The Well-Wrought Urn

There’s not a great many things about which Dan Green and I agree, but recently he posted about concepts of beauty in art that challenge norms, and I think he’s spot on. He writes:

It is true that in invoking the “well-wrought urn” Brooks was trying to call attention to poetry as a verbal equivalent, a poem as an art object sufficient unto itself. But the trope can be dismissed as a “trivial goal”–indeed, as a “goal” at all–only if you assume that the urn is well-wrought because it successfully attains a level of “beauty” that conforms to pre-established formal requirements. Literary history as a series of such skillfully-fashioned verbal objects reinforcing aesthetic norms would indeed be a tedious procession, and the goal of adding yet one more “fine” work would indeed be trivial.

But I don’t see why “well-wrought urn” has to be taken in this way. A poem, or any other work of art, could be still be admirably made even if it departs from norms and conventions, although it might take some readers a little longer to recognize the “well-wrought” qualities of such a work. Time might be needed, or a perspicacious critic who can illuminate the aesthetic strategies employed, but surely there are too many “great” works of formal splendor that at one time were perceived as ugly or misshapen for us to accept that the notion of the well-wrought can only apply to conventionally beautiful art. Who now thinks Joyce’s Ulysses is not carefully wrought, even though at the time of its publication it was perceived as chaotic? If a work carries out its own aesthetic assumptions in a deliberate and coherent way (and even apparent incoherence often has its own justifying logic), why should we not call this effort “well-wrought,” even if the results are at first unfamiliar?

I see only one potential problem here, and it’s more with how Dan’s argument could be extended, rather than with how he’s actually stated it. There is a danger—and though I am a fan of literary experimentation I have to say it’s not a danger that’s been entirely avoided—that we might declare a poem or some other work of art beautiful, regardless of whether or not it is, because the artist has diligently employed particular artistic strategies. Carefully wrought is not the same as well wrought. A child can work on a drawing with great care and particular goals (to use only the brightest colours!) and still produce something that looks ugly and misshapen, but we will call it beautiful because we want to encourage the child in creativity and self-expression, or because we love the child and therefore feel a sentimental attachment to his or her achievements, regardless of their quality. None of these are bad reasons to praise the child, but they don’t actually make the drawing more than haphazard scribbles. Works of avant-garde art, and socially conscious avant-garde art in particular, can have laudable goals and a coherent theoretical structure supporting the choices the artist made, but even if a hundred perspicacious critics come along that won’t necessarily make the piece beautiful, only understandable. Not well wrought, only carefully wrought. It’s not very academic of me, but I think we still need to make room for ancient norms and, more importantly, ineffable, smoke-like qualities of how human beings experience art: mystery, revelation, the sublime. Sometimes it’s not enough to know why some new thing is supposed to be beautiful. We must actually be able to feel it for it to be true. To paraphrase Umberto Eco, a work can mean anything, but it cannot mean everything. So too with words: not everything gets to be beautiful.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

One Comment

  1. “Carefully wrought is not the same as well wrought.”
    This is a good point. It’s worth further consideration and perhaps a follow-up post responding to your comments. I’m initially inclined to say that “well” is too hopelessly subjective to use as a measure–and thus I probably agree with you that ultimately there is something “ineffable” about our response to art. “Carefully” may finally be as precise a term the critic can use.

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