May 112010

I recently started reading Steven Heighton’s essay collection, The Admen Move on Lhasa, after discovering his writing on Numero Cinq.  The title essay elegantly compares a work of art to a “living and visionary” city, in this case, Lhasa, Tibet.   He contrasts art (and Lhasa) with advertising and schlock (and modern, planned cities.)  There were many illuminating points which I will not be able to do justice to here.  The following are just a few quotes, the ones I underlined and double starred.

…art usually involves an invitation and solicits the entry and collaboration of the audience, while advertising usually implies a threat.  Or, to continue this meandering trip towards Lhasa: art invites you into the city along any available road, while advertising dictates where you enter.  And when.

Perhaps artists can begin to suspect they’ve created a memorable city, a god-haunted world or visionary town—some site worthy of a repeated pilgrimage—only when responses to the work are unpredictably  and ungovernably divergent, diverse, off the wall, missing the point that good artists do sometimes try to make but without ever quite succeeding—always seeming instead to convey something else.  Something impossible to signpost.

Schlock makes us understudies loitering in the wings of our own lives.

It’s not that art cannot be entertainment, the way schlock is, or is advertised to be, but rather that art, while entertaining us, also unsettles.  For whatever sedates us is shuffling us off towards the great sleep of death.  Art, on the other hand, is a persistent wake-up call, the setting off of a quiet siren in the heart.

This entire collection is filled with great essays, insightful, honest and so well-written.  I hate to be simple-minded and say, This is really good, go read it, but…This is a really good collection.  Go read it!

See also Heighton’s poem and novel excerpt on Numéro Cinq.

  7 Responses to “The Admen Move on Lhasa”

  1. I just ordered this — looks very good.

  2. I’ve read his first two novels but none of his essays or short stories. I’ll pick this up if I can find it. to echo: this sounds good, and I want to read it!

    • Thanks for commenting, Derrick. Welcome to the blog. I like your own blog–nice to see someone mentioning Bob Kroetsch.

  3. Just got my copy of Admen yesterday (autographed!) and started reading last night.

    On a minor note, I was happy to see William F. Buckley put in his place (“Firing Line”). On a more serious note, the essay gives a good description of what the intellect is supposed to do.

    A fine defense and presentation of art and culture in the other essays. Two quotations from the title essay:

    “Schlock makes us understudies loitering in the wings of our own lives.”

    “Art makes you a full citizen. Advertising makes you a subject.”

    I was especially struck by this, From “Firing Line” again:

    “Despite the romantic blood and soil demagogy of fascists regimes, fascism feeds at the deepest level on a fear of blood and soil — fear of the genuine body and the actual earth, not their poetic idealizations.”

    Go here:

    and scroll down to the painting by Adolf Wissel, Farm Family from Kahlenberg. Then see what this fear turned into, the next picture. Steve makes the same point in his essay.

    (Sorry for plugging my blog.)

  4. rj,

    Sorry — I repeated your quote. But hey, it’s good. And thanks for pointing this book out.

    We’ll have to see what the NC director has to say about this one, from “Body Found in Reservoir”:

    “. . . the sociocultural sensibility of the States is basically Old Testament, with its emphasis on righteous judgement [sic] and retaliation, an eye for an eye, while the Canadian temper is more New Testament, and liberal.”

    (The recent battle over health care here bears this out, however.)

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