What We Talk About When We Talk About Art

By Rebecca J. NovelliJune 10, 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About Art
JULIAN BARNES LETS GO of his familiar ironic voice as he takes on the subject of art in his deft and deceptively simple books Keeping an Eye Open (2015) and The Noise of Time (2016). Art is a vast subject, and his observations range from the quotidian to the philosophical, but he has selected examples with broad application to explore this longstanding interest. The two books seem to be the beginning of a longer discussion and may portend more work from Barnes on this subject. Let’s hope so.

In Keeping an Eye Open, Barnes discusses artworks that illustrate representative problems in painting. He limits himself to the period in art history known as Modernism, and as a result, readers gain a serviceable framework for thinking about art in general. In The Noise of Time, Barnes deepens his inquiry into art through a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. This permits the author to examine the moral and philosophical questions concerning artistic freedom and the relationship between the artist and the state. Barnes has done extensive research, but both texts wear this scholarship lightly and make complicated questions about art and artistic practice clear, compelling, and timely.

Barnes knows that narrative method determines the kind of truth the writer can tell, and his particular merging of journalistic and fictional methods is a defining characteristic of his work. This synthesis of narrative strategies underlies his perspective and his flexibility as a writer:

I think I tell less truth when I write journalism than when I write fiction. I practice both those media, and I enjoy both, but to put it crudely, when you are writing journalism your task is to simplify the world and render it comprehensible in one reading; whereas when you are writing fiction your task is to reflect the fullest complications of the world, to say things that are not as straightforward as might be understood from reading my journalism and to produce something that you hope will reveal further layers of truth on a second reading. (Paris Review, Winter 2000)

Journalism and fiction seem as inseparable for him as they perhaps are in life; he implicitly rejects the notion that journalism, fiction writing, and other arts are separate from one another or ought to be.

Barnes isn’t formally trained in art. This proves an advantage. He is aware of his limitations and therefore those of his readers as he clarifies the messy and sometimes opaque (no puns intended) world of painting. Better yet, as he makes clear in Keeping an Eye Open, he loves his subject:

Art doesn’t just capture and convey the excitement, the thrill of life. Sometimes, it does even more: it is that thrill.

Barnes has always found art interesting and meaningful (also from Keeping an Eye Open):

I was attracted to art that was as transformative as possible; indeed, I thought this was what art was. You took life and turned it, by some charismatic, secret process, into something else: related to life, but stronger, more intense and, preferably, weirder.

He doesn’t delve into what this weirdness might be. Other things he doesn’t delve into include the abstract or vague emotional and existential underpinnings of artistic practice or that sense of exaltation that artists experience when, rarely, something original and transformative happens in their work. He spends no ink on psychoanalysis or the inner states of mind that artists report as they paint or just hallucinate. Cross off classical ideals of beauty and its kitschy descendant, prettiness: images of kittens, wide-eyed children, gauzy landscapes, and happy endings. There’s nothing here about the art-can-be-anything school, though artists today still explore the implications of Duchamp’s century-old pronouncement.

Barnes isn’t wedded to theoretical positions about the work of art’s social or political relevance. He doesn’t drag his readers through the weeds of critical theory and interpretation, though one senses he is quite capable of clarifying these as well. Consequently, he doesn’t “interrogate” paintings for signs and meaning. There’s no artspeak here. As to whether art should question the status quo, he allows artists to decide and then examines the consequences of their decisions once their works are completed. Most importantly, he avoids the pervasive tongue-in-cheek stance so favored now among writers, but he doesn’t come off as sentimental, unsophisticated, or humorless.

It took quite a while before Barnes realized that he wanted to write books about art, though between 1989 and 2013 his essays on art had already appeared in The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, Modern Painters, and as a section in one of his novels. In the introduction to Keeping an Eye Open, he describes this realization:

I found, when assembling these pieces, that I had unwittingly been retracing […] the story of how art (mainly French art) made its way from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism. The central section of this period — approximately 1850 to 1920 — continues to fascinate me, as a time of great truth-speaking combined with a fundamental re-examination of the forms of art. I think we still have a lot to learn from that time.

The book includes 17 essays, each focused on a particular problem or question artists, mostly painters, face. The title signals its objective: making the viewer more alert, specifically to questions relevant to painting.

Who is Barnes to tell us how to think about art? It’s a reasonable question to ask, given his literary focus. Early on he worked as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary and as a reviewer. He has published 20 books since his first novel, Metroland (1980). Among them, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur & George (2005) were nominated for the Booker Prize. The prize was ultimately awarded for his novel, The Sense of an Ending, in 2011. He has received many other awards. After winning the Booker, Barnes gathered his essays on art into book form, as he had done previously with his New Yorker pieces in Letters from London (1995) and Something to Declare: Essays on France and French Culture (2002).

Both in his writing and in his interviews Barnes comes across as unfailingly pleasant (if a bit reticent), very well read, a Francophile, and a lover of Modernist art. He seems a modest man with a modest agenda that belies his extensive literary achievements and renown: “I freely admit I don’t know the difference between that and which,” he told Clive James in 2013. “I have no oeuvre. I write one book after another.”

It’s easy to like him. First of all, he is the model of the intelligent observer: dispassionate, thoughtful, and someone who, if not necessarily an expert, is generous in sharing his passion for art and what artists do. Further, he is an entertaining companion. We’re in good hands.

In each of the essays in Keeping an Eye Open, Barnes asks what a particular artist is doing and why. He focuses on the work itself, on what is public, identifiable, observable, and subject to reporting. One of the pleasures of this book is its assumption that the reader is an intelligent observer, too, and an equal in the conversation. We accompany Barnes as he looks at a painting, points out the fundamental artistic challenges it represents, and then shows how the artist addressed them. This problem/solution approach makes art accessible and engaging, and the process he models is applicable to other artworks and other arts.

The first essay, “Géricault: Catastrophe into Art,” originally appeared as Chapter Five in the author’s 1989 novel, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Barnes begins by providing context: The Raft of the Medusa, a well-known painting completed in 1819 when the Romantic period was already well underway, which depicts the dramatic aftermath of a disastrous shipwreck in 1816, the result of negligence, incompetence, dishonesty, and stupidity. In the aftermath, survivors reportedly cannibalized the corpses of their comrades in order to stay alive.

Barnes chooses to focus on a single question: “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” As he explains, Géricault had to find one image that would encompass the shipwreck and convey its horror, terror, suffering, and death. Comparable artistic questions today might be asked about New Orleans and Katrina or the tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. The answer, Barnes says, is to understand the event; understanding begins with “truth to life,” which means careful study, but “once the progress gets under way, truth to art is the greater allegiance.” Depicting catastrophe also serves a larger purpose, because “to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts. But we also need to justify it and forgive it,” he writes, “however minimally.” He concludes: “Perhaps, in the end, that’s what catastrophe is for.”

Barnes notes that Géricault didn’t focus on the agony of those who clung to a frail craft for nearly three weeks, mostly without food or water, but rather on the moment when their rescue became a possibility. The painting doesn’t reveal whether the rescue succeeded, so that the question of what happened to these survivors is posed anew in every viewing. Art goes beyond merely reporting what happened.

In another essay Barnes looks to Cézanne as an example of artistic influence. Cézanne has been the subject of so much critical discussion that there would seem to be little left to say, and Barnes draws on the thinking of experts, including David Sylvester, Alex Danchev, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Clive Bell, to help readers understand the significance of the artist’s vision:

Art, for Cézanne, had a parallel existence to life rather than an imitative dependence upon it. It had its own rules, sought its own harmonies, purged old-style interpretativeness and announced the democracy of tache-painting, whereby a patch or stain in the form of a pair of trousers was as significant as a patch or stain representing a head.

Further, Cézanne’s experiments with multiple perspectives, space, and color resulted in a new kind of art:

[W]hile we might admire his daring fragmentations of vision, what the painter himself sought was “harmony” […] Cézanne hardly saw himself as founding something which others would later call Modernism; for him, painting meant expressing the truth about nature through the conduit of his own temperament.

Expressing truth through temperament is one way of describing what it means to be an artist.

Cézanne represented a fundamental break with the past: he changed how people, not just artists, looked at art and what they expected to see when they did. By showing how Cézanne gave other artists permission to explore new ideas and techniques, Barnes helps the reader to understand how art evolves and why Picasso characterized Cézanne’s influence as a “mother hovering over”:

[I]n all the arts there are usually two things going on at the same time: the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past. All the great innovators look to previous innovators […] At the same time, there is progress, often awkward, always required.

Other essays highlight different artistic considerations. For example, Manet’s work, reviled during the artist’s lifetime, is the basis for a discussion of censorship, of artworks that at first offend but are later recognized as innovative and seminal. Another essay about an exhibit of death masks and other realistic effigies considers how work not made as art may later come to be regarded as art.


Republishing a collection of shorter pieces as Barnes does in Keeping an Eye Open is a useful move for a writer. In this case, it has allowed Barnes to collect his thoughts on a subject of interest, art, before undertaking a related and more complicated project: a novel about artistic freedom and authenticity.

In The Noise of Time, as in the essays, Barnes again takes a vast subject — When and how in a moral sense does the artist lose his authority as an artist? — and makes it comprehensible and relevant by focusing on a representative instance, in this case Shostakovich. Although classified as fiction, this novel is clearly a synthesis of journalistic and novelistic methods. Barnes has clearly done his research, but he doesn’t allow it to overshadow the imaginative aspects of his story, and he renders Shostakovich’s wrenching personal and political conflicts in a way that makes them impossible to forget or ignore. He describes Shostakovich’s agitation, his constant fear of arrest, and his anxiety about his personal relationships, and readers can feel the composer’s desperate need to protect his creative freedom from the intrusions of Stalin’s regime, a concern that dominated his life and oeuvre.

A biographical novel presents certain narrative problems. Barnes freely evokes the composer’s thoughts, his inner conflicts and contradictions, to reveal states of mind that Shostakovich would have hesitated to share even with his diary. These inventions require a point of view that straddles the internal and external life of the character. Barnes solves this tricky narrative problem in a time-honored way by using a close third-person voice that has access to the internal life of his subject but stops short of omniscience. This point of view gives Shostakovich’s artistic crises a great deal of intensity but sometimes wavers in its closeness to the subject, leaving the reader slightly jarred, as in these examples:

He had thought, standing here, that he would be in charge of his mind. But at night, alone, it seemed that his mind was in charge of him. Well, there is no escaping one’s destiny […] And no escaping one’s mind. […]

But still, he was young, confident in his talent, and highly successful […] And if he was no politician, either by temperament or aptitude, there were people he could turn to. […] He began by explaining the plan of response he had worked out […] He would write a defence of the opera, an argued rebuttal to the criticism, and submit the article to Pravda. […]

The only possible course of action open to Dmitri Dmitrievich was to make a public apology, recant his errors, and explain that while composing his opera he had been led astray by the foolish excesses of youth. Beyond this, he should announce an intention of immersing himself forthwith in the folk music of the Soviet Union, which would help redirect him towards all that was authentic, popular and melodious.

Perhaps one could object to this occasional shimmy in point of view, but doing so would overlook how skillfully Barnes has done what is necessary to tell the story. And his narrative challenges were further complicated by the need to rely on authoritative but conflicting sources:

Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life. Some stories come in many versions, worked up and “improved” over the years. Others […] exist only in a single version, told many years after the composer’s death, by a single source. More broadly, truth was a hard thing to find, let alone maintain, in Stalin’s Russia. Even the names mutate uncertainly […] All this is highly frustrating to any biographer, but most welcome to any novelist.

The outcome of Shostakovich’s story is familiar — his soul-destroying capitulation to the regime’s demand that he join the Communist party — and Barnes’s moving description of its personal cost to the artist speaks to a larger purpose: an examination of the nature and limits of the relationship between artist and state and, by extension, between every artist in every state.

[Shostakovich] felt, suddenly, as if all the breath had been taken out of his body. How, why had he not seen this coming? All through the years of terror, he had been able to say that at least he had never tried to make things easier for himself by becoming a Party member. And now, finally, after the great fear was over, they had come for his soul. […]

Once that nerve was gone, you couldn’t replace it like a violin string. Something deep in your soul was missing, and all you had left was — what? — a certain tactical cunning, an ability to play the unworldly artist, and a determination to protect your music and your family at any price […] but since he was already committing moral suicide, what would be the point of physical suicide? It wasn’t even a question of lacking the courage to buy and hide and swallow the pills. It was rather that now, at this juncture, he lacked even the self-respect that suicide required. […]

When he had married Nina Vasilievna, he had been too scared to tell his mother beforehand. When he had joined the Party, he had been too scared to tell his children beforehand. The line of cowardice in his life was the one thing that ran straight and true. […] And so, he was a coward […] to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime.

Barnes dissects Shostakovich’s artistic dilemma as the composer sought to mitigate the constant intrusion on his work by a corrupt state acting on its own imperatives for self-preservation, what he called “Power and ideology and vacuous language and the despoiling of a man’s soul.”

The artist’s choice is not merely a matter of preference for having a certain kind of relationship with the government. It is a question of artistic survival:

[T]here was a clear, two-way choice: integrity or corruption. Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable. But in the real world, especially the extreme version of it he had lived through, things were not like this. There was a third choice: integrity and corruption.

Shostakovich’s case illustrates why it isn’t possible for an artist to go along in order to get along and still retain his artistic freedom and vision:

There were limits to irony: you cannot sign letters while holding your nose or crossing your fingers behind your back, trusting that others will guess you do not mean it. And so [Shostakovich] had […] signed denunciations. He had betrayed himself, and he had betrayed the good opinion others still held of him. He had lived too long.

He had also learnt about the destruction of the human soul. […] A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself. Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible.

Finally, Shostakovich could no longer get by with dissembling in his support for Stalin’s regime, or the one that followed. Forced to join the Party and then to do the latter’s bidding in order to survive, he relinquished the artistic freedom that was essential to his art and to him as an artist.

Shostakovich’s double life, as it were, leads to an especially pertinent and timely discussion of dissembling as a political stance, which Barnes defines as ironic:

[P]art of you believed that as long as you could rely on irony, you would be able to survive. […] There could be a smugness to irony, as there could be a complacency to protest. […] Irony, he had come to realize, was as vulnerable to the accidents of life and time as any other sense. You woke up one morning and no longer knew if your tongue was in your cheek; and even if it was, whether that mattered any more, whether anyone noticed. […] And irony had its limits. For instance, you could not be an ironic torturer; or an ironic victim of torture. Equally, you couldn’t join the Party ironically. […] If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. […] Sarcasm was irony [that] had lost its soul.

To Shostakovich, irony seemed the safest stance except when it wasn’t. His dissembling wasn’t only political; it was existential. At that point art and being an artist were no longer possible.

For Barnes, art has a moral dimension that doesn’t allow dissembling, or acting ironically, because doing so has the effect of concealing moral cowardice from the artist and from the audience. When an ironic stance becomes who the artist is as an artist, his calling as an artist is subverted. He is no longer capable of being an artist because he has nothing to say that isn’t automatically undermined by his fundamental existential position. This is itself ironic. Shostakovich’s case serves as a warning to those in more liberal precincts that such dystopian possibilities lurk in our political past and are not precluded in its future. In an era of staggering political and personal hypocrisy, The Noise of Time is a cautionary tale about the consequences of the ironic stance.

In both Keeping an Eye Open and The Noise of Time, Barnes’s writing is elegant, his curiosity boundless, and his intellect formidable. The reproductions of paintings are vivid and pleasing. His clean, undecorated prose invites our trust. He doesn’t leave distracting footprints on the page because he cares more for his subject than for himself, more for clarity than crafty prose that asks to be admired for its craftiness. He lets his subject speak, leaving his readers with a sense of immediacy and discovery. This essential modesty in writing is especially welcome at a time when art is too often a servant to publicity and celebrity. Most importantly, Barnes has identified the relevant questions, leaving us much to ponder. It remains for us to keep our eyes open, the better to see what is really there and to understand what it means. After all, isn’t this what art asks of us?


Rebecca J. Novelli is a writer and a painter. She is the author of The Train to Orvieto (Black Heron Press, October 2016). Her website is www.rebeccaJnovelli.com.

LARB Contributor

Rebecca J. Novelli is a writer and a painter. She is the author of The Train to Orvieto (Black Heron Press, October 2016), a novel set in Italy in which she explores her interests in marriage and family relationships, art, and the Italian language and culture. She speaks and reads Italian and frequently travels to Italy. Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Elena Ferrante, and Roberto Calasso are among her favorite writers. When she isn’t writing, she prefers to paint and is currently working on a series about women and a series on Death Valley.

Her varied career has included freelance writing and posts as communications director, events manager, publicist, publications manager, textbook writer, magazine editor, advance person, high school English teacher, and ESL teacher for recent refugees.

A graduate of Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, she holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and was a member of Jim Krusoe’s Advanced Fiction Workshop at Santa Monica College.

Visit Rebecca at: www.rebeccaJnovelli.com


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.