October 9, 2015
We like to think of art as springing purely from the desire to illuminate. Yet without the artist’s ambition to share a poem or play or painting, and without some means of sharing (a publisher, the Internet), these creations would hardly exist. This necessary pull between art and commerce, creation and ambition forms the core of Jill Bialosky’s lucid and meditative new work, The Prize (Counterpoint), whose protagonist is a successful art dealer struggling to manage an increasingly fractious painter on his roster, a marriage that’s gone slightly off the tracks, and his own troubled past. Bialosky is less interested in taking sides than in presenting complexities, and she does so by stepping away from literature, the world familiar to her as a distinguished poet and novelist and an editor at W.W. Norton.
Why did Bialosky choose the painter’s brush over the written word? “The most obvious answer is that I do have a great passion for the visual arts,” she said in a phone interview with LJ. Bialosky frequented the Cleveland Museum of Art as a teenager and took high school arts classes but in the end found she was “very happy to rise to language as my own art form.” More significantly, for her novel Bialosky wanted to escape the realities of her daily life to focus on the key idea: the intersection of art and commerce.That idea has been tumbling around in her mind since she was a young poet taking workshops. “I could see quite immediately that there were two different kinds of writers,” Bialosky explains, “those who were there out of the necessity and urgency to write and to make art out of their writing and those who were there with grand ideas about what their art might do for them.” With this distinction in mind, she was eager to explore what she calls “the pitfalls and provocations of ambition,” and the world of art and artists—competitive, concretely available, and in the news—seemed the right place to start.
In The Prize, dealer Edward Darby is imbued with a pure belief in art, but he’s not cast as the shining hero; nor is go-getter dealer Alex Savan or artist Agnes Murray, her expectations rising as fast as her star, entirely villainous. “I do believe that artists should get paid and their work valued, but what happens when commerce takes hold?” muses Bialosky. “Does it change the world for the better or for the worse?” Bialosky sees her novel as (appropriately) a canvas for setting forth the different arguments, pondering how much talent needs ambition and the inevitable intrusion of mammon. “That is what is so essential and wonderful about fiction,” she proclaims. “Through characters you can present different ways of looking at these questions.”
ART AND MARRIAGE
As it traverses important questions of art, The Prize proves also to be a novel about marriage: Edward’s to housewife and animal rescuer Holly, from whom he withholds a startling secret; Agnes’s to egotistical superstar artist Nate Fisher; that of the grounded and less showy sculptor Julia, with whom Edward has a brief and revealing affair; and the difficult marriage of Edward’s parents. Bialosky was interested in contrasting more conventional marriage with one lit up by the firepower of two contending artists, thus showing “the way in which professional lives impact personal lives.”Is a successful marriage between artists even possible? Was Agnes content to be manipulated by her powerful older husband, or did she really not understand what was happening? “Humans at times are blinded, so deeply enmeshed in their relationships that they can’t see what’s at play,” clarifies Bialosky. Edward, too, is blind to himself and what he really wants, shutting out his family through work and fearfully hiding his feelings lest he be judged. His affair with the gentle Julia helps him tear down walls and move forward. “People outside our own lives can have deep meaning for us,” concludes Bialosky. “Edward connects with Julia at a time when no one else in his life could have helped him.”
Appearing at the beginning of publishing’s own awards season, The Prize may prompt readers to wonder whether annually bestowing shelf-worthy honors has any importance. Bialosky argues for the usefulness and indeed necessity of making such valuations. But as someone who has served on awards committees, she cautions that the judgments handed down are inevitably shaded by taste and subjectivity. “One can’t be wholly objective in art,” she says. “Even critics have their opinions, based on their sense of history and their own aesthetics.” She therefore insists that works unadorned with honors should not be seen as lesser (“sometimes good works fall between the cracks”), and she believes in full transparency regarding the judges of any award.
In the end, what interested Bialosky most while writing is how works of art get valued. Through those prickly prizes? Through critics or dealers? Through the myths created by artists themselves that critics or dealers buy into? In the end, valuation comes down to the viewer. One of her characters plaintively asks whether art has meaning, and Bialosky herself responses, “It’s what the viewer brings to a particular work, just as a poet hopes that the reader will take something and be able to find meaning in his or her personal life.” Art is ultimately about connection, she says, which readers will see on many levels as they turn the pages of her new, eye-opening book.