Will Self on Literature and Visual Arts

British writer explores the connections
Will Self's office as photographed by Nigel Shafran (2006) © Nigel Shafran

Tate Etc. features an edited version of the Will Self's Monique Beudert Memorial Lecture given in 2006. The article 'tracks the ever-changing relationship between the literary and visual arts from John Keats to J G Ballard' (via Will Self):
[...] It's true that many famous and renowned writers have flicked their wrists at art criticism, including Thomas De Quincey and Oscar Wilde. However, it's moot whether they added anything to the field, and they certainly failed to generate anything with the impact of their thinking on questions on general aesthetics. De Quincey, of course, is best remembered for adducing Piranesi's minatory etchings of I Carceri (The Prisons, 1745) to the hypnagogia of his own opium reveries, and beyond that for his seminal essay Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.

Note, please, that this was not called Art as a Kind of Killing. J G Ballard took De Quincey's trope and twisted it a full revolution further to come up with The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as Downhill Motor Race, thus neatly excising aesthetics from the parallel altogether. Ballard, who I'm happy to acknowledge as a powerful literary influence, has often described what he does in fictional terms as analogous to the work of Surrealist painters: a juxtaposition of irreconcilable opposites, the mashing together of the unconscious, the preconscious and any so-called commonsensical view of the world to create a form of hyper-reality. William Burroughs - whose own cut-up method was hijacked from the Dadaist Tristan Tzara - wrote in a preface to Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) that he viewed Ballard's text as a literary concomitant of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Now, while this may be true at a theoretical level - both Ballard and Warhol are interested in the commodification of women's bodies in the emergent mass media of the post-war period - the effect of reading Ballard is not in any meaningful sense to "see" Pop Art, or even Surrealist dreamscapes.

On the contrary, like De Quincey, Ballard is, I would argue, concerned with widening the province of what can be considered as beautiful. For Vaughan, the protagonist of Ballard's novel Crash (1973), the arcs described by ejaculated semen across the instrument panels of crashed cars have as much right to be perceived in an aesthetic sense as any more conventional gushing of pigment. It is not, therefore, merely accidental that three years prior to the novel's publication, Ballard felt driven to mount an exhibition of car wrecks in a London art gallery. He completes the list of literary-visual aesthetic theoreticians by fully supplanting - rather than supervening - Thomas Aquinas's formulation of the good and the beautiful with the tautology: "The beautiful is whatever can be considered as... beautiful." [Read the article]

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