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Finding The Modern Artist: Valéry And Stevens On Strickland And Olsen

2151 words - 9 pages

The artist was a figure of great importance to the Modernist writer. One need only look through the literature of the time to see this. Hardly a book was written that didn't include as at least a minor character an artist of some sort. In this time of waning faith in God, the figure of the man who creates, who makes order from chaos, was very tantalizing. The modern artist was seen as a trailblazer, standing at the vanguard of humanity and cutting away the undergrowth of the past to create a path to the future. This path wasn't always pleasant -- in fact it was often disturbing and frightening to the average human being -- but it was a necessary step for the artist to explore that territory, so that the rest of humanity could follow.

However, the Modern period was also one of questioning absolutes, of distrusting the so-called "objective" viewpoint. Especially after World War I, this disillusionment ran deep in European and American culture. If this is the case, though, how can one even define what "the modern artist" is, much less analyze how that figure functions across multiple works of literature? That question is, perhaps, impossible to answer, but, if one makes a few assumptions at the start, one may at least attempt to define and analyze the figure of the modern artist. Many critics and philosophers of the time offered forth their beliefs about the modern artist and, based on these essays, particular literary figures can be looked at in terms of how well they live up to the ideal of that critic. More specifically, the respective merits of Charles Strickland in W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence and Axel Olsen in Nella Larsen's Quicksand as modern artists can be judged by the standards of the artist set up by Paul Valéry in "Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci" and Wallace Stevens in "Two or Three Ideas."

Valéry writes in "Introduction…" that, "Since mind has found no limit to its activity, and since no idea marks the end of the business of consciousness, it must most likely perish in some incomprehensible climax foreshadowed and prepared by those terrors and odd sensations of which I have spoken; they give us glimpses of worlds that are unstable and incompatible with fullness of life." (Valéry, 89) His main argument is that the mind of the artist, seeing this reality as only one choice among infinite possibilities, goes beyond this choice of reality and sees what is actually there, the essential elements of life, and then imparts that knowledge in some degree to humanity in general. The artist sees that, "all things are equal…All things are replaceable by all things." (Ibid. 92) Physical phenomena become unimportant—all is merely things, which are no better or worse than other things that could be just as easily be in their place. The artist, "has passed beyond all creations, all works, beyond even his greatest designs at the same time that he has put away from him all tenderness for...

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