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That was Leon Wieseltier's advice to a young man who asked how to begin a career in writing about the arts. The question was actually directed at Jed Perl, art critic at The New Republic (where Mr Wieseltier is literary editor), the evening's featured speaker, and Mr Perl had replied with sensible advice about persistence and finding one's own voice. But Mr Wieseltier thought it important to add an up-to-date caveat, which caused a ripple of laughter from the audience and a smile from me. I knew exactly what he meant. I may even know better than he does how important it is not to "settle" for writing any old thing for the Web if you seek to make writing your career. I would intend, of course, to be the exception to his rule, if I were not - like the parents in Radio Days - "already ruined."

I should note that Mr Wieseltier was moderating the event, which took place at the 92nd Street Y - the only real New York address that sounds taken from The Royal Tenenbaums.

Mr Perl's remarks, à propos of his latest book, New Art City, startled two thoughts into life. The first concerns the evaluation of art. How do you know that what you like is any good? Ultimately, you never do, and while we're on the topic, just who are "you"? If you like something now, and you think it's good, what about ten years from now, when you can see why you thought it was good, and might still even admire it, but, in the end, you somehow see through it? This is only one reason why, ultimately, you can't know whether what you like is any good.

But we try. Mr Perl remarked in passing that things change in an artist's life during the course of making a work of art. If we can extrapolate from the experience of novelists, who write about this phenomenon often enough, one of the things that surely happens during the process is an alteration, however slight, of the artist's means or goals. A true work of art teaches its maker something, and does so in the making, not just afterward, when the artist is merely another spectator. How can we tell? I think that we can detect the absence of an alteration, the lack of a lesson. Because the change in plans disturbs the work of art in a way that disturbs us.

This is hugely tentative. We're not always ready to be disturbed. Encounters with art are always enormously intimate, frighteningly chancy. The click is at least partly erotic. As we get older, however - and by this I mean no more than that we see more and ever more art, at however slow a pace - we build up experience as spectators. (If we start out in possession of such experience, then we ought to have been making art ourselves.)

In short: when a work of art strikes you as pat, as executed according to plan, then it's not any good, no matter how alluring, as art. In the old days, they used to call what I'm talking about "struggle," but we don't want to go back to those burly times.

The other idea that Mr Perl sparked is the observation that the people who complain most about "elitism" in the arts are either elite themselves or elite wannabes. Mr Perl did not say this. But he did say that he thinks that there's nothing elitist about having the opportunity to enjoy the rare treasures of, say, the Morgan Library. The wonder of democracy (by which I think Mr Perl means a society without recognized classes) is that such experiences are open to everybody, thanks to our great museums. It was his feeling that he had to defend this wonder from the charge of elitism that woke me up. I realized that one part of the anti-elitist camp is made up of slackers like George W Bush, born to the elite but too arrogant and too lazy in every way to do the homework that makes privilege bearable; while the other part is made of very smart people with no personal connections or advantages who are too bitter and too lazy to do the homework that usually propels hard workers into "the elite." (If there's a third constituency, let me know.) Each of these types is easy enough to spot, and if you want to be courageous you can always be bold about identifying them, to their faces if possible.

Talking about this as we walked down Lexington Avenue afterward, Ms NOLA and I agreed that Mr Perl was not quite right in claiming that the museums are open to all. They're not. Nor are such events as the discussion that we had just attended. Thinking of the young man's question about how to start out, I said that it was a shame that we leave the real education of artists to chance - and to a young person's ability to put up with gruesome privations. There ought to be programs, I said... and pretty soon I was spinning yet another Big Idea. This one is a master's program that (a) lodges candidates in safe and not grossly inconvenient housing while (b) supplying an open-sesame to all or most "cultural" events in New York City and (c) requiring periodic reports and a final thesis. Some of the candidates will be artists, some prospective journalists, and a few will simply be "old souls." C'mon, someone out there must know the odd millionaire.


When the event we attended cost $17 per person, MoMA costs $20 per person, and concerts make those costs look like change from the sofa cushions, you know that cultural outlets are not "free" for all.

In order to enjoy the benefits of this city as a young person, beginning her/his career, you better hope for corporate memberships to museums. Otherwise, you'll be enjoying the critics reviews without being able to critique the work yourself.

So much to say. This was an invigorating conversation. I need to go to the 92nd street Y more often! So many interesting thoughts, but it is too late in the evening to share them.

Happy birthday, RJ, belatedly, with every good wish for a happy new year, just brimming with spring rolls! As ever, June

What you have said becomes interesting in another way if you substitute life or life as a work of art for art

A true work of art teaches its maker something, and does so in the making, not just afterward, when the artist is merely another spectator. How can we tell? I think that we can detect the absence of an alteration, the lack of a lesson. Because the change in plans disturbs the work of art in a way that disturbs us.
Life and art are tough and perhaps what makes meaningful art, artists and lives is the challenge and the suffering. If it were easy everyone would be an artist, n'est-ce pas. Trite indeed but true to this day. Along the same lines is art any more contaminated by commerce than Christianity was contaminated by Constantine? I don't think we will ever have to settle for you ever writing just any old thing here.

And, another belated Happy Birthday from Tuckasee.


I couldn't disagree more with the man who says don't blog. He wants to keep those coterie thresholds high. I've had an invitation to go to Australia to speak on Jane Austen because of a blog.

I'm now on a WomenPoets list and some of my translation will appear in an anthology because of a blog.

I wrote a book because I wrote on a list, and went to lecture at the Reform club and met the prime minister of England because of writing on lists. There were no blogs then.

Today I wrote a fun blog on the Bookered Books at the MLA, on the _New Yorker_, and globally. Do have a look. I'd love to hear you r comment.

You went to that book party you wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Don't listen to them, RJ. We're in the forefront :).


Feh. Nuts to Mr. Wieseltier.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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