Thursday, November 21, 2013
of conscious art
One more post on Watkin Tench from me, at least one more because I know that Robert Hughes, who must have read or reread Tench for The Fatal Shore, called him "An eye that noticed everything" with "a young man’s verve, a sly wit, an elegant prose style," and Tench's posthumous editor L.F. Fitzhardinge wrote in 1979, "Less detailed than Collins, less matter-of-fact than Phillip or White, Tench is the first man to mould Australian experience into a work of conscious art," but, putting aside the accuracy of that statement, it's the consciousness of his art sometimes that troubles me, or makes me feel betrayed, and why betrayed?
Betrayed because of this sentence: "He was a man of middle age, with an open cheerful countenance, marked with the small pox, and distinguished by a nose of uncommon magnitude and dignity." (Emphasis mine: from A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson.)
The nose cuteness exists primarily in the word "uncommon;" take away that word and it is almost gone although it would leave some of itself behind in the words "magnitude and dignity." "Uncommon" makes it opaque. Why do I not like the nose cuteness? Because it betrays itself: because it puts a magic-making word ("uncommon," exceptional, magical) in a miniaturised or disrespected position where it is funny. It makes fun of the quality that it is pretending to represent: the extraordinary.
I read it and I see a little person being fooled.
I see someone turning to a Christmas tree and saying, "You know, you're made of plastic."