From Poesy to Carrot Carnations


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I had never heard of a carrot carnation. But when, back in the 1980s, several of my fellow staffers at the office of a Texas State Senator in Austin wanted to learn about them, I went along to kill some time. (There are downsides to working in the legislature of a state with an anti-government culture, but it does provide you with a lot of free time).

We soon found ourselves in the auditorium of the convention center in Austin, surrounded by thousands of middle-aged suburban housewives. On stage, a woman resembling Martha Stewart showed how, with a knife and a little imagination, fruits and vegetables can be turned into ornamental table settings, like carrot carnations.

Many years later, I came to realize that I had witnessed one extreme of the artistic spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are major arts, defined not in terms of cultural superiority but in terms of large audiences. At the other extreme are crafts like making carrot carnations. These are arts that have no audience, other than practitioners of the art itself. Another word for a craft is a hobby. In between the major arts and the crafts or hobbies are minor arts, which have a small audience whose members do not themselves aspire to practice the art.

The assignment of an art to one or another category has nothing to do with its quality. It is merely an assessment of the relationship between artist and audience.

In the 1920s, the cultural critic Gilbert Seddes wrote a book entitled The Seven Lively Arts, defending vernacular art forms despised by the literati like movies, jazz and comic strips. My somewhat similar list of the major arts with mass audiences would include cinema and television, pop music, genre fiction, and punditry or political commentary (the heir to the art of political oratory).

Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction.

With the exception of rap, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from the category of a minor art to a craft. In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.

Poetry in the twenty-first century is like pottery, woodworking, or the making of carrot carnations. Sophisticated verse was never a major art, and having lost even a small non-practitioner audience, it has lost its status as a minor art. At hobbyist conventions, celebrated practitioners of a craft address an audience made up of other practitioners of the craft, who will then go home and work at the art themselves. Poetry has more residual cultural prestige than carrot carnation making and other hobbies, but that is only because most of the poet-hobbyists are professors with MFAs, while there are no professors of table-setting.

The short story, like poetry, already may have gone from being a minor art to being a craft. When I worked as an editor at Harper’s magazine in the 1990s, many acquaintances would comment on our essays and features, but I never heard anyone mention one of the short stories we published. The short story writers whom we published were almost exclusively MFAs who made a living by teaching short story and novel writing at liberal arts colleges. I may be mistaken, but I suspect that the same group that writes short stories today makes up the majority of those who read the short stories that are still published out of a sense of cultural responsibility in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s.

The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby of the creative writing professors who produce most of it in their spare time, while teaching writing courses. Some time ago, I was surprised when the editor of a highbrow magazine and of a major book review, respectively, both told me that their favorite contemporary author was Patrick O’Brien, author of “Master and Commander.” You hypocrites, I thought. You don’t even read the literary fiction that you publish or review. You read well-written genre fiction on your own time. Goodbye, Jonathan Franzen, and ahoy, matie!

Architecture includes examples of all three categories. Major art architecture, defined in terms of the number of clients, consists of the vast majority of the buildings that are designed and built today — chiefly residential subdivisions and office buildings.

Minor art architecture consists of architect-designed buildings for a tiny number of wealthy clients and corporations. This is the architecture you find in architecture magazines — the rich guy’s glass shed dangling on the side of a mountain, the multinational company’s trophy skyscraper in New York or London or Shanghai, designed by a “starchitect” whose name is also a brand.

Finally, there is a kind of architecture as a minor art, consisting of the unbuilt — sometimes, deliberately unbuildable — plans of starchitects, plans which are appreciated chiefly by other architects.

Nonfiction, too, spans the spectrum, with popular educational TV shows on history or science at one extreme and academic monographs intended only for other academics at the other. In between is the genre of popular nonfiction, aimed at an audience more sophisticated than the cable TV audience but less scholarly than academics.

This is a horizontal ranking based on audience, not a vertical ranking based on quality or importance. As a political commentator, I write for an audience in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes more. As an author of nonfiction, I can expect an audience of informed readers in the tens of thousands. As a published poet, I have a much smaller audience made up almost entirely of other poets, when, that is, I have an audience at all. The only exceptions have been the times that Garrison Keillor has read my work for an audience of millions on NPR’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Poetry is the original digital art; its audience tends to be in the digits.

It might be nice to live in a world in which poets had the audiences of pundits. And maybe the making of carrot carnations should be an Olympic event. • 20 January 2015