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Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

by Jeanette Winterson

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In these ten intertwined essays, one of our most provocative young novelists proves that she is just as stylish and outrageous an art critic. For when Jeanette Winterson looks at works as diverse as the Mona Lisa and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, she frees them from layers of preconception and restores their power to exalt and unnerve, shock and transform


In these ten intertwined essays, one of our most provocative young novelists proves that she is just as stylish and outrageous an art critic. For when Jeanette Winterson looks at works as diverse as the Mona Lisa and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, she frees them from layers of preconception and restores their power to exalt and unnerve, shock and transform us.

"Art Objects is a book to be admired for its effort to speak exorbitantly, urgently and sometimes beautifully about art and about our individual and collective need for serious art."—Los Angeles Times

Editorial Reviews

Donna Seaman
One suspects that the title of this essay collection is not meant to be a noun. What, then, does Winterson think art objects to? The answer surfaces readily in her first essay, a probing piece about learning to look, to "really" look, at paintings. Art objects, she imagines, to our propensity for doomsaying, for seeing the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. Winterson continues to develop this notion as she shifts her focus from the visual arts to various aspects of literature, her true metier. In the course of invigorating discussions on Woolf, Lawrence, and others, Winterson offers a thoroughly convincing argument for keeping writer's lives (especially their sexuality) separate from their work, but then she executes one of her adept pirouettes and grants us a glimpse of her past. In a flash, we understand just how profound her involvement with art is, and our appreciation for her superb essays deepens.
Susan Shapiro
My mother knew that books would lead me astray and she was right," says Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects, her ambitious new essay collection. The author of such provocative recent novels as Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, and Art and Lies, she here digs into such disparate topics as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, art appreciation, modern lit and lesbianism. The academic pieces are filled with such abstractions as, "The reality of art is the reality of the imagination," and far too many quotes from Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Blake.

Winterson, who lives in England, is much more spicy and engaging when she gets personal. "I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write," she states in The Semiotics of Sex, where she also argues that the "Queer World" misreads art as sexuality and that a great deal of gay writing about the AIDS crisis is therapy and release -- but not art. Her charming essay The Psychometry of Books chronicles how, brought up in a home without books, she is now an avid book collector, calling it "an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate." As in her fiction, the author is most exciting when writing intimately about obsession. --Salon

From the Publisher
"Jeanette Winterson is one of Britain's brightest alternative literary lights. Her quirky, madly poetic prose has won her a loyal cult following and a lot of respect from the mainstream. H.J.Kirchhoff, The Globe and Mail

"Thrilling, persuasive, challenging and written with a skill and beauty entirely shorn of artifice.... Should be bought, read, re-read and read out loud as often as possible." Edmonton Journal

"Brilliant essays, the finest I=ve read in years, a wonderful, timely endorsement of what art is and what it isn't. In 10 separate ways, from 10 different angles, she takes clear, intelligent aim at the modern wish that art be less arty, and more entertaining; that art be easier for people to chew and quickly digest...Should be required reading." Ottawa Citizen

"It is invigorating to read these essays by a woman who believes in art, full stop." The Globe and Mail

"A delight...I find Winterson an invigorating critic, as well as an exhilarating literary soul mate...At a time when literary commentary is bogged down by dense, impenetrable post-modern and post-structuralist twaddle, Art Objects...offers itself as a breath of fresh thought and fresh expression." Kitchener-Waterloo Record

"Brilliant, challenging, funny, highly personal." Family Practice

"A witty, reasoned look at the power of, and our powerful need for, all forms of art." Ottawa Citizen

"A book of essays to set your intellect on fire." Bruce Powe, The Financial Post

"Potent.... Part soulful meditation and part fiery manifesto.... Ms. Winterson is a passionate writer.... Hers is a book born of a restless, uncompromising intelligence and a life of practicing what she preaches, of taking the kind of artistic risks she so fiercely espouses." The New York Times Book Review

"Winterson is in fine form in these essays about art, arguing, admonishing, infuriating, teasing...She fights solemnly, beguilingly, for ecstasy and silence and the revival of our ability to contemplate...She says much that is important about energy and passion. Her stalwart defence of the modern is a challenge to the barrenness and niggliness with which we live." The Observer (UK)

"There is no denying the beauty and precision of her writing, nor the clarity of her expression...On her heroines—Stein, Woolf, Eliot, books themselves—she is particularly strong and passionate. Through it all, a central theme occurs: that art, true art, is and will remain a vital force, without which life is scarcely worthy of the name." Time Out (UK)

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Art takes time. To spend an hour looking at a painting is difficult. The public gallery experience is one that encourages art at a trot. There are the paintings, the marvellous speaking works, definite, independent, each with a Self it would be impossible to ignore, if...if..., it were possible to see it. I do not only mean the crowds and the guards and the low lights and the ropes, which make me think of freak shows, I mean the thick curtain of irrelevances that screens the painting from the viewer. Increasingly, galleries have a habit of saying when they acquired a painting and how much it cost...

Millions! The viewer does not see the colours on the canvas, he sees the colour of the money.

Is the painting famous? Yes! Think of all the people who have carefully spared one minute of their lives to stand in front of it.

Is the painting Authority? Does the guide-book tell us that it is part of The Canon? If Yes, then half of the viewers will admire it on principle, while the other half will dismiss it on principle.

Who painted it? What do we know about his/her sexual practices and have we seen anything about them on the television? If not, the museum will likely have a video full of schoolboy facts and tabloid gossip.

Where is the tea-room/toilet/gift shop?

Where is the painting in any of this?

Experiencing paintings as moving pictures, out of context, disconnected, jostled, over-literary, with their endless accompanying explanations, over-crowded, one against the other, room on room, does not make it easy to fall in love. Love takes time. It may be that if you have as much difficulty with museums as I do, that the only way into the strangelife of pictures is to expose yourself to as much contemporary art as you can until you find something, anything, that you will go back and back to see again, and even make great sacrifices to buy. Inevitably, if you start to even make great sacrifices to buy. Inevitably, if you start to love pictures, you will start to buy pictures. The time, like the money, can be found, and those who call the whole business élitist, might be fair enough to reckon up the time they spend in front of the television, at the DIY store, and how much the latest satellite equipment and new PC has cost.

For myself, now that paintings matter, public galleries are much less dispiriting. I have learned to ignore everything about them, except for the one or two pieces with whom I have come to spend the afternoon.

Supposing we made a pact with a painting and agreed to sit down and look at it, on our own with no distractions, for one hour. The painting should be an original, not a reproduction, and we should start with the advantage of liking it, even if only a little. What would we find?

Increasing discomfort. When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake? Ordinary life passes in a near blur. If we go to the theatre or the cinema, the images before us change constantly, and there is the distraction of language. Our loved ones are so well known to us that there is no need to look at them, and one of the gentle jokes of married life is that we do not. Nevertheless, here is a painting and we have agreed to look at it for one hour. We find we are not very good at looking.

Increasing distraction. Is my mind wandering to the day's work, to the football match, to what's for dinner, to sex, to whatever it is that will give me something to do other than to look at the painting?

Increasing invention. After some time spent daydreaming, the guilty or the dutiful might wrench back their attention to the picture.

What is it about? Is it a landscape? Is it figurative? More promisingly, is it a nude? If the picture seems to offer an escape route then this is the moment to take it. I can make up stories about the characters on the canvas much as art-historians like to identify the people in Rembrandt's The Night Watch. Now I am beginning to feel much more confident because I am truly engaging with the picture. A picture is its subject matter isn't it? Oh dear, mine's an abstract. Never mind, would that pink suit me?

Increasing irritation. Why doesn't the picture do something? Why is it hanging there staring at me? What is this picture for? Pictures should give pleasure but this picture is making me very cross. Why should I admire it? Quite clearly it doesn't admire me...

Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer. The true painting, in its stubborn independence, cannot do this, except coincidentally. Its reality is imaginative not mundane.

When the thick curtain of protection is taken away; protection of prejudice, protection of authority, protection of trivia, even the most familiar of paintings can begin to work its power. There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa.

But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.

It is not as hopeless as it seems. If I can be persuaded to make the experiment again (and again and again), something very different might occur after the first shock of finding out that I do not know how to look at pictures, let alone how to like them.

A favourite writer of mine, an American, an animal trainer, a Yale philosopher, Vicki Hearne, has written of the acute awkwardness and embarrassment of those who work with magnificent animals, and find themselves at a moment of reckoning, summed up in those deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent. Better to pretend that art is dumb, or at least has nothing to say that makes sense to us. If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much in use for it.

In the West, we avoid painful encounters with art by trivialising it, or by familiarising it. Our present obsession with the past has the double advantage of making new work seem raw and rough compared to the cosy patina of tradition, whilst refusing tradition its vital connection to what is happening now. By making islands of separation out of the unbreakable chain of human creativity, we are able to set up false comparisons, false expectations, all the while lamenting that the music, poetry, painting, prose, performance art of Now, fails to live up to the art of Then, which is why, we say, it does not affect us. In fact, we are no more moved by a past we are busy inventing, than by a present we are busy denying. If you love a Cézanne, you can love a Hockney, can love a Boyd, can love a Rao. If you love a Cézanne rather than lip-service it.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 1996 by Jeanette Winterson

Meet the Author

A novelist whose honours include England’s Whitbread Prize, and the American Academy’ s E. M. Forster Award, as well as the Prix d’argent at the Cannes Film Festival, JEANETTE WINTERSON burst onto the literary scene as a very young woman in 1985 with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her subsequent novels, including Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, Written on the Body, and The PowerBook, have also gone on to receive great international acclaim. She lives in London and the Cotswolds.

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