Meeting Art With Intensity and Ferocity

Greg Gerke discusses the creation and evaluation of art

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Greg Gerke is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been publishing short stories and essays for more than a decade now: his work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of BooksTin House, and many other venues. See What I See, which Christine Schutt has described as a collection of “generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art”, is published by Splice and available to order now. A collection of short fiction, Especially the Bad Things, was published in September; it has received praise from writers such as Gary Lutz, Sergio de la Pava, and Sam Lipsyte, and is also available to order now.

In this two-part interview focusing on the essays in See What I See, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Greg first about his approach to art — its creation and evaluation — and then discusses the works of art that have meant the most to him.

I’d like to start with the broad view of See What I See. It’s an unusual book in that it’s fundamentally a collection of essays on literature and film, but when I look back at the volume as a whole I’m struck most of all by how personal it is. Deeply, deeply personal. In fact there’s one essay in there, ‘All Naked, All the Time’, in which you compare the films of John Cassavetes with the prose of Gertrude Stein, asking whether they might both be examples of “emotionally naked art”, and so I wonder: would you see your work in this book as something like emotionally naked criticism? I don’t mean in an overly forthright, self-exposing sense, but more in the sense that you’re willing — with some conscious effort — to let your own vulnerabilities become visible, if that’s what’s necessary to make a particular point. Working on the book with you, I was often reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne at the end of The Scarlet Letter: “Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” Would you agree with this view of See What I See?

I think, at some point over the years of writing these pieces, something I was not aware of began to happen — the insertion of myself, in hackneyed doses at the beginning, became more and more the substructure to the entire enterprise, and most extremely in the Eric Rohmer piece where the films become the gateway drug to analyzing my past. Not to say that this past is interesting, but in the context of the art, seemingly something shifts, because there is the art and you and all the possible imbrications. Pure memoir, unless Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Michel Leiris, and Paula Fox, is a hard sell. This dappling is something I’d been searching for in reviews and not getting. I don’t go to a review for a plot recap, I want to know what the art did to someone’s soul. The gesture of beginning and ending with little pretty personal anecdotes became too trite for me. The art needed to be submerged in the acid bath of the hidden personality (not the social media persona) and then reconstituted, which is what William Gass does without parallel. Cynthia Ozick wrote that the impression practiced by him is where “the criticism of the text vies as a literary display with the text itself.” It seems we go to art to learn about ourselves, even if we don’t think we do.

But it occurred to me that if art is, secretly, all about us (the time travel element, how we see our past through it), then one might as well not hold back. I’ve been disappointed in the memoirs and autofictions of people in my generation, as well as the Cusks and Knausgaards. It felt like they weren’t going deep enough — not in the way of truth-telling, more like how the poet Geoffrey Hill described creation: “It is the being forced down under the surface by the resistance of technique that inaugurates a self-alienating process which, as it drives down into strata that are not normally encountered, may produce alien objects.” Here is how biting art is made. Creation of a thing itself, not a simple journal entry on how one felt about something. The brouhaha about revealing (I had sex with so and so, etc.) was a sham — with a few exceptions (in non-fiction): Michelle Orange’s essay book This Is Running For Your Life and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. Having discretion issues is not the same as making art. Those writers weren’t going into the layers of consciousness and the skuzzy interiors — they wanted to keep looking good but it only made them more smug. A recent example of this is a much ballyhooed “takedown” of John Updike in the London Review of Books. Do any takedowns last, outside of Katherine Anne Porter putting her nails into Gertrude Stein? Even Renata Adler’s whitewash of Pauline Kael, while extremely well-written, is something I read once but have no desire to visit again. I hope what I’m doing is viewed much differently. When I began that Rohmer piece, I had no idea I would start writing about my past relationships; it came very naturally as if the experience of the films had willed it after months of stewing in my psyche. I think that art relates to your entire person and one must meet it with the same intensity and ferocity.

I think this is the fine line you walk, pretty much perfectly, in See What I See: not being self-revealing in a superficial or sensationalistic way, like disclosing a sordid past, and not looking at art for purposes of a “plot recap”, but focusing on the formal intricacies of artworks — so that somehow your attention to the aesthetics of art opens onto a deeply personal way of writing that is something quite apart from an autobiographical retelling of events.

There’s a line in your very skeptical essay on David Fincher that has stuck with me, because it cuts to the heart of the matter. You say there’s one simple question you’d like to ask artists like Fincher: “Why do you show me the things you show me?” So your starting point for analysing any experience of art seems to be that you want to seek out a justification for all of the tiny elements incorporated into the artwork, word by word in literature and frame by frame in film. You want to understand how the artist has come to his or her style, in Susan Sontag’s sense of the term: “Style is the principle of decision in a work of art. … The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style.” And if you can understand “the principle of decision” that has led to the style — that has led for some things to be included, others excluded; some to be shown, others hidden — then you’re in a place where something in the work reverberates with your own soul, with your own history of decisions, exposures, concealments, in the thick of life.

Two wonderful examples come to mind for me. The first is from your essay on Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, where you try to find words for the “superlative” performance of Michelle Williams. Ever seeking out “the principle of decision”, you try to be attentive to what aspects of her presence and mood the camera captures, what Polley allows her to do on screen, in order to show you a particular selection of emotional states. It’s hard not to quote you at length here:

Michelle Williams is certainly the best American actress of her generation, as she continually fills out more and ever more complex psychologies. In Take This Waltz she conveys fear, surprise, awkwardness, tedium, control, regret, and fatigue with a naked spontaneity. I have seen her no-bullshit gaze in a few interviews and would have to assume she draws on the spirit of herself in order to inform her performances. I don’t know how she does what she does, if she employs a method. I don’t want to know, either. Her performance crystallizes as the thing itself. … [N]o-one can wear pain like Michelle Williams; it oozes forth in the like manner that Wordsworth defined the sublime in poetry: a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Her whole body becomes a tourniquet, trying to clog the loss of spirit that marks her great characterizations.

You go on to look at the way she modulates her accent, and the way Polley structures certain frames and narrative strands around her, but I’ll stop there because that’s enough to get at what I want to ask you about. In a word: beauty. In particular: the principle of decision that leads an artist to present something knowingly beautiful to you, where beauty is understood not bluntly as something that ‘looks good’, but as an expression of the fullest possible range of human capabilities within the circumstances of a given narrative or situation. The works of art that reverberate with you are not fabular, or surreal, or magical-realist, or comedic, and certainly not works of cultural or political commentary, but are those whose primary agenda seems to be stylistic, so as to construct a concept of beauty and offer it to audiences almost as a gift. Would it be fair to say this?

I think you set down those terms much more clearly than I ever could, Daniel — and when you mention how the artist chooses to show some things and hide others, my eyes light up, because there seems to lie a secret of art. Robert Bresson:

The difficulty is that all art is both abstract and suggestive at the same time. You can’t show everything. If you do, it’s no longer art. Art lies in suggestion. The great difficulty for filmmakers is precisely not to show things. Ideally, nothing should be shown, but that’s impossible. So things must be shown from one sole angle that evokes all other angles without showing them. We must let the viewer gradually imagine, hope to imagine, and keep them in a constant state of anticipation. … Life is mysterious, and we should see that on-screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life. We’re unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause.

This quote provides the basis of that remark critiquing Fincher and other directors who fall short of auteur status, for me. The success or failure of a book, film, or play seems to relate solely to this — how much is shown. In Eyes Wide Shut, you never find out how the mask Dr. Bill wore was lost, though he locked it in his house. But how did it show up on his pillow? Who put it there? His wife appears oblivious to it, though maybe she did find it. Kubrick had no interest in a detective story — the mask is inexplicably there because it has to be there, which jives with the Sontag quote — yes, there are no alternatives; boom, there is the mask, deal with it — and it affronts the audience as it does Dr. Bill. At base, the mask is representative of our deepest fear, our hypocrisy (W.S. Merwin: “Something I’ve not done/ is following me/ I haven’t done it again and again…”). One can start from there and root out to just about anything. The whole film has been constructed so that at this moment everything that has occurred collapses — the character’s mind, the dream states, and the uncanny — such was Kubrick’s rhythm. I think Marianne Moore speaks to this: “you don’t devise a rhythm, the rhythm is the person, and the sentence but a radiograph of personality.” So too, everything in the frame of Eyes Wide Shut is the radiograph of Kubrick, who disappears and is only a cipher haunting his work.

So that’s all speaking to style. But what of style-towards-beauty?

I love your definition of beauty as “an expression of the fullest possible range of human capabilities within the circumstances of a given narrative or situation.” Overlapping this, I hope, one can feel the ghost of Walter Pater in certain nooks and crannies of the book; he is certainly there by name. Those works that do reverberate, as you say — yes, they construct a concept of beauty and offer it as a gift. And the gift has to be hard-hearted, as in, this isn’t going to come easy for you. Rilke: “You must change your life.” The gift is an interrogation.

I remember developing a friendship with a painter. She was in her late twenties and she modeled her works on works of the old masters. She had this stark affinity for similar works that entranced me, and we’d watch something by Tarkovsky or read passages of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood out loud (or even just share our memories of a work we’d seen independently—Solaris, for instance). There wouldn’t be anything to say for a while after ‘taking in’ these experiences. We’d just sit there breathing (Hugh Kenner: “the whole point of a book is what happens in the five minutes after one has finished reading it.” We were still with the gifts coruscating over us, like the indelible line in Nightwood: “‘I have been loved,’ she said, ‘by something strange, and it has forgotten me.’” As Gass would say, that’s a monument to heartache and one feels many of the sharp shocks and long love pangs that have gone on in one’s life, but feels them inside-out — art is a great medicine.

Anyway, the shared silence, taking in those gifts — these are the moments that bring me to my knees. I think many people do incredible psychological work by engaging with art to this degree — there is a betterment process going on. We want to be as aware as we make out Djuna Barnes to be in Nightwood, the picture of her as narrator in our heads.

The gifts — the “hard-hearted beauty” — carefully cultivated through a deliberate style that is ultimately a process of selection, and therefore of revealing a personality or sensibility… That’s art for you, yes? That’s what it’s all about.

But I’m amazed at the terms in which you express your attraction to it, because they pull so strongly in two directions at once. I mean, on the one hand, I could imagine a reader looking at what you’ve just said and thinking, “No, this guy’s book isn’t for me because he’s too elitist, too aloof from the enjoyment a regular person gets out of art” — and quotes from Gass, Moore, Barnes, et al are ammunition for that criticism. At the same time, though, you’re so egalitarian, or democratic: you’re valorising the sharing of art and using the language of communion through art; you’re pursuing aesthetic experience in conversation, in dialogue; you’re getting mileage out of art via unexpected encounters and the way it gives fuel for the soul in everyday situations. And there’s a sense throughout all your essays that no special expertise is needed for these experiences of art. They’re open to everyone. You only need a willing disposition and a heightened sense of one’s lot being cast with the rest of humanity.

I guess that’s the risk one takes (judging one another being our favorite pastime), but I’m glad you see an egalitarianism. It’s best to be Janus-faced in terms of art. Geoffrey Hill has a great quote on coming into the country of the blue, or the force-field of a work of art one can’t shake: “Whatever strange relationship we have with a poem, it is not one of enjoyment. It is more like being brushed past, or aside, by an alien being.” I had the same experience when first reading Christine Schutt and Gary Lutz some twelve years ago, or when first watching Bresson or Rivette. I dare say this might be the same response people have to people they will end up loving.

This is part one of a two-part interview with Greg Gerke. In the second part, Greg discusses the qualities that make art meaningful for him.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.