Gertrude Stein was a lot of things. She was a storyteller and an arts writer, and often both at the same time. She was also a critic, at the very least, in her patronage and consumption of art—the way we’re all critics in the way we allow ourselves to be affected by some things in varying degrees and then begin the task of putting it in order, fitting it in somewhere, consciously or unconsciously, in terms of our own existence.
But she wasn’t a critic in the classical sense. She wasn’t preoccupied with translating art and saying in explicit terms “this is good, this works, this speaks to this here’s why.” Rather than word for word, she was more interested in meaning for meaning, sense for sense. She was consciously creating art in response to art, writing poems, fiction, proto-fanfiction (imagined fictions around real people and events). Her criticism doesn’t have that same translative agenda of her forerunners. She wasn’t John Ruskin or Roger Fry, peeling art layer for layer like an onion. Stein’s work was almost cathartic, almost too personal. Sometimes when I read Gertrude Stein, I forget that I’m here, that I exist. Swimming through her stream of consciousness, I unconsciously become the stream.
It’s like: there are butterfly exhibits and butterfly gardens. There are butterflies in both, I mean, but where the traditional notion of criticism offers a unique experience mostly by pinning the butterfly down and naming all its parts, which has definite merits, Stein’s stream-of-consciousness writing attempts to immerse the reader in the world of the butterfly. She’s saying okay, there’s a butterfly inside this garden somewhere but it’s doing its own thing. It’s a manufactured habitat but here you are nonetheless. Maybe you won’t see the butterfly up close, or maybe it’ll flit by and flit away, or maybe you won’t see it at all or you’ll find some other butterfly that’s not the one you were looking for.
But whether you do or you don’t, by which I mean, whether or not her writing is “successful,” if you want to put it in evaluative terms, if you want to say it’s successful because it touches you in a way that resonates with meaning, you’re going to get something out of being there, being among this livingness and aliveness, this “excitingness of pure being” she was trying to capture, and it’s going to be a totally different thing than seeing a butterfly tacked to a wall behind a piece of glass. And she’s there too, and she’s experiencing this thing with you in the writing and you are seeing the world through her eyes and her thoughts with your eyes and your own compounded thoughts, and that interaction is a new art, a “third body” art, the art of living and building a relationship through experience. It’s the imaginary butterflies and the imaginary garden and the real things too, the real you and the real her and the whole world in the past and present, and that’s part of what art is, too.
Continue reading » what are GONZOs, p1
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.