December 3, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

Should Writers Be Conscious of the Artistic Movements of Their Time?

There’s a scene towards the middle of At Eternity’s Gate, the new biopic about Vincent van Gogh, in which Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) and Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) discuss in very literal terms how they want to revolutionize painting and move past the Impressionists by reconceptualizing the relationship between artists and reality (“We have to start a revolution, you understand?” Oscar Isaac’s Gaugin declares. “We have to create a new vision, a new way of painting!”). It’s a heavy handed moment, but it made me think about my own frequent discussions with fellow writers and how we talk about postmodernism and realism and New Sincerity in similarly literal terms, not quite with the same intensity (no one in any of my writer’s workshops has ever called for a “revolution,” artistic or otherwise) but with a similar consciousness of trying to create something different.

And yet, there is also a conservative tendency that I’ve heard expressed in writing classes that writers shouldn’t concern themselves with labels like these but instead should “just write” and leave all discussions of literary movements to academics. I understand the impulse, since keeping up with all the various Linnaean artistic categories can feel overwhelming (I feel like I only finally figured out what postmodernism was last year). Also, writing is hard enough as it is without also having to keep track of whether New Sincerity is still a thing. No wonder many people want to ignore it all and just write what they see as “universal.”

But, of course, as we all surely must know by now, there is no such thing as “universal” literature. All writers are products of their artistic moments, whether they know it or not. As an example, let’s imagine a young writer today, overwhelmed by all this talk of autofiction and hysterical realism, who decides to simply write from their heart what they feel is true. Well, if this young writer grew up reading mostly Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, their idea of what is true would be very different compared to what it would be if they grew up reading David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith. And it would be a disservice to this young writer not to teach them to consider the very different aesthetic movements that the writers they admire were a part of, especially in an age when canonicity is (rightly) being challenged and we’ve (rightly) come to accept that different artistic movements carry with them very different political implications. After all, writers should understand sooner rather than later that their own writing will be judged not in a vacuum according to abstract and universal artistic criteria but against the continuum of all the writing that’s come before, against the history of art and literature that they are inevitably a part of the moment they chose to write something.

When I was in college and dreaming of becoming a writer, I didn’t exactly have a full grasp of the history of literary movements. For some reason, I’d decided in high school that I disliked anything written after 1900 (probably because I found it too difficult). And so for me, literature peaked with Charles Dickens. As a result, everything I tried to write was awful, exactly what you’d expect from a kid in twenty-first century California trying to write like Dickens because he thought the nineteenth century novel was a universal standard. It was only in the years that followed, when I finally read and understood twentieth century literature and was able to connect it to trends in contemporary novels, that my writing really improved—because then I was no longer under the delusion that what I was writing was universal but instead fully conscious that it belonged to particular literary movements. Essentially, I finally became aware that all literature, mine included, was part of a larger history.

I’ve written before about how unfortunate it is that we seek to separate the work of fiction writers from academics, and so here I’m just going to quote myself: “whether they admit so or not, all writers are part of broader literary movements.” As a result, I found it refreshing that At Eternity’s Gate presented its artist characters as explicitly conscious of their place in art history. And as heavy handed as that scene with Gauguin may have felt, it does accurately reflect the way Van Gogh and his friends talked—a quick search of his letters reveals 37 uses of the word “Impressionism,” among them phrases like this (from letter 777, To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, between about Friday, 31 May and about Thursday, 6 June 1889.):

I believe more than ever in the eternal youth of the school of Delacroix, Millet, Rousseau, Dupré, Daubigny, just as much as in the current one or even in artists to come. I scarcely believe that Impressionism will ever do more than the Romantics, for example.

Or, like this one (from letter 657, To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Wednesday, 8 August 1888.):

You know, whatever becomes of sacrosanct Impressionism, I’d still myself have the wish to do the things that the previous generation, Delacroix, Millet, Rousseau, Diaz, Monticelli, Isabey, Decamps, Dupré, Jongkind, Ziem, Israëls, Meunier, a heap of others, Corot, Jacque… could understand.

These are not the words of an artist who’s rejecting artistic labels and trying to live in the realm of the universal, but instead one deeply knowledgeable about the progression of artistic movements and conscious of his own place among them.