What Art Is Like, in Constant Reference to the Alice Books

December 20, 2012

I wanted to love this book. I ought, perhaps, to have loved this book…but I didn’t. Despite the assurances on the dust jacket that Miguel Tamen’s study is “wonderful”, not to mention “highly original, lucid and utterly attractive in style and tone”, I spent far too much time reading with gritted teeth. When I say that my happiest moment in exploring What Art Is Like was discovering the “Analytical table of contents”, which offers a summary of the key points of the argument, you will have some idea of what my reading experience was like.

The author comments in the introduction that “An important part of this book…consists in suggesting, tirelessly and perhaps tediously, a series of analogies and similes, many of which will only make sense in the context of their initial occurrence” and that “the reader is encouraged to think through such intemperate analogies, and perhaps to think away from them, but also to think about them as they are developed rather than in any gnomic or splendid fragmentary way”. You take my point - either you are the kind of whimsical reader who enjoys this playful glancing at important concepts, or like me you are a pedestrian reader who finds such calculated slippery language in the service of clever argument endlessly annoying. Still, perhaps I am just cranky because this book has demonstrated to me that I am not nearly as much fun as a reader as I had imagined myself to be.

To be fair, the basic premise of What Art is Like merits attention: the insistence that “talking about art should be seen as contiguous with talking about many other relevant and important things and…with many other human activities” seems eminently reasonable and, indeed, desirable. What is gained by confining discussion of any art - visual or verbal - to a cadre of professional analysts who share an exclusionary discourse? Tamen seeks to disrupt such aesthetic response based on assimilated high-culture definitions, offering instead the option of exploring the art object through familiar but unexpected similarities. Hence we find, with reference to Alice’s confusion regarding the meaning of Jabberwocky, that “poems are like kittens…because you can’t keep up a conversation with them. They don’t talk back and indeed can’t talk at all…Like kittens, poems ‘always say the same thing’ - regardless of the words…All art is like that”.

For Tamen, however, even well-intentioned talking about art poses challenges: “So much effort to talk about art and to intimate that art is so-around you might end up raising the suspicion that what you talk about has, after all, darted away and is over-there rather than much about.”

I was fully prepared to be charmed by What Art is Like. The concept of a discussion of art “in constant reference to the Alice books” held out tantalising possibilities - even if I didn’t find out why a raven might be like a writing desk, surely there would be verbal jeux d’esprit galore, a feast of witty allusions to amuse the reader well-versed in Alice-lore. Indeed, those readers who are charmed by philosophical discourse (like the author of the dust-jacket blurb) may discover precisely those qualities in Tamen’s book. As for me, I now prefer that those excellences remain over-there rather than so-around me.

What Art Is Like, in Constant Reference to the Alice Books

By Miguel Tamen

Harvard University Press

128pp, £22.95

ISBN 9780674067066 and 9780674067950 (e-book)

Published 25 October 2012

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