Artistic Promiscuity (Against Paragone)

Word person or image person?

I encountered the word paragone this week while reading for my academic writing. As Brian Glavey explains it in his book The Wallflower Avant-Garde, paragone is a Renaissance term used to describe “the battle between the various arts.” In the Renaissance, the debate took place mostly between painters and sculptors who argued on behalf of their medium’s superiority. No smaller light than da Vinci took part in this dubious battle.

In his book, Glavey takes an extended look at ekphrasis, the attempt by one art form (usually literature) to describe another (usually the visual arts). Think, for example, of Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape.” Because it is very, very hard for a poem to capture, say, a painting, literary scholars have often thought that failure of a sort is inherently bound up in the ekphrastic process.

But, wonderfully, a thesis Glavey forwards about ekphrasis is that we may understand it as an impulse born  from an attraction to multiple arts. He writes that Harlem Renaissance writer and painter Richard Bruce Nugent’s ekphrasis is born from not being able to make up one’s mind whether what one is producing is a text or an image in the first place (6).  I like this quite a bit.

Part of the reason I like Glavey’s take on ekphrasis and the pull of the many arts is that it refuses the narrative of failure that we might attach to the creative person who refuses to choose. There’s a wonderful kind of pleasurable promiscuity here.

Bear with me for a second as I dip a toe (very quickly, I promise) into Freud’s ideas of psychosexual development. I promise I’m not actually a Freudian, BUT some of his ideas have a useful at least metaphorical way of thinking through things. When I do a quick overview of Freud for students in my literature classes and take them through his stages of psychosexual development, I always use an incident with one of my colleague’s children as my example of polymorphous perversity.

Briefly, Freud thought that very little children had a kind of unfocused sense of physical pleasure that over the course of their sexual development settled into more traditional loci of pleasure: oral, genital, and anal. But, according to Freud’s theory, little kiddos take their pleasures everywhere. Take, for example, my colleague’s son. We have an on-campus daycare. I walked by it one day and noticed my colleague’s toddler lying flat on his back, languidly pouring sand all over his body. There was no purpose to the play, just a repetitive releasing of sand grains onto his skin. A pure sensory experience. Think, too, of the intense pleasure babies can get from squishing something on the one hand, or tasting ice cream on the other. As moms, we are frequent witnesses to our children’s promiscuous sensory pleasure-taking. They simply don’t care whether the intense experience is supposed to be located in sand or in something else. They like what they like.

This is true, too, of children’s art making. And while I have written here about the way children are a liability for a mother’s creativity, and I do stand by that, they are in equal measures a source of inspiration.

One way having children can be a prod to creativity is their natural refusal of the idea of the paragone. Instead, little kids like many arts, and are likely to want to dance one minute and then draw the next, to put on a play and then write a novel.  The benefit of being a parent to such a being is that you get to both witness and be pulled into this play as well.

I really, really like watercolor, but find it incredibly unforgiving. I have also grown to think of myself as a “words” person, not a visual person. Sometimes, when I’m being an asshole about the way visual artists write up their artist statements, I’ll cast the opposite judgement their way: ah, they should have gotten a poet to describe the exhibit. This is a choice my daughter would never make. She likes all the arts and feels free to move among them, as they please her.

Early in her wonderful book about creativity Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a different kind of development that we could easily see as parallel to Freud’s narrative. She describes a friend who loved ice skating as a child but eventually gave it up in her teen years, a point at which only the truly competitive skaters go forward. I love the way Gilbert summarizes this disciplining, common across all kinds of wonderful physical and creative pursuits:  “Ah, lovely adolescence—when the ‘talented’ are officially shunted off from the herd.” As a result, those of us who are not “the talented” accept our fate as such and quickly give up previously enjoyable experiences as pointless. Like Freud’s psychosexual development, this is a kind of training out of pleasure. A winnowing of possibilities for the self’s expression.

What a bummer.

But, what a joy and surprise that motherhood can allow us to claw back some of these pleasures. I am a bad singer. This is an objective fact, like, I can’t carry a tune. Like, during a church vigil for someone being executed, my boyfriend at the time, a death penalty activist, turned to comment on my awful “Amazing Grace,” so terrible was my singing that it punctured his serious reverie. However, being a human, it feels good to me to sing. Not in public, but in a pure, singing in the shower letting loose kind of way. And, the good news, is that sometimes my children allow me to sing to them or to sing with them. The older one will even ask for it. The same goes for dancing.

Now, none of this is professional. In no world would I call myself a maker of song or dance. Ans I do claim writer as an identity for myself. But still, I’m finding a little pleasure in motherhood’s reminder of the joys of artistic promiscuity, taking my pleasures where I can.

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