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In A Native Hill (1968) the American poet Wendell Berry writes about his decision to root his art where he grew up. He recalls a conversation with a senior colleague at New York University who sought to dissuade him from resigning his post and returning home to Henry County, Kentucky:

It was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become ‘subject matter.’ […] there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modem experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.

Berry was not persuaded. In 1965, he settled with his young family on a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where his parents were born. Since then, he has worked, and written, the land. Would he have achieved more recognition had he stayed in New York? Impossible to say, but it is certain that his writing would not have been the same had he not taken the eccentric path.

Eccentricity – being out of the centre – is not an easy trail, especially in the arts which, despite appearances, do not much like discordant voices. Stretching the boundaries of established practice, concepts and values is tolerated, and even rewarded if the results become widely admired. Denying the legitimacy of those boundaries – which is most easily done by ignoring them altogether – is more threatening and less tolerable.

The art world defends itself by arguing that anyone who does not accept the authority of its value judgements must, by definition, lack knowledge, taste or sensitivity. This circular defensiveness is characteristic of closed intellectual systems. In the USSR, questioning the smallest aspect of Communist Party doctrine was taken to reveal a person’s ‘bourgeois individualist tendencies’ and exposed them to correction or death. Similar thinking can exist in religious and other ideologies, including art.

The art world’s power to make those who question it feel shame for their own stupidity has led many to admire what they could not actually see. Still, honesty requires those who practice art independently of the art world to ask themselves whether their solitary path is not actually the result of an inability to meet its standards. There is always the danger of making a virtue of mere necessity, of deceiving oneself about one’s true motives.

Wendell Berry is a sufficiently great writer to have no need to wonder whether it was only his own mediocrity that drew him from the ocean of New York to the small pond of Henry County, Kentucky. Others who trace an independent path live with the uncertainty that they may be mistaken, but it may help keep us honest.

11 thoughts on “Art outside the art world

  1. It’s a lovely and telling point, and the perhaps the uncertainty you suggest at the end is the condition of all artists (except the most egotistical), not merely a condition of being outside the centre (eccentric – what a wonderful meaning – so useful). I wish you had further articulated the benefits of being outwith the centre: a different set of constraints and perspectives from the majority, no guaranteed audience…

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    1. Thanks Chris; you’re right about the benefits. I always liked what Neil Young once wrote (on the liner notes to ‘Decade’): “Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”

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  2. Yes Laura though Wendell Berry’s audience is global. What’s distinct is his perspective. That being said Berry is calling for more people to be eccentric and ‘dig where they stand’ as a way of life.

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      1. He transcends parochialism by looking for the more widely applicable lessons. I don’t know if you heard him on BBC Radio 4 earlier in the year? I copied down the following, BBC Radio 4, 1 May 2017
        http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08njtjg
        Wendell Berry abt 38 mins
        “I like when she [Kate Raworth] speaks of the application of more or less universal ideas to a place. There has to be a conversation between the general and the particular. That is the way we understand each other across boundaries. But the acceptance of boundaries is critical and it seems to me that ‘limit’ or ‘limits’ is a word we can’t do without. In order to do anything we have to accept limits. It is the essence of any art which I take to be a way of making or doing. You can’t do that without accepting a limit any more than you can sit down or stand up at the same time. In order to do something you have to accept a limit, a limit of your own capacity and a limit of the local place.”

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  3. We are all outsiders – there is no inside – or something like that . Really enjoyed this piece I sometimes wonder if anyone actually feels part of the art world wherever they choose to locate themselves – it seems to exclude almost everyone

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    1. Glad you liked it. The art world is probably bigger than it seems, and perhaps it seems odd to say that I’m not part of something where I’ve spent my working life. The part I like most in Berry’s thought is the rejection of the idea that the literary/metropolitan/art world is the part where important things happen, and that the rest is just subject matter. I don’t think that any life should be reduced to subject matter – and as to where the centre is, it depends on where you stand.

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  4. Engaging piece, Francois, thank you, opens up several threads. Like Snyder and Jeffers, Berry’s art and philosophy – his ‘making’ – are indistinguishable from his living, his relationships, the learning from growing, care and observation. In one place, a rural place. A spiritual quality pervades it, as in zen, one who seeks in solitude, yet without looking. Yet are there not many outsiders amongst us, also, in the thicker swim of urban life, living and making yet staying at a distance from ‘the art world’ ? Less visible and much less celebrated, perhaps, but living and making without reference to the limits defined by the art world, using other limits, edges to run to and play off ………….

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  5. I’m saddened by the comments of the city colleague. I would have thought that there were far too many excellent writers and artists rooted in places other than the cities, for the world of the arts to be urbanely insular.

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