01 PM

In what types of behavior would this other melancholia manifest itself?

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 21 September 2002 at 12:23 AM

I'm not sure, though defeatism and apathy come to mind. Fatalism. Again, I need somebody outside my own worldview to weigh in on this. Just as it takes a non-sentimentalist to point the finger at sentimentalism, it takes a non-melancholic...

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on 21 September 2002 at 06:40 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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