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An exploration of art in fiction: ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, art snobbery, and redemption

Few authors can be as steeped in art – literally since birth – as Valeria Vescina, my first of today’s guest contributors. “My mother is an art historian and my father directed a gallery of twentieth-century art. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting down with books of old-master paintings,” she says.

Passionate about the value of all forms of art, she finds distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art to be unhelpful. “We’re all hard-wired to make and enjoy art in every guise,” she says, citing 35,000-year old cave paintings which illustrate myths and thus tie together words and images since our earliest origins. “So art is, amongst other things, a repository of culture and wisdom transmitted over generations: sometimes in highly intellectual ways, and often in intuitive ones.  It can offer us insights, whether it’s a Renaissance painting or a household object: a piece of furniture, a textile, a ceramic bowl…”

Whilst on her MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, Valeria realised she was instinctively bringing various forms of art into her writing. “So I asked myself: how and why do some great writers employ art and artefacts for narrative purposes? What can I learn from them? How can I harness arts’ full potential in my fiction?”  She made this her specialist area of study for the literary criticism portion of the MA. She has since put her findings into practice in her own writing, and teaches the subject in workshops for various organisations.

Unsurprisingly, art and artefacts are integral to Valeria’s debut novel, That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear Publishing). Launched at the FTWeekend Oxford Literary Festival in spring 2018, the book is set in London and in Puglia, where Valeria was born and brought up. Educated in four countries, and writing in English, she now lives in London, where she works as an author, critic and teacher; she is a trustee of the Hampstead Arts Festival.

That Summer in Puglia is a tale of loss and of the power of love in many forms. “Several of the artworks in the novel hint at truths which the protagonist, Tommaso, has been unable to face for a very long time. Some have strong mnemonic resonances for him. They drive forward the action and are witnesses to events. They define characters and relationships, reflect inner states, and shape character development. Some objects illuminate key themes.” 

A Dance to the Music of Time, Poussin’s painting at the Wallace Collection, becomes inextricably linked to Tommaso’s memories of his great love, Anna, and to his jumbled feelings about his own part in tragic events. But more poignant still are the emotions awoken in him by humbler artefacts: by fragile plaster casts of ancient coins and by a Roman pottery oil lamp which have accompanied him since childhood; the images in bas-relief reveal much about lost worlds, both ancient and personal. 

“Puglia, with its layers of history and culture, offered an ideal setting for a story about a man’s overdue ‘excavation’ of his past, and for a novel written at multiple levels. I’m delighted reviewers are finding the story gripping and that it flows effortlessly. I aspired to a reading experience suffused with lightness.”

You can read more about That Summer in Puglia on Valeria’s website, which includes a section with links to reviews.

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The unhelpfulness in distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ is a theme that Kate Rigby takes up in this piece on Art Snobbery.

What constitutes art and who are ‘real’ artists are recurring themes in everyday life.   Sometimes it is conceptual artists who profess to be at the cutting edge of the art world with prestigious awards like the Turner Prize.  Equally though, this kind of art, when taken to extremes will have the critics emerging from the woodwork with polarised opinions. Take the famous pile of bricks at Tate Modern back in the mid 70s or Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.  What is one person’s art is another’s ‘lot of rubbish’, sometimes literally.  So snobbery works both ways and the people who bash the less conventional and traditional forms of art, are also guilty of inverted snobbery.

We see the same thing in fiction.  Commercial fiction is the fiction that sells in higher quantities and will make or break a publisher. It operates within time-honoured genres that have successful formulas, strong plots, traditional styles and rigid word counts.  Literary fiction, on the other hand, is freer of those constraints.  Style, form, tense and points of view push the boundaries, quotation marks can be dispensed with, the characters are what drive the story, and there are far fewer rules.  Literary fiction is the fine art of the book world and as in art the snobbery works both ways.  The commercial fiction camp often sneer at the lack of rules or broken rules of the literary novel.  The literary fiction camp, roll their eyes at the conformist and safe formula of the commercial novel, when in truth each can learn from the other!

I prefer to write in a freer style and therefore class myself as a writer of literary fiction. I don’t like the word though, as it is the most misunderstood genre (In fact, I wrote a blog on that very subject http://bubbitybooks.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-most-misunderstood-genre.html )

In my novel, Suckers n Scallies, one of the main characters, Scouse bad boy Terry Dacosta (Tez) is an artist. Art, music, writing and poetry are part of the book’s fabric. Terry and Kit create cartoon stories in childhood together, Terry taking after his grandfather who painted the Liverpool docks in his own blood when he ran out of paint. Tez has inherited this eye for art and his adult job is as a graphic designer. Art for Terry is part of his grandfather’s legacy but when he comes into contact with ‘art snobbery’ in one scene, it triggers anger in him about class division and the feeling that he is in some way not quite good enough.  What follows is a small excerpt from a get-together at artist Drew’s house.  The excerpt is from Tez’s point of view and written in Scouse dialect as he would speak and think:

This is good, this.  His sorta people talking art. 

Patrick’s stroking his shaved head and then he sweeps his hand over at the paintings on the walls.  “This is all Drew’s work.  He’s so talented, isn’t he?”

“I’m a artist too, Patrick, mate.  A graphic designer.” 

Patrick’s looking dead interested, so he starts telling him how he always wanted to be a designer and about the art galleries in town that he used to go to when he sagged off school, when he wasn’t out on the rob.  He can just hear it now, the squeaking of his pumps over them slippy, shiny floors.  Floors with flecks in, like them headstones that you used to gerr’on the corner a Albion Road. 

Patrick looks dead impressed when he tells him all about art college and all the things he’s designed since.  Like the album cover with the glam blonde toting a bright pink gun.  Toys For The Girls.  He wishes he’d bought a copy with him to show Patrick because Patrick was dead impressed with some a the photos he showed earlier, especially the one with him pointing a rifle at the camera, dead provocative, and the other of Ami, straddling the gun in her black hold-ups. They took those photies of each other, him and Ames, and you can tell Patrick is wowed by Ami with her blonde hair and brown eyes and curvy legs.  Who in their right mind wouldn’t be? 

Designing’s his thing, he tells Patrick.  He has designs in his head, he’s got designs for other albums too, though signwriting’s always been his bread and butter.  He’s got this signwriting business in St Helier called Sign Of The Times, and before that he done a bitta signwriting in Bournemouth.

“Norr’everyone’s cut out for it, Patrick,” he says.  “For doing business.  That much was obvious from the start.  It’s all about presentation and using your nous.  He wore a suit and tie when he seen his bank manager about opening his first business account and there were all these posh graduates turning up in their student scruffs.  Clueless.  Norra chance.  You’ve got to make a effort.  Look the part.”  

And then Drew cuts in with, “It always makes me think of that 10cc song.”  Drew’s lighting one of his black ciggies.  “You know.  Art for Art’s Sake.”

Drew looks right past him like he’s looking in a mirror across the room and says, “I’ve always thought of fine art as art for art’s sake, and graphics as money for God’s sake.”

“That’s true enough, mate,” he says to Drew, pointing his Pils bottle in lieu of his finger.  “I’m into fine art an’ all, me.” 

“I mean real fine art,” says Drew.  “Not painting tourists in Spain.”

Here we go.  The propeller blades are starting up in his chest again, and everyone’s listening now as Drew says, “Well, that’s what your lot think is fine art, isn’t it?”

“Are you being funny?”

“As if I would.”

“No, I wanna know what you meant by that.”

“By what?”

“Your lot.”

“You know.  Scousers.”

Kate describes her writing as gritty, edgy and retro. Visit her website to find out more. 

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Today’s final piece is Lingering Images by Jenny Harper

Jenny Harper lives in Edinburgh. She is the author of four books about Scotland and Scottish culture, a history of childbirth, and The Sleeping Train for young readers. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys walking in the Scottish countryside or anywhere warm, and travel to Europe, America and India.

Way back in 2012, I was idling through a Sunday colour supplement (as you do), when I was suddenly transfixed by a report on refugees fleeing the Blue Nile state for the border with South Sudan. The article featured an extraordinary series of images by photographer Shannon Jensen of hundred of shoes worn by those making that difficult journey. Mismatched flip flops, battered pumps, worn out sandals – what must those women have endured to reach safety?

The images lingered in my mind, and returned a couple of years later as I was thinking about the novel that would become People We Love.

My heroine, an artist called Lexie Gordon, has called a halt to her career as an artist in order to support her parents after the death of her brother in a car crash. Jamie had been drunk when he crashed into a tree – and Jamie never drank when he was driving. Haunted by the mystery of her brother’s death, and exhausted by the effort of consoling her parents, Lexie is herself vulnerable, but on the anniversary of her brother’s death, an elderly woman climbs through her kitchen window. Although she has dementia, it emerges, over time, that she once lived in Lexie’s family house – and that she’s desperate to get back to unearth her hidden cache. As Edith sits cradling the pink baby bootees she hid years ago, Lexie is fearful that she’ll break down with the grief of what had clearly been a deep personal loss of her own.

But Edith isn’t sad. Instead, she beams happily. She has been reunited with her lost memories. Shoes tell stories, Lexie realises – stories of much-loved babies who can’t even walk; of the tottering steps of little children towards adulthood; of special events in our lives; of dances, and marriages, and mountain climbs and escapes. She asks Edith if she can draw the shoes, the local newspaper gets a hold of the story, and soon people from everywhere are sending her their shoes and their stories.

People We Love is available to buy here

For Lexie, it’s beginning of her own healing. Gradually, she starts to rediscover her passion for art, and plans an exhibition. When her mother suggests they clear out Jamie’s room and donates his rugby boots to the project, she begins to let go of her grief as well. As for Tom Gordon, Lexie’s father … well Tom’s a man, isn’t he? He has to stay strong for everyone, he can’t let his grief show.

Until – well, let’s just remember the main theme of the story is about the redemptive power of art!

Jenny Harper writes about strong women under pressure. To learn more about her writing, visit her website here. 

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If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested to read about how I used art as an expression of grief in my novel,  Smash all the Windows.

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3 comments

  1. Great read, and like books images are a very personal taste aren’t they.

    Comment by Tea and Cake for the Soul on August 1, 2018 at 2:57 pm
  2. Thanks for hosting me Jane – this has been a great idea for a blog series. Jenny

    Comment by Jenny Harper on August 1, 2018 at 3:23 pm
  3. Thank you for including me among the contributors to this inspiring series, Jane!

    Comment by Valeria Vescina on August 1, 2018 at 4:01 pm




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