I wrote the research paper about Mann’s Death in Venice from a postmodern aesthetic perspective. The perspective that art for art’s sake is not a, well, not a dead art! This week, I have seen a pretty sound defense of art as entertainment, and I’m not sure that I can ever agree with that statement, no matter how sound the rhetoric. To me, art is entertainment allows things like the Twilight saga to be considered literature, and they most definitely are not. Then I am put, my by own words, into a ring with Stephanie Meyer and Stephen King. Obviously, there’s no real comparison to make there. Or is there?
I couldn’t bear to make myself finish Twilight, yet I read through ‘Salem’s Lot in one sitting. Both are about vampires, so it’s clear I’m not opposed to the fantasy element. I’m also a huge LOTR and Hobbit Peter Jackson fan, so I’m not opposed to the mainstream either. I was thoroughly disappointed with every single movie adaptation of every single novel Stephen King wrote because they failed to capture the vision and the beauty I read in those novels. Why can I not like Twilight? The whole point of this blog post is that I am obviously not opposed to angst either.
Along with the rhetorically sound but substantially empty assertion that art is entertainment, I have endured the less than rhetorically sound and equally substantially empty assertion that art is original. *le sigh* (<–that’s French for frustration coupled with boredom) Admittedly, Twilight is pretty original in the sense that Pride and Prejudice with Zombies is pretty original. My tolerance for Romance starts and stops with Wuthering Heights, and about the only reason I tolerate that one is the supernatural, ghosty elements. So why can’t the vampires bring me over with Meyer’s novel? It does not entertain me. Well, what is it about Anne Rice’s vampires that do? Or Stephen King’s?
Lestat is an angsty, Romantic vampire, filled with anxiety about his authority and pitted against his predatory nature and his compassion. Edward is about as predatory as a house cat. House cats can’t help the prey instinct even though they are fed out of a bowl by a slippered Mistress or Master. It’s morbidly depressing how flat he is. And don’t even get me riled up about the female protagonist. No female protagonist is more disappointing than Meyer’s. Here, let me completely alter my DNA structure to be with you, Sparkly Boy. Edna Pontellier is rolling in her watery grave.
What does all this have to do with Rushdie and my waning feminist outrage? Midnight’s Children has been an entertaining read. Apparently, one does need to give the novel more than five pages for that to be apparent. Saleem Sinai is the material embodiment of a nation in flux. Born at the precise date and time when India was granted its independence from Great Britain, he lives through and parallel to the separation, the partition, and the reunification of India. It’s a pretty unique approach to telling a postcolonial story, inscribing the birth of a nation onto the body of a man. OH but the problems I have with that!! Women have been telling the story of the birth of civilization on their bodies since civilization was first conceived. Rushdie claims that art is revolution. Well, I guess art is whatever you make it, Mr. Rushdie, apparently. Is it really revolutionary to write the way a birth of a nation is inscribed onto a man’s body? Mmmm, probably not as much as he would like to think. Or as much as he would like us to think. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway struggles for independent authority as Jamaica experiences its slave revolt. She is bartered like an acre of sugar plantation between two men, much like the small island nation. She experiences freedom, like its slave population, only to be enslaved by a new set of social norms and conditions, like the small island nation. Rhys made a monumental miscalculation with this novel though. By tying it to Jane Eyre, she negated her own authorial independence and reasserted the right of rule to the Literary Canon. She revolted, and then took it back. The privilege that Rushdie has over Rhys is that he, as a man, does not have to quaffle with his revolt. He does not have to take tentative steps. With great power, Mr. Rushdie, comes great responsibility, and you dropped the ball with your foray into postcolonial writing, in my humble opinion. It’s an example of the privilege of patriarchy. A woman writer can win the Nobel for a lifetime of literary achievement after she has been forced to qualify her revolution, and a male writer can be the “Booker of all Bookers” for one little piece of writing that doesn’t do much but challenge our sense of reality. Um, excuse me, writers have been doing that since just before the Great War, how is it original when Rushdie does it in 1981? It’s not. It’s just the shiny privilege of patriarchy.
On the flip side of the shiny privilege of patriarchy is the voluptuous and fleshy side which I like to call The Matriarchy. Riddle me this, Batman: In an office full of women, why do women wear tight-fitting, low-cut blouses and tight skirts? Why do women berate and badger each other over having children or not? Why do women increasingly present the greatest threat to feminine emancipation? Because of the privilege of matriarchy. Men signal their virility by butting their heads up against things and each other. Men signal their primal-ness by pushing their bodies to the brink of exhaustion. Women do it by pushing their bodies to the brink of fabric. If we have the most children, the most gender reveal parties, and the most bridal and baby showers, then we are the most virile. Whoever shows the deepest cleavage wins! She with the loudest voice and the biggest butt wins!
There are two grave side effects stemming from the push for female equality. Their gravity is equal in nature. These are the interpretations of gender and race. Feminism constitutionally reinforces the patriarchy in its demarcation of gender lines. It reinforces the binary opposition of male and female, virtually eliminating all other manifestations of gender. It has forced us into the use of words like cis and trans. I am not opposed to the use of such words. What I am opposed to is the idea that using these modifiers further distances me from the noun. I am cis gender woman. I am two degrees removed from being a woman and three degrees removed from my humanity. American feminism has also constitutionally reinforced Anglocentrism, a form of patriarchy, by alienating women of color. It might be a class thing, but I see it as a race thing. Looking at images of bra burnings fills me with nostalgic appreciation for the things women have done to progress female emancipation, there is no doubt. My brain naturally begins to think about the practicality of such things as burning bras. Realistically, what kind of job could a white woman expect to get in the 70s if she showed up to the interview without a bra on? Now, add to whatever calculation your mind has conjured in answer to that question a thousand. Your calculation plus one thousand is the kind of opportunity that existed for a black woman in the 1970s. Emancipation notwithstanding there are still bills to pay, people to feed, work to be done. This kind of revolt is limited to those who experience the added privilege of being white. We certainly do need to equalize pay and equalize representation in the job market, but we also do not need to continue to separate ourselves from each other. Marking out lines in the sand is no way to succeed. The truth is divide and conquer. If women continue to be divided, we will continue to be conquered, and so I feel like when we raise our flaming bras in the air, we are marking out a line in the sand against male oppression, but we are also marking out a line in the sand against other women who maybe want or need to keep their bras intact.
Oh god, so back to literature. Stephanie Meyer’s trite little collection of sparkly, doe-eyed vampires is a feat of female authorship. She made a truckload of cash and earned herself an immeasurable amount of cultural currency. Salman Rushdie has a fatwah for crying out loud. No one is going to forget either one of them. Neither one of them have done anything to make culture better though. So what is the purpose of art? To entertain? To be original? To be revolutionary? To improve culture? None of these, in my humble opinion. It is my assertion that the purpose of art is to elevate us out of ourselves. The purpose is to give us a way of looking at reality through more than just the lenses we have created for ourselves. If I hold this assertion to be truth, then I have to say that Meyer has created art, even though I don’t like it at all. The reason I have to say that is because I am talking about her work. Her work has forced me to think about bigger things from a broader perspective than I would have if I had never encountered her work. I think her female protagonist should not have given up her identity for love of a boy. No woman should ever give up her identity to be with a man. Likewise, no man should give up his identity for love of a woman. I wonder why a story where the girl isn’t good enough on her own to be with the boy is so popular among girls, and the conclusion I draw is that it is the cultural climate we live in where feminism has become a foul word and social media is littered with statements from women about why they don’t need feminism. That feminism has become a tool of oppression in itself, reinforcing the patriarchy, is why something like Twilight can reach such epic proportions. That just makes me angrier, but in a much different way. Still, I have been forced to formulate an educated and rhetorically sound (somewhat) opinion about the thing and have thus been elevated from the mundane. Literally, I would be at the grocery store right now if I wasn’t compelled to write this.
All my popular votes will still go to King and Rice because their vampires voice their own justifications for existing; they don’t force me to do it for them. Lestat is his own advocate for his artistry, and he argues his case quite directly and clearly. He enunciates the struggle all men and women have with the duality of their nature. ‘Salem’s Lot revives Americana. It hearkens back to Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe and reawakens America’s contribution to world mythologies. That novel is not just about vampires; it’s about how uniquely Americans cope with the unexplained, with terror. The ghoulies in Rice’s and King’s works are not just part of the setting, they aren’t just the backdrop for something else. They are vital to the construction of plot, crucial to the development of character, and symbols for something which exists deeper in the human spirit than just the twitterpations of teenage love and the adolescent angst of self-identification. To be sure, young Mark in ‘Salem’s Lot is certainly struggling with his identity in a very adolescent way, but instead of becoming the thing he identifies with, he conquers it, supersedes it, makes it his own.
Now I have said all the things I feel compelled to say about what art is that I could not say in class because doing so would hurt people’s feels. Art does not need to be entertaining (Meyer) to be art and art does not need to be revolutionary to be art (Rushdie). Originality is not even a strong contender (Rhys) for what art is. Art should be that which forces you to recognize the Lestat inside you and the young Mark or Ben Mears inside you. Art should make you see the Bilbo Baggins in your neighbor and the Gandalf in strangers. Art should not make the world or culture better; it should make YOU better.