Monday, October 22, 2007

If that isn't aura it'll have to do

Robert Smithson said a great artist can create art by casting a glance. He raged at the materialism of the art world which gave legitimacy only to the objects that could be bought and sold.

Duchamp cast a glance upon a urinal and there was Fountain. And he saw that it was good. And in 2002 its estimated market value was $3.6 million. (here, here) Andy Warhol cast a glance upon Campbell's Soup cans and Brillo boxes and there was Campbell's Soup Can and Brillo Box. And he saw that they were good. And he was not alone. And if I were being paid to write this post I would look up the latest auction prices for a Campbell Soup Can, but native sloth is not tempered by greed.

In The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility Walter Benjamin argued that the work of art had lost its aura once technology had enabled multiple copies to be made. The art market has always had a different take on this. That Picasso's Boy with a Pipe sold for $106 million might suggest that the possibility of copies simply reinforces the fact that the value of the original lies not in its appearance (which may be replicated or even improved on), but in the brute fact that it is what it is, the thing for which copies are substitutes. But the siblings of Fountain were not replicas of the Chosen One; they all went through the production line in their huddled masses, and Duchamp bestowed the aura of Art upon one, and created what has been called one of the most influential works of 20th-century art.

The question arises: how can two physically indistinguishable objects be different works of art? How can two physically indistinguishable objects fall into different categories, one a work of art, one not? It's a question which is explored at length in A.C. Danto's The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, a seminal work on the philosophy of art first published in 1980 -- coincidentally, the year of publication of Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, and also the year Raymond Carver wrote a 7-page letter to Gordon Lish begging him to publish Carver's stories in their original form rather than the form achieved after substantial alteration by Lish.


"If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that's how closely, God forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being."

D T Max, consulting the archives in 1998, found that Lish had cut some stories by as much as 70%, changed the endings of more than half, moved lines around. Lish ignored Carver's request and sent his own work to print under Carver's name. So Carver got the royalties and the recognition; he was simply not permitted to see his own work in print.

Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, wants to publish the stories in their original form. Carver's publishers, Knopf, have refused to do this and claim publication by another firm would constitute a competing edition calling for legal action. Gary Fisketjon, a senior editor at Knopf, says he would as soon see Carver's body dragged from the grave, and accuses of Gallagher of wanting to rewrite history.

Most Carver fans think the Lish versions are best. No one thinks the Lish versions should be removed from circulation. No one, including Fisketjon, thinks history would be better served if Lish got a credit on the cover of this edition. These are the definitive versions, and they should be published under the name of Carver alone.

The controversy has thrown up so many oddities it's hard to know where to start. We're told many times that 'everyone knows' that writing is a collaborative activity and that all writers need editors - except that it's somehow scandalous for the actual nature of this activity to be brought out into the open and a name attached to it. Fisketjon objects to the rewriting of history, when ALL reputable historians value access to primary sources and regard with deep suspicion attempts to suppress them. The relation of authors to texts has been a central subject in literary theory for at least the last half-century (Barthes' 'The Death of the Author' was published in 1951, Derrida's 'On Grammatology' and 'On Writing and Difference' in 1967, Foucault's 'What is an author' in 1969, Iser's The Implied Reader in 1978, Fish's Is there a text in this class? in 1982, one could go on and on and on), and literary theory, for better or worse, has dominated the literature departments of American universities for much of that time - yet theory, it seems, cannot be mentioned in the presence of a general audience. Different art forms follow different conventions in their approach to collaboration, accreditation and division of the spoils, but it won't do to examine the conventions of the book world in their light.

In the art world, the phenomenon of the artist obsessively reworking the 'same' material is so commonplace as to be the stuff of introductory courses. Giacometti returned again and again to his figures striding into the void; Monet painted Rouen Cathedral at different times of day; Warhol gave us Marilyns and Maos in different colourways - there is no one right thing, only multiple possibilities that another eye might not have seen. A composer may write variations on a theme without exciting dismay. It's accepted that different performers may offer radically different interpretations of a piece - Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations are different from Murray Perahia's, Solti's Parsifal is different from Boulez's. There is not only tolerance of but interest in the process of development, its place in an artist's history, its place in the history of an art. And in the case of music, of course, we cannot help but be aware of the time- and placebound nature of interpretation - soloists, ensembles and conductors all bear the traces of the history of their engagement with music.

This awareness of historical embeddedness, of the work of art placed in time, which we find in other arts is more or less absent in the book world - not in academia, of course, but in the world of publication and reviews. A metaphysics of authorial presence justifies the time-consuming activity of replacing what the author wrote with a different text: a person who is generally not identified on the book engages in the business of helping the text to be true to the author's voice. However extensive the alterations urged, this is seen neither as an act of appropriation (common enough in the making of art) nor an act of interpretive performance, but an act of recuperation. The anonymity of the agent is essential to preservation of the recuperative ideal. And what this generally amounts to is helping the text to speak clearly to a phantom army of potential readers.

Though there is much talk of making a book 'the best possible book', 'best' tends to mean 'likeliest to sell a large number of copies.' Given this financial consideration, it would be better if the variations and drafts and original manuscript were also available for sale on CD, just as additional material is sold on DVD - a publisher might then urge David Foster Wallace to cut the footnotes in Infinite Jest to a manageable size, and yet sell them separately on CD to a fanatical public. Given that financial considerations are exacerbated by agents, it would be better if authors' computers were sold as collector's items upon publication, creating the sort of market for unique objects that works so well in the art world. A gallerist, remember, takes a 50% cut, with rare exceptions (it's said that Damien Hirst got a better deal); one might like to think that an agent who could hope for $15,000 off a $30,000 sale would be less besotted with the sort of publisher who can promise a $15,000 commission off a $100,000 sale. One might like to think a publisher who could hope to cash in on the sale of CDs (gloriously cheap to produce, ship and store, unlike their paper brothers) would be less anxious to tailor a book to the judgement of Nielson Bookscan.

There's just one slight problem, which Marx and Bourdieu have thrashed out. A veil of decency separates the search for the 'best possible book' from sordid financial considerations. The novel, that bourgeois form of art, has no qualms about poking around in the dirty corners of money and power, but the people who bring these books to the market have a euphemistic discourse all their own, one which makes it possible to talk about money without talking about money. Other forms of art have their own systems of euphemisms, but they are different systems, adapted to the sources of revenue. Bringing the traces of writers' methods of composition to the market would involve talking in a non-euphemistic way about means of infiltrating those other systems of discourse; people who are euphemising successfuly in one field find that very uncomfortable; it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

A round-up:

Motoko Rich, NY Times 2007
Bootlegs for Sale or Rent, papercuts (NY Times blog)
Richard Lea, Guardian 18 October 2007
James Lasdun, Guardian 22 October 2007


palinode said...

Despite possible difficulties, I like the idea of books packaged with CDs of variant or extra material. Every book would become its own variorum edition.

Elatia Harris said...

Fascinating, both of you. But I think Palinode's idea to emphasize and even market process + variations would work against the artist ever producing a version of anything that she herself considered definitive. That would be a different kind of loss to all than the one Ray Carver was insisting must not, in his own case, occur.

Different readings, over time, of word, image and music almost endow a work of art with the quality of being various in that you wonder how numerous utterly opposed interpretations can have been prompted by the same text/painting/score.

How the current "market" may understand a thing is not so important that it should be indulged with too much information in the form of alternative versions, for some works of art are simply too loud to hear. Giotto and Leopard, for instance, could not truly be taken in by the cultures that produced them for the better part of two centuries. Leopardi knew this -- that he would not in his life see recognition; Giotto saw recognition, but no heirs. Should they have then done other versions?

Helen DeWitt said...

eh - it's hard to imagine CDs replacing publication in book form as a source of income for authors, so my guess is they would continue to bring books to a final form. Publishers do push sometimes, though, for alterations which will make a book acceessible to a wider audience, and an author might feel that the book originally submitted, if it had won admiration from readers she herself respected, had validity in its own right.