Mr. Whistler’s Brilliant Replies

June 3, 2010

Imagine you’ve just created one of earth’s great paintings. It’s not your masterpiece but it’s a breakthrough. Call it ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.’ John Ruskin writes the following:

. . . I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

If you’re James Whistler, you sue the bastard.

Henry James described the trial as a ‘singular and most regrettable exhibition… The crudity and levity of the whole affair were decidedly painful, and few things, I think, have lately done more to vulgarize the public sense of the character of artistic production’.

Whistler won the case and was awarded a farthing for his trouble. The court costs bankrupted him.

As Tigers to the Sea

Can we inhabit earth with paint—the way
‘Coxcomb’ and ‘impudence’ seem to confront
Impatience, the way earth maintains its say,
—say, tigers to the sea—tigers that hunt
Among the strange eddies the clouds create—
Air tigers left to find their way inland…?
But this cloud is no cloud. To fabricate
The stillness of still earth, the night’s demand
—to parse night’s sky—why must it fling itself
Against ‘the public’s face’? Why let its kin
Involve the earth in earth’s mistakes, earth’s stealth?
This thing you want us all to paint, Ruskin…
It seems too faint to show the rain cloud…might
The land, John, earth, be focused now, our sight…

On These Tiptoes

Mr. Whistler began a song for toes
Tonight. He could do worse, you know, than act
To bridge silence, among such ancient woes.
Call it his treat—as if it could refract
Both toe and tip—done like Degas—prisms
To light—but horse to whip—like a  trip through
Last year’s hurricanes—through last year’s rhythms—
Through candy canes you must not lick or chew—
Through John Ruskin, boohoo. What if the kids
All sit in silence, stunned—what if for once
The song just steals the air—it so forbids
Our thoughts—it blocks our sun—what if just once
Even Ruskin, the biggest kid he knows,
Just tiptoes in—on Tintoretto’s toes?

Stands There

He can’t quite say this all in court, can he?
But flinging paint in pots—it’s just perfect!
It’s brilliant, John, to make an art that’s free,
—free of finite monkeys, free to neglect
An infinite Shakespeare!—with time enough
To type the permutations! You stand there
Ruskin! Villain! You need God’s time to fluff
God’s pillow out! As if the earth was bare
Before the monkeys typed their victory song.
Articulation tends toward triumph.
Mr. James will show us how so long
A story can be false, can poke the rump
Of both the teller and the tale, and art…
Why, art’s not worth a farthing or a fart.

Is it Mr. Bones?

(Aw, come on! Let’s imagine Henry James
In blackface, just this once.) So, Mister Bones,
To the podium, please. State all your names,
Your novelist’s identity. Skip ‘Jones,’
Skip ‘Smith’, but ‘Madam Ng’, however, works
Just fine. We’ll call you that: The ‘flung’ become
The ‘far-flung’—implicit in Whistler’s quirks—
And explicit in Ruskin’s quarrelsome
—I cannot say ‘aesthetic philosophy’—
‘Philippic’?—no, I can neither pronounce
Nor say such things, Ng. No, it cannot be
Philosophy at all that you announce.
Simplicity is not a song to sing.
So, no spring, no fling, no wing, no king, Ng.

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