I finished a new book today, called You're Up, You're Down, You're Up: Essays on Art in Life and Life in Art. One can read the introduction below. The book is comprised of twenty essays. There's really nothing like it. An intellectual and emotional tour-de-force. In order, their subjects are: running stairs in an obelisk, the Three Investigators books, the film The Ox-Bow Incident, Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare, Edward Hopper's Hotel Lobby, Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, the 1980s computer game, King's Quest, the cluster of albums Miles Davis recorded around Kind of Blue, two teachers I had in second and third grade, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and The Curse of the Cat People, Babe Ruth, James Joyce's Ulysses, Bob Dylan's "Murder Most Foul," the death of a Soviet goaltender, the YA novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the painting The Wreck of the Medusa, Samuel Pepys' diaries and COVID, William Sloane's To Walk the Night, Seabury Quinn's Roads, and Joy Division's last song.
Introduction: To Be Put to Use
Do you ever find yourself asking yourself what you’re allowed to say?
I’m not talking anything in the nature of political correctness, where we feel this cramping need to be up to the moment on the terms that will change within the next. What I’m talking about is what you might assert—to simply declare, “this thing is this thing, and so let me speak of its thingness—that which marks and defines it as what it is.”
I don’t believe there is a volume of essays at all like this one—I am certain of it, actually—because I don’t believe there is anyone at all like me. I am asserting this book—and this person—in their thingness. I stand by them, because I exist within them. There is a catch, though, about our truest, deepest selves, when we allow their full expression—which is to say, we are most who we are. And that is that everyone else is potentially in there was well. It’s like stretching the fingers of a glove—you make more room.
That’s always been my experience with art in life and life in art. The truest experiences, born of both, are usually the most personal, but they invite us all in, to see where we fit, or what those experiences mean in the terms of our own lives. How we’ve thought and felt. Loved and lost. Despaired and hoped. You don’t get the most acute versions of those thoughts and emotions from the general, do you? The vanilla. The Netflix-ing of life. The rote and expected. Nothing jostles us into those true selves like an organic surprise. And individuality. And maybe nothing inspires us quite the same way either.
In recent times, I’ve noticed a sort of church and state divide between art and life, as if they’re separate concerns. Art is for museums, and well-heeled people, and perpetual students who rack up twelve degrees, and then we hop on Twitter and have bitter debates about who is and who isn’t a doctor, depending on whether they wield a pen or a scalpel.
It’s tiring, isn’t it? It’s tiring because it’s not the point.
We talk about how art is to be appreciated, as though it has a time and place, and that time and place is removed from the ken and concerns of daily living.
This is wrong. Well, it’s wrong if that’s all we’ve made up our minds to do with art. To read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, listen to a Mozart piano sonata, take a selfie in front of a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period, and ooh and ahhh. Don’t stop there. Art is to be used. That’s really what it’s for.
I don’t believe that vital rains have greater need for the farmer’s withering crops than art does for the living of our lives. Which isn’t to say that I want the farmer to fail to get to market and make his or her or their profit. It’s to say that I want us to get up to our elbows in the dirt of art, the loam of living, to take what it offers us and use that to go forward in what we do, how we think, how we coexist with others, and how we coexist with ourselves.
William Carlos Williams famously wrote that so much depends upon a wet, red wheelbarrow, and you might think, fie, no it doesn’t! But he wasn’t talking about wet, red wheelbarrows in general. He was talking about a precise one, seen by a person, at a precise time in their lives. Being present for that beholding. Seeing the thingness of the moment and one’s self in relation to the wet, red wheelbarrow.
That’s how art wants us to come to it and use it, because that’s how life is, and where art can help us in life. I would say that so much depends upon our ability to be open to the utility of art. What constitutes art? A lot can be art. A relationship can be art. Friendship is certainly an art. Love is an art.
What we think of as formal art—the album, the film, the painting—is an exercise in friendship, because it reaches out to us and wants to do well by us. Help us do well by us. Williams was talking about seeing the world in this fashion. It’s not just a museum that is a museum—the museum is all around you every day, if you know how to see it. Art is the binoculars. The microscope. The glasses. The decoder ring. It is the question and the answer. It is you, and it is me.
The reader will find some obvious examples of art, and some not so obvious examples in these pages to come. I have found art in a classic film, a work of diaristic literature, a Peanuts holiday special, a long Dylan tune. I have also found it to be every bit in evidence in the death of a Soviet goaltender, a Young Adult book series, the words of my third grade teacher, and in the running of stairs inside of an obelisk erected to commemorate a pyrrhic victory.
I’ve learned that you never sweat what is the highbrow and what is the lowbrow when it comes to art, because they don’t exist. We create those categories, typically based on how smart we wish for others to perceive us as.
But you know what the actual smart person does? They don’t care about these labels, and daft labels at that. They partake. They glean and go forward. The animated special may hold the same degree of wisdom, which is not evinced elsewhere, and not expressed with so much skill, as we will find in the Beethoven symphony, or one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s there, if we are wiling to be as well.
The subjects discussed in these pages are all works of art, and works of life, that inform and nourish the root of the person I am. In these pieces, fragments, chunks of humanity—for that is what they are—I see the highly personal, and yet, I am never left out. I am fully involved, fully integrated, because that which is most personal has this weird, wondrous, paradoxical knack of hitting that universal chord on the human lyre that brings us all together in individuality, and our individual growth.
I wanted this book to simply take up its place in that progression, for those reasons. And so not only do I assert its thingness, I am its thingness, but no more so than potentially anyone else. The stretching of the fingers of the glove. To be put to use, for us.