Art about art always struck me as cheating, a little. My 20th-century education taught me that art is supposed to be accessible, something the average person can relate to. (I majored in commercial art and advertising, which may be relevant.) Even though I considered myself an artist, I knew full well that most people did not, so what goood is a song about playing the tuba while wearing a beret? Almost nobody can identify with such a monster, I would suppose.
These thoughts contain the assumptions that (1) art needs to have a purpose, and (2) a non-artist will not understand the viewpoint of an artist. The first assumption is debatable, the second is snobbish drollery. Artists are not special people, they are people who can do special things. This is an important distinction.
I could still enjoy such works, but I also thought that the creators of such self-referential fare were cheating, using material that was too ready-at-hand. Ridiculous, I know, but I still feel that way a little. Art is obsession, and how well (or badly) it’s dealt with seems to fascinate artists. I might have considered this essay too easy a topic about which to write, but blogging encourages writers to be self-centered.
Over the years, I’ve seen and enjoyed several examples of such work. For example, Ernest Hemingway was the focus of Dan Simmons’s The Crook Factory, a faux-historical novel set mostly in Cuba; and also Joe Haldeman’s The Hemingway Hoax, where the eponymous hoax is interrupted by the ghost of Hemingway itself (maybe, the story isn’t all that clear on that). The former book is more about the writer and his effect on the protagonist, an FBI agent, the latter about his writings and he process of writing (even though it’s the process of forging prose that will fool experts). Both books are concerned with the effect of Hemingway’s strong personality on the viewpoint characters. He was a colorful figure, and I wouldn’t be surprised ol’ Ernest is a character in many more books.
Three installments of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel concern William Shakespeare and the act of writing: more specifically, Men of Good Fortune, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are three issues that concern The Bard and his deal with Morpheus. This mini-arc echoes throughout the rest of the 75-installment tale and concerns preserving great stories, and the sort of immortality an artist can achieve. “They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted.”
I’ll round this out with a fictional example: Kilgore Trout is perhaps the most well-known hack writer in American literature. Kurt Vonnegut’s creation was actually based on Tneodore Sturgeon, and the character’s most significant appearance is in Breakfast of Champions, where he finds out that he is the creation of another writer, and he meets his maker near the end of the novel. Trout writes what seems would be terrible stories, and has published dozens of them in his life. However, he has hi fans, who seek out their idol’s work in porn shops and bargain bins. This endlessly fascinating character has written books he’s never even seen a copy of, but are published somewhere. The message seems to be that life is a pointless farce, and there is no message except for what we may read into it. Life may be dreary, but let’s laugh at it anyway!
I also find that, while I’m reading any story with Kilgore Trout in it, I find myself more conscious that this is a book written by a writer, and that these are words on a page. I somehow still care about the characters, especially the “minor”, insignificant bit-parts.
Sooner or later, I think most artists will create a work that’s meta to at least some degree. Pete Townshend wrote Psychoderelict, the semi-autobiographical portrait of an aging, artistically failing hippie rocker and his failing project, which bears a resemblance to the authors’ infamous, uncompleted Lifehouse; Federico Fellini made the wonderfully confusing8 1/2 about a director creating a film that cannibalizes (and confuses) his own life; and the Broadway musical [Title of Show] concerns two guys writing a musical about writing a musical.
In general, the theme of mining life for artistic inspiration comes up often. Perhaps this entry should have been about blogging. In Gaiman’s The Tempest, Shakespeare notes that when his son died, he mourned, but was also glad: Now he could write of true tragedy and make the pit weep true tears. In The Crook Factory, Simmons notes that everything in Hemingway’s life was secondary to Hemingway. Kilgore Trout is the only writer on this page who did not let his art consume his life, and he’s a bit closer to being fictional than Bill or Ernie. Similar themes are veined throughout the three non-literary works I mentioned above, and are resolved with varying degrees of healthy outcomes.
Perhaps cave-dwelling man put on plays where the hero was the sad, weak artist who couldn’t contribute to the hunt, but continued to draw pictures of all the animals the others brought back for the tribe to feast on. Did the drawings become useful for training young hunters to recognize, this one, you should have help to bring down? Was the artist respected at that point? (Feh. Artists get the girls, but training documentation illustrators are lucky if they get a good word.) Did the drawings have a picture of an artist, with a smaller picture of the animals in front of him?
(This entry is an expanded version of text I wrote here.)