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.
Patricia Goldstone is the author of the new book Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi. We ask her five questions.
Can you tell us the story behind what attracted you to the topic of the conceptual artist Mark Lombardi and the conspiracy behind his death?
I’m often asked how I came to write a book on Mark Lombardi, so I’ll start there because the answer shows what tiny things books can grow out of. I read a piece about Lombardi that came out in the Wall Street Journal a year after his death, in 2001. The Wall Street Journal does those droll little pencil sketches of its subjects and there was this portrait of this goofy-looking artist with one of his drawings raying out behind his head. The drawing caught my eye and I realized it was an interlock, a form of flowchart tracing overly-cozy relationships between boards of directors that’s used in both accounting and in anti-trust litigation. I had been a business writer for some years and I thought to myself, hmm, how curious. Here’s the Wall Street Journal, one of our preeminent business publications, and nowhere in this piece does it even mention that Lombardi created his art out of interlocks. I collect oddities, so I clipped this one and carefully filed it away. I was also incredibly intrigued by how a working-class Italian American guy armed with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in fine arts managed to figure out a lot of stuff that a Senate investigating committee, with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t. I actually began this book as a play, as a means of walking around in his head and figuring out myself what motivated him to do it. Those questions just nagged away at me and that’s how this book began, when I realized there was a lot of information about Mark that remained unknown and I felt an obligation to report the facts.
What are you reading right now?
Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, Patti Smith’s M-Train, and David Kahn’s The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail.
What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?
Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark.
Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?
Alas, I’ve never had a mentor. The position is open, should anyone care to apply.
What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.
Probably my mother’s Vesalius. My mother was an artist, a protege of the great Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. She learned how to draw anatomy from Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. Vesalius is considered the founder of the modern study of anatomy, but his book is anything but dry. It’s a beautiful, macabre, highly theatrical work in which the bodies the author dissected present their mysteries as if they are dancers at a ball stripping off layer after layer of inconvenient clothing. I believe it comes out of the medieval tradition of the danse macabre, as he began it to discover the sources of the plague.