Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Death and two artists

Andrew Wyeth: the crippled American psyche in tempera.

When death comes for an artist, the critical culture briefly looks in his mirror, as it were, in that format known as the obituary. But inevitably that culture sees what it wants to see there - sometimes celebrating what the common culture found, and sometimes fighting it. A case in point: the response to the recent passing of two giants, Andrew Wyeth and John Updike. Both were rather similar, really, in their different fields. Neither was formally experimental - instead both were lyrical realists (Wyeth's work was grimly dessicated, but still lyrical); both commanded popular audiences throughout their careers; both were best at the miniature; and both were sooner or later deemed superficial by the critical elite.

Yet their obituaries varied widely; Updike was widely applauded, and his critics pooh-poohed, while Wyeth was grudgingly admired, with the proviso that his critics were essentially right. I'm not sure what this tells us, aside from the fact that Updike was still in a powerful position in American letters when he died, while Wyeth had long since retreated from the limelight (after a last burst of popularity with the "Helga" paintings nearly twenty years ago). It also, of course, tells us something about these artists' respective admirers: Updike's were upscale, Wyeth's less so.

But were the two assessments fair? At first blush, it's hard to believe anything Updike ever wrote will have quite the impact of Christina's World (at top), by far Wyeth's best painting, and one of those strange American images that immediately leap into immortality, like American Gothic and "Whistler's Mother" (usually because they invoke the crippled underside of our pioneer spirit). There are a few more Wyeth images that aspire to the same level, but most of his work was, it's true, either broadly metaphorical or simply pictorial. But his admirers tended to ignore his actual content, and instead adored his flinty fastidiousness, the way his pictures hinted at narrative, and the fact that his paintings often "looked just like a photograph" - virtues clearly in opposition to the European cult of abstraction that dominated university thinking, and then the educated elite.

Still, a highly individual - and grimly odd - personality is revealed in Wyeth's paintings. Surprisingly enough, many of them hint at the occult or supernatural (The Witching Hour, at left), and death and a generalized sense of menace are never far away. Indeed, there's something of the same death-obsession that there is in Updike - only it's never leavened by anything like Updike's social comedy or erotic release: it is, instead, permanent, and latent in the landscape. The earth is dry and cold in Wyeth, because it's dead - only perhaps it's "dead" the same way a vampire is dead.

By way of contrast, the world of Updike is very much alive - endlessly distracting, often charming, and flecked with hints of ravishment. Still, in Updike's oeuvre there's always lurking a hint of embarrassment, too - usually of the sexual stripe. Indeed once his writing was "unleashed" by the sexual revolution, there arrived almost an embarrassment of embarrassments - most of which were elided by his elegists. Take, for example, the following passage from the rather-silly The Witches of Eastwick:

She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin. He had wanted to cry out, sitting up as if jolted by electricity as the spurts, the deep throbs rooted in his asshole, continued, but he didn't know what name to call her. 'Mrs Rougement' was the name he had always known her by. God, she was antique, but here they were. Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea. The rhythmic relentless shushing returned to their ears. She laid her head on the pillow and seemed to want to be kissed. Well, why not? It was his jism. Having got rid of it, there was an aftermath of sorrow in which he needed to be alone; but there was no getting rid of her. 'Call me Sukie,' she said, having read his mind. 'I sucked your cock.'
'You sure did. Thanks. Wow.'

I know, I know, a lot of straight guys are thinking, I had no idea he was such a great writer! Yessssss; I suppose that position has its defense. Certainly, whatever else you say about the passage (and it's not unusual in Updike), it's probably an accurate depiction of what goes on inside a Harvard man's head after a blow job, and that's hardly outside the realm of literary expression. Still, it's pretty dorky, dontcha think? Perhaps dorkiest in that we sense both a ludicrous Playboy-Advisor-goes-to-college elevation in the prose (jism?) and a certain overblown thematic pressure: as a friend of mine once said, for Updike the question of God's existence seems to be solved by ejaculation - preferably on a woman's face. And if she's married, God is even more firmly ensconced in his heaven! Oh, well. Not for nothing was he editor of the Harvard Lampoon. But this glib sexual narcissism to me is what holds the author back from true greatness; I'm not sure David Foster Wallace was at all wrong when he called Updike "a phallocrat," (like Mailer and Roth), whose characters "never really love anybody -- and, though always heterosexual . . . especially don't love women . . . The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self." Perhaps the most crushing line from Wallace (it's a quote from a female friend) nails Updike as "a penis with a thesaurus."

Of course that still makes him brilliant penis with a thesaurus. The prose is almost relentlessly luminous and exquisitely wrought. The best of the short stories remain as sensitively observant as ever. And the criticism, I think - particularly the visual arts criticism - will endure. That's achievement enough for any man. But what intrigues me here is how the actual literary content of Updike - which I think Wallace describes accurately - was edited out of his obituaries, while Wyeth's (supposed) philistinism, and his seemingly adulterous attitude toward sex (as evinced, apparently by the "Helga" paintings - Lovers, above) was widely noted. But frankly, give me Helga over "Sukie" any day. And it seems to me that the longer you look at Updike, the thinner and less convincing he seems. But once you're past the middlebrow "realism" of Wyeth, stranger and stranger depths seem to open up beneath you.

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