Monday, July 19, 2004

Art and the Perverse

There's something engaging about willful perversity in art; I think this is the major gem at the center of dada's lump of unloved coal. It's willful perversity that makes the careers of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon worth reading about; not only that, though, but w.p. is the really invigorating force behind the works of these men (and others).

First I suppose I should define willful perversity. We'll turn to the American Heritage Dictionary for a useful tetrapartite definition of the word "perverse":

1) Directed away from what is right or good; perverted.
2) Obstinately persisting in an error or fault; wrongly
self-willed or stubborn.
a) Marked by a disposition to oppose and contradict.
b) Arising from such a disposition.
4) Cranky; peevish.
Obviously, 1 is useless to us. I'm not using perverse in a moral sense, but in the context of an artist's career. However, 2-4 all are of use; synthesizing them, we arrive at a definition of perversity somewhat like this:

Per-ver-si-ty, n. A state of obstinacy and unreason, provoked by the resentment of past artistic successes and characterized by the rejection and undermining of those successes. See re-ac-tor.

Famously perverse career decisions:
  1. Neil Young.
  2. Dylan goes electric.
  3. Dylan goes folk-bard.
  4. Dylan goes Christian (this one didn't quite work).
  5. Pynchon publishes Mason & Dixon, a huge fictional work about the surveyors, using contemporary (1780s) capitalization and spelling.
  6. Finnegan's Wake (rather than a volte-face, this was the stupifyingly logical conclusion to James Joyce's oeuvre -- though the symposium of critical writing published ten years before the novel, the bulk of it possibly ghostwritten by Joyce, can only be called perverse).
We'll examine this subject in greater detail in the future. I just hope I'm not alone in loving, conceptually, that, after the critical and popular acclaim that Rust Never Sleeps achieved, NY could release a nine-minute long song whose lyrics consisted of, "Got mashed potatoes, ain't got no T-bone" and then print all six verses in the liner notes. Diane suspects I am.


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