If you’re a reader of this blog, you may have come across Pablo Tanguay’s recent post, Fat City, Part 1, offering a few reflections on Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel. When Pablo concluded that post with the promise, “Next post: Fat City, Part 2,” I’m pretty sure he meant that he would be the one writing Fat City, Part 2, but I’ve decided to write it instead. (Sorry, Pablo–them’s the breaks. I look forward to your Fat City, Part 3.)
Pablo’s blog post on the boxing-themed novel focuses in part on the question of whether we, as the audience, do a disservice to a work of art by being overly attuned to whatever social commentary or political agenda we might extract from its moves and motifs. Paraphrasing the poet Richard Hugo, Pablo writes, “The business of art is art, and the writer who forgets this ends up writing, instead of novels, sociological studies, or worse, sentimental junk.” Perhaps then, the post suggests, a similarly undesirable fate awaits the reader who cannot see the forest of creative mastery for the trees of polemic.
I haven’t read Fat City yet. Indeed, I really haven’t read any book about boxing except for The Power of One, which, much like Fat City, is probably not really about boxing. (I should note, though, that I’m going to break this streak in the near future with Mike Tyson’s ridiculous-sounding autobiography, reviewed here by Joyce Carol Oates. Among the quotes excerpted in the review is Tyson’s commentary on his ex-wife and her mother-in-law: “There was nothing they wouldn’t do for money, nothing. They would fuck a rat.” Now that’s art.) But I have a rough understanding of the genre of manifestos of athleticism and fighting, the idea that, to perfect one’s practice, one must forget the struggles and squabbles of everyday life and be willing to fully inhabit a new and unsullied part of the mind. So, too, I suppose, with art.
My question is: can we get too good at this? It crossed my mind recently, as I watched a documentary about a different sort of fight. Blackfish tells the story of a particular notorious orca in Sea World’s stable of marine mammals. The aim of the movie is to trace a trajectory of animal abuse and exploitation and demonstrate how it has culminated in the mauling of numerous orca trainers by killer whales gone understandably mad in captivity. It is not a film about the weird artistry of these trainers, their strange acrobatics and skintight suits, but as I watched it, I found it impossible not to be compelled by the wild visuals of their stunts. Yes, I opened myself to its harrowing stories, the former fisherman who recalled illegally capturing young orcas off the Pacific coast and then, to cover up accidental deaths, slitting open the bodies, placing rocks inside, and letting them sink. But I also, have to admit, just wanted to watch a lot of untroubled footage of Sea World trainers, clad in black-and-white spandex, diving in sync with the whales.
I suppose I worry a fair amount about this kind of thing–that too much willingness to appreciate art as art can compromise our ability to focus on the politics of the thing, when that’s what is called for. Perhaps this is the inverse of the question asked in Pablo’s earlier post? There, he writes about punches and the idea of being too lazy to duck; I think of those scenes of Sea World, how when the water comes over the wall, everyone’s expected to just lean into the spray–