"Trash" as the True Art

I've heard it said that the goal of "serious literature" is to illuminate the human condition. If that is the case, the error of serious literature is that it is far too simple-minded and attempts to illuminate the human condition by portraying it directly. The great strength of myth, legend and their modern-day successor trashy genre fiction is that they don't just show us the human condition, but interpret, highlight and contrast it by showing us the larger than life symbols. The courage and romance that allows us to survive and to savor daily life are the core of myth and genre. There they are made larger than life and inspire us to aspire to a greatness that goes beyond simple daily experience.

The other failing of modern "serious literature" is the failing of all modern art: art for art's sake. Modern art far too frequently is nothing more than the artist showing off the techniques they would use if they were ever to create a true work of art. And so we see the sense of color that they would use if they ever a picture and so on. Technique becomes all important and content is eschewed as distracting from the true art, meaning the simple skills and techniques.

An irony of this great "art for art" mistake is that one of its first and most eloquent spokesmen, Theophile Gautier, put forth his position in the introduction of his romantic novel "Mademoiselle de Maupin", whose title character whose adventurous life would make a rip-roaring and thoroughly trashy adventure novel, if only the author had wished to actually tell a story. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, in her introduction to "Amazons II", gives us a two-page summary of the life, loves, and adventures of the historical "La Maupin", actress, duelist and lover that is both exciting and tantalizing, and which has at least as much plot in its 2 pages as Gautier's novel.

By the way, if you have any information on the historical La Maupin that Salmonson writes about, please send me mail at brons@eldacur.com.

Stephen Donalson claimed at the second World Fantasy Convention (or was it the third?) that he never read any non-fiction because all of the great insights that people told him they got from non-fiction works he had found long before in fictional tales. From context, it was clear that much of that fiction was fantasy and science fiction. While I won't go as far as Donalson, his point is similar to my own. Trashy fiction, to my eye at least, illuminates the human condition and reveals fundamental truths at least as well as "serious literature" or non-fiction and does it so much more enjoyably.

There is a fundamental snobbery in the "pure art", "serious literature" and "art for art's sake" that strikes me as not only arrogant, but just plain wrong-headed. Somehow we are made to feel that the "true artist" creates solely as an expression of his art and not for baser motives such as making a living, and that his art is a pure expression of his creativity. Someone who stoops to illustrate books or stories is a mere craftsman or prostitutes his art to crass commerciality. Yet many, if not most of the great artists were have always been commercial artists, from the great masters: da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Rembrandt, to people such as Rockwell, Toulouse-Lautrec, Wyeth, or genre artists like Tenniel, St. John, Foster, Raymond, Hogarth, Petty, Frazetta and Olivia DeBerardinis. Artists like Charles Dana Gibson, though "mere" illustrators and not "serious artists", change the world around them as do writers like Wilde, Wells, and Asimov. They speak to our core beings and change how we see the world. When they are dead and safely gone we raise them up as "classics", yet we shun their modern colleagues.

And so, I prefer trash: adventure novels, romances and bodice rippers, science fiction and fantasy, tales of the Old West, comic books and B-films, illustration and pin-ups.

April 23, 1995