On Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful"; Or: Anti-David V. Urban

misterskank told me that literary criticism "shows the mind of the author trying to interpret" instead of reading from the literary work.

Nowhere is this better seen in "Evasion of the Finite in Hawthorne's 'The Artist of the Beautiful'" by David V. Urban of Calvin College, Michigan.

Urban, David V. "Evasion of the Finite in Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful."." Christianity & Literature 54.3 (Spring2005 2005): 343-358. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. CECybrary, Brown College, Minnesota. 1 July 2008

His school teaches "from a Christian perspective," and Urban's tract comes off as disappointingly dismissive of the aestheticism, or "art for art's sake," that Hawthorne's short story illustrates. The original short story is a great read that shows the psychology of real artists -- people that project their ideas so much that their selves effectively disappear. In the modernist sense, this is wholly heroic.

But for Urban, this is an inherent weakness -- a capitulation to the false world of the "infinite" instead of an entrance to the "real" world of the finite (emphasis added):

Whatever Owen's final artistic achievement, neither it nor his position as the Artist of the Beautiful should be viewed as possessing genuine transcendent superiority. Instead, Owen is a disturbing extremist who, in his self-protective renunciation of the material, also has cut himself off from love and humanity. Consequently, the art he produces is not only devoid of longevity, but also qualitatively inferior to the common art of humanity personified in human relationships and the human body.
What the hell? Pardon my secularist parlance. Only an ideologue could interpret the story as coming out on the side of Robert Danforth, the brute blacksmith who scoffs at Owen Warland's spiritual ministrations of High Art. Significantly, Owen dreams of his love interest Annie Hovenden much like the Dantean Beatrice. Urban's suggestion that Danforth's bacchanalian cock-creation -- a human baby -- is more a work of art than Owen's evanescent mechanical, yet living, butterfly strikes me as profoundly sentimental.

Further, we don't know if Danforth is even a good father and husband; we merely know he does his job and provides a roof for his family. Evidence that this does not guarantee good husbandry abounds in family court records.

Urban's sentimentality:

This is indeed how it must be, for while genius by itself may elicit admiration, only committed friendship and its interaction can produce true understanding.
WTF? The whole point of art is that it is not mundane, everyday, and pedestrian. Art spiritualizes the real, not the other way around. Even a mental-health therapist would not hasten to describe good human relationships in such glowing terms. An everyday, healthy relationship as better than a work of art? I have never heard of such an argument, and for good reason: everyday life is not Beauty. Only the representation of everyday life may be Beauty. And Urban's undefined "true understanding" presents itself to us like a tree about to fall over with its absolute language and lack of explanation. The critic must define her or his terms.

With representing Beauty, Owen Warland succeeds with his mechanical version of a living butterfly. The butterfly, in fact, is unimportant -- as Hawthorne's story shows, the butterfly functions as symbol of High Art (the closing lines of the story):

He had caught a far other butterfly than this. When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality.
And in my reading of the story, I got a sense of impending greatness, a sort of Nietzschean perpetual return and posthumous birth, while Urban leaves open a gay reading of Owen Warland and shows his heterosexism (emphasis added):

We do well to ask what sort of art he could have produced had he dared to venture through the world of reality and in so doing have gained a true love relationship, be it with Annie or another woman who could better understand a man like him.
These kinds of conceptual holes in Urban's argument made me scoff at his production. In a note at the bottom of the article:
I would like to thank Calvin College, whose Calvin Research Fellowship helped enable me to complete this essay.
You got a fellowship, and this is what you came up with? Honestly, I would consider my own graduate school term papers better than Urban's appeal to the sentimentality of the nuclear family.

Now, forgive me this: after something has happened six to eight billion times, it ceases to be a miracle. Though I have not had children, enough people have been born on Earth to make a strong argument that this natural side of reproduction is more efficient than, indeed, mechanical reproduction. But here is what Urban has to say (note the politician-speak-like sentimentality; emphasis added):

Building upon the common foundations of hard work and married life, the blacksmith has helped to produce a masterpiece of enduring value to which Owen's butterfly must necessarily succumb. And we surely recognize that Danforth's masterpiece is the outcome of his union with Annie, the very same woman whom the misguided artist cast out of his shop when she fell short of his spiritual ideal.
If a baby is a masterpiece, then the dregs of the world are on par with Michaelangelo -- even those who abandon their infants. To think.

My "six billion" argument holds firm when Urban references another critic who called Owen Warland's butterfly creation a "masturbatory daydream." So, Robert Danforth fucked his wife and made a baby -- the only reason this was not "masturbatory" is because Danforth did not "spill his seed" in the biblical sense. Since we do not have evidence in the story of an ideal, respectful love relationship between Annie Danforth (nee Hovenden), an argument that Danforth is a Stanley Kowalski-like brute (Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams) would stand on the same ground as Urban's notion of Danforth's fuck-masterpiece.

Urban finishes thus:

Here again, Hawthorne's narrator reminds us of Lynch's admonition to take the "narrow path" of the definite, of the potential rewards of following this path, and of the heartbreaking consequences of ignoring such wisdom.
Sorry to point it out, but you are an English professor, Mr. Urban: not exactly the most utilitarian, realism-based, "definite" line of work. The literary/artistic act is itself a lonely shout in the dark against the prevailing force of the everyday, the banal, and the sentimental. And your mainline-conservative notion of the family stands in stark contrast to one of the greatest artists of them all: Jesus Christ, the man so selfless in his devotion to his Word -- itself an artistic projection -- that he was killed for speaking it.

And Owen Warland's story is "heartbreaking" because he didn't get the girl and doesn't yet have a family? Pish. And because his work of art is fleeting and breakable? Pish again. Appropriately, Urban's essay ends with a standalone appeal to the "wisdom" of the sentimentalized nuclear family, as if that is every person's path to Urban's "true understanding."

The essay ultimately offers us a droll piece of David V. Urban's mind instead of a complication of Hawthorne's masterful statement on the psychology of artists that chase ethereal Beauty, and thereby continue the best, and most defensible, of human traditions.


Reflections: there are a great many bad scholarly journals out there, and my reading of this article puts Christianity and Literature with that group. I can publish work stronger than Mr. Urban's, and enjoy the trappings of being a Real English Professor -- one day, one day. And misterskank's dictum, which begins this entry, holds truer for me than when he spoke it. May we make arguments without gaping semi-tractor trailer-sized holes. May we strive for the ethereal, and interpret well, in the tradition of Leslie A. Fiedler, and thereby be true to the artistic strivings of what Hawthorne and others meant to create.
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