In my last post about Diogenes the question was raised: is stealing, embalming and displaying a dead tramp art? Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, sound installation, performance art, embalmed sharks, embroidered tents and unmade beds, modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. What counts as art? How do we judge its value? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? These are among the vexed questions of aesthetics.
Oscar Matzerath bangs a toy drum through the Germany and Poland of the Nazi years, in Gunter Grass’ 1959 comic novel The Tin Drum. Oscar is an ambiguous complex figure, childlike but not innocent, vulnerable and untouchable, three foot high with an adult brain, intellectually developed and morally stunted. He uses his drum to summon a narrative into existence. Oscar is a first person narrator, aged thirty, looking back to his childhood and writing his life story. He explicitly tells us he is using his drum in lieu of memory. “If I didn’t have my drum, which…recalls all the details…I would be a poor fellow with no known grandparents” and “today I drummed away a long morning putting questions to my drum, wanting to know if the lightbulbs in our bedroom were forty or sixty watts”. He claims to be literally drumming up the details of his back story for his narrative. This percussive prose is written from his bed in a mental hospital where he has been found responsible at a trial in 1951 for the murder of a nurse. A visitor to Oscar’s room brings him a replacement drum and as she “prepared to depart, she took along the old drum I’d battered to death during my description of [the previous chapter]”. This is his confession and he is drumming up excuses.
This is a photograph of my great aunt’s copy of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. She bought it in Paris in 1937 and it now sits on my bookshelf. The book has printed on the cover the words “Not to be Introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.” The Rainbow had been successfully prosecuted in an obscenity trial at Bow Street Magistrates Court on 13th November 1915, and 1,011 copies were consequently seized and burnt by the authorities. Now, a hundred years later, it is regarded as a classic, a key text in the canon of English literature, an early flourishing of Lawrence’s uneven genius. Continue reading