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The True Nature of Art And the Audience It Needs

Art [Objects]: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

By Jeanette Winterson

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Alfred A. Knopf

192 pp., $21

At a time when so many voices have been raised to proclaim or lament the impending death of art in a world that seems increasingly hostile - or at best indifferent - to its power, Jeanette Winterson's "Art [Objects]: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery" is a resounding declaration of faith in the living spirit of what Shelley called "Poetry" (meaning all of the creative arts).

In these 10 essays, Winterson, the author of five ambitious novels, follows in the path of Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" by offering her own eloquent and timely vindication of art in an age of trivialization. Her argument is based on the premise that art is autonomous, offering what can be found nowhere else, and certainly not to be confused with leisure-time diversion, therapeutic self-expression, or politically correct sermonizing.

Convinced that art offers "a separate reality," Winterson deplores the kind of writing that is little more than poorly disguised autobiography: "The bad writer believes that sincerity of feeling will be enough, and pins her faith on the power of experience. The true writer knows that feeling must give way to form. It is through the form ... that the most powerful emotions are let loose over the greatest number of people. Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries of class, culture ... and ... sexuality."

Winterson sees no artistic value in the current tendency to view art as a means of expressing, addressing, or empowering a particular community. "Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience," she declares.

She also mistrusts the current appetite for literary biography at the expense of literature. The artists' greatest gifts, Winterson reminds us, are their works of art, not the details of the lives they happened to lead. Read "Hamlet," she would urge us, and not a biography of Shakespeare: The one is a fully achieved distillation of an exceptional imagination; the other is not.

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These essays show a keen awareness of living in an age of exploitation, where our very dreams are invaded by the cheap "shadows ... of real music, real paintings, real words" served up as jingles and images of the commercial media. "This bombardment ... deadens our sensibilities and makes us fear what is not instant, approachable, consumable," she warns. Real art takes effort - on the part of both creator and audience.

Illustrating her argument with vivid portraits of art's power, Winterson opens with a memorable anecdote about her own experience of strolling by a gallery that contained "a painting that had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on." By taking the time and making the effort to truly see a painting, she discovers a new world - just as she did years before as a child sneaking home forbidden library books to read by flashlight.

One needn't share all of Winterson's literary preferences - her high regard for T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, her lower opinion of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Anita Brookner - to appreciate the passion of her argument. She has a gift for reformulating what used to be called "eternal verities" in terms that are contemporary yet classic: "We value sensitive machines. We spend billions ... to make them more sensitive," she laments. "We don't value sensitive human beings and we spend no money on their priority."

Are we, indeed, facing a future in which "machines become more delicate and human beings coarser?" Winterson believes we can find salvation in art: a form of rapture founded on complexity of perception and precision of expression. Neither a status symbol for snobs nor sensationalist fodder for the masses, real art is at once elitist and democratic: elitist in demanding great effort from artist and audience; democratic in being available to anyone willing to take the time and trouble to experience it.

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