By Sophie Rainbow
“I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
[…] One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. […] My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
(An extract from ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ by Frank O’Hara)
Why do we read? Do we feel, perhaps, that we might learn something from swimming in the thoughts of a stranger, that by experiencing someone else’s reality we might somehow come that little bit closer to our own?
Why do we choose to spend our time shuffling through art galleries, stopping to peer at centuries-old brush marks on a canvas, at people we don’t know and at places we never have and never will visit?
And why, perhaps most remarkably of all, do we more often than not feel that we do end up forging some sort of connection with these unknown heroes, these anonymous landscapes that are a world away from our own? What is it that makes a work of art, a book, a poem, a painting or drawing, speak differently to different people? Is it a more personal relationship with its creator, or simply with its content: the writer, or the written; the painter, or the painted?
I recently finished reading the latest book by Jessie Burton, The Muse. The plot is woven around two different moments in time, 1960s London and Civil War Spain, and two different artists. The first is Odelle Bastien, living in London and working as a typist at an art gallery, whilst secretly harbouring a great talent for writing herself. The other is Olive Schloss, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Harold, a wealthy art dealer, and Sarah Schloss, a beautiful but wilting ‘English nettle’.
Olive is a painter; Odelle is a writer. But the real difference between the two girls lies in their respective attitudes towards their own work. Odelle is initially hesitant to let people read her stories but ultimately her ambition is to become a published author. Olive, on the other hand, is happy for the world to see her work but not for the world to know that it has come from her. This is partly due to the fact that she does not believe a female artist can be taken seriously in a world full of Picassos and Dalís and Mirós. It is also partly due to the fact that, for both girls, there is something intensely personal wrapped up with the process of creation, something which neither one, at first, feels the need to share with anyone else.
In its simplest essence, then, the book revolves around such ‘musings’ upon the importance of the creation of a piece of artwork and of the place of its creator. If a tree falls in a forest but no one is there to hear it, perhaps it doesn’t make a sound? Does an artwork likewise lose some of its value if no one but the creator is able to appreciate it?
Upon reading The Muse, you can’t help but feel a strange, almost personal sense of indignation that Olive doesn’t receive any credit for her work. But if this is her choice, why should we see it as unfair? The art is hers, and so surely she should choose how it is presented, if at all. As you gradually come to accept that Olive may simply prefer anonymity, Burton makes you realise the importance society continues to place upon the cult of the creator, upon the fabled, genius author behind the pen, or the tortured soul behind the paintbrush. If a work of art is detached from the person who created it, does it change? Why should we hunt for the hidden secrets of a ‘beautiful mind’ within that which is already beautiful in its own right? For as Oscar Wilde once put it, ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’