Art and the Unexpected

In an essay he wrote in 1952 Lionel Trilling uses a captivating phrase in describing the novel of an obscure Russian writer by the name of Isaac Babel. Trilling notes that “the essence of art is unexpectedness.” This is, of course, true, as is the related notion that the success or failure of art, especially literary art, hinges on ambiguity. The worse sin that a writer or novelist can make is to convey messages; art degenerates into didacticism. This is why Tolstoy was wrong when he insisted that the Bible was the greatest work of art ever written. The Bible is fundamentally and essentially didactic: it seeks to convey messages, clear and to the point. Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; they also require at the center an ambiguity that allows for a great many interpretations of what the artist or writer is up to. They themselves may not even know what they intended to say or paint. So, rather than listen to them we must recall what D.H. Lawrence said:

 “If you want to know what the novelist has to say, read the novel. As for the novelist he is a dribbling liar.”

In any event, Trilling’s comment about the unexpected lead me to recall an essay I used to teach in aesthetics classes years ago by the musicologist Leonard Meyer. He insisted that great music is a function of the unexpected. The difference between Bach and Francesco Geminiani, for example, is that Bach is full of surprises, whereas Geminiani tends to be predictable. Bach is a great composer; Geminiani is not. When we listen to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, we never know quite what to expect. Music has “gestalt” qualities, as does all art, which lead us to certain expectations, certain resolutions of tensions built up with in the work. The great artists know how to frustrate those expectations and to surprise us in so many creative and interesting ways, thus increasing what Meyer called “information” — the heart and soul of greatness.

Greatness in art, as indeed in anything except in sports where greatness abounds apparently (along with “super stars”), has disappeared behind a screen of relativistic nonsense. We can no longer talk about greatness because it is a sign of our being “judgmental, which is forbidden by the politically correct…..and incorrect. Those who call the shots these days insist that there is no truth and no greatness. There is just what people do and it is up to us to make of it what we will. To which I say: bollocks! There is truth, and there is greatness. In fact the preceding sentence is true and certain works of art and literature are indeed great — for the reasons given above. It’s all about “the unexpected.” It is not about what we perceive, it is about what is going on, or what fails to go on, in the work itself. Our tendency these days to reduce all value judgments, in both art and ethics, to personal reactions is nothing more and nothing less than a sign of out inverted consciousness, our determination to turn the world into the world-for-us. It is a denial of the objectivity and reality of that which stands before us in all its glory, and it is quite simply wrong-headed — if for no other reason than it closes off to us the beauties and wonders of a world we are lucky enough to be a part of. It is not OUR world; it is THE world. We share it and we can make statements about it that are either true or false. And some of us can create works of great beauty, works that reveal to us dimensions of that shared world that we would otherwise miss. Our world tends to be bland; theirs is full of surprises — we never know quite what to expect.

And, curiously enough, the unexpected is the heart and soul of comedy as well. Interesting, don’t you think?


8 thoughts on “Art and the Unexpected

  1. When I look at a post like this, half a day after it’s been published – and see there are no ‘likes’ or comments, my next thought is, “Are we at war?” or “Is there a national blackout?” (we did have a strong solar-type flare hit the earth today!)…

    I especially appreciated, ” Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; ” because it made me smile.. I think that perhaps some writers and artists enjoy making other smile, and it’s fun to plant items in art or in words that have a ‘gotcha!’ moment…

    It’s nice to provide surprises for others, especially if they’re snowbound in late April!!!!

    • I love writing on this subject — as you must know by now. But I rarely get any “likes” or comments. So it goes. At this point yours is the first and only one!

      • I remain baffled!

        I was thinking about your book and again recalled the time when I attended the annual ‘Delta Council’ event in Cleveland Mississippi. I was there as part of the group that worked on a cookbook – all about rice. The editor, photographer, and I were standing around, and someone walked up with a book in hand. I asked, “Would you like for us to sign that for you?” —- and wow, the next thing I knew there was a long line of people waiting for our autographs – all because of the magic of a personalized copy.

        I wish I could zap up there and help brainstorm!

      • Yeah, it’s not doing well at all. I am disappointed, but I suppose people just don’t read books much any more. Many of the major book store chains are reduced to selling toys and doughnuts to keep the doors open.

  2. Hugh, I love the comment about reading the novel rather than listen to the author. It reminds me of the line from “Amadeus,” when Mozart says “I am a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not.”

    Some noted novelists, artists and film makers were not paragons of virtue, to say it kindly. And, many did not want to explain what they meant to leave it to the imagination of the patron. I remember the songwriter Don McLean refusing to define all of the references in his magnum opus “American Pie,” saying he wanted to leave it to the listeners.

    Well said, Hugh. Keith

  3. Jasper Johns and I are aligned (again) in another of his quotes: “I have no ideas about what the paintings imply about the world. I don’t think that’s a painter’s business. He just paints paintings without a conscious reason.”

    This post would be one of my favourites…timely and relevant because of the “unexpected surprise of greatness” on my easel at the moment. Can’t tell you [exactly] how many times I’ve read and re-read your post. I’ve scoured both your books and find this piece is not included…which means I’ll be printing it out in its entirety, and keeping close to hand to again read and re-read as needed.

    It is during really low ebbs in creative energy and harsh, self-judgements that one really needs the push from behind (and a swift kick) to just keep going…moving forward.

    Bollocks! (Yes!!) to scrimping on deserved accolades. This personal response is not a simple platitude up on offer to appease disappointment on either account, yours or mine, Hugh, but a sincere thank you because I listen deeply…

    Funny that…you just never know, do you?


    • Thanks so much! Recent blogs are not in the book because the choice had to be made months ago. I really appreciate the comments from those in the know when it comes to art! (If sales had gone well we were thinking of a second volume. But that ship has sailed!!)

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