January 21, 2008

Art and letters

The following is an excerpt from Denis Johnson's novel The Name of the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 12-13, in which the main character, Michael Reed, describes a drawing that he visits every day in the local art museum.

"This picture was an anonymous work that almost anybody on earth could have made, but as it happened, a Georgia slave had produced it. The works owners, the Stone family of Camden County, had found the work in the attic of the family's old mansion. It was drawn with ink on a large white linen bed sheet and consisted of a tiny single perfect square at the center of the canvas, surrounded by concentric freehand outlines. A draftsman using the right tools would have made thousands of concentric squares with the outlines just four or five millimeters apart. But, as I've said, the drawing, except for the central square, had been accomplished freehand: Each unintended imperfection in an outline had been scrupulously reproduced in the next, and since each square was larger, each imperfection grew larger too, until at the outermost edges the shapes were no longer squares, but vast chaotic wanderings.

"To my way of thinking, this secret project of the nameless slave, whether man or woman we'll never know, implicated all of us. There it was, all mapped out: the way of our greatness. Though simple and obvious as an act of art, the drawing portrayed the silly, helpless tendency of fundamental things to get way off course and turn into nonsense, illustrated the church's grotesque pearling around its traditional heart, explained the pernicious extrapolating rules and observances of governments—implicated all of us in a gradual apostasy from every perfect thing we find or make.

"Implicated. This wasn't my reaction only. I talked with lots of people who'd seen this work, and they all felt the same, but in various ways, if that makes sense. They felt uneasy around it, challenged, disturbed. I suppose that's what made it art, rather than drawing."

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