Agapē Agape and the Role of the Artist

Reading Willam Gaddis’ posthumously published novel Agapē Agape is not an easy task. Whilst by far the slimmest of his works, coming in at a mere 94 pages, with large type (compared to the thousand page tomes he is better known for), the prose consists of a single paragraph, with little punctuation, forming a vehement diatribe against the mechanisation and politicisation of the arts, and the worsening status of the artist.

Agape Agape

Agapē Agape began life early on in Gaddis’ career, when he began collecting information relating to the history of the player piano in America, with the intention of publishing his findings in a critical account of the same. He did in fact publish several short articles on the subject, such as Stop Player. Joke No. 4 (1951), and Agapē Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano in the early 1960s. This was a project though that became shelved in favour of other concerns, only to come back to life as a work of fiction when Gaddis realised he had not much longer to live. Like Gaddis, the protagonist of Agapē Agape writes from a point at which he feels the pressure of death creeping up on him: he is a retired musician, working tirelessly to get his affairs in order and to say what he feels needs to be said. Quoting the first sentence will be sufficient to get across the feel of the novel, although be warned, it is a long one:

No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese amour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece, houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and texes like everything else because that’s what it’s about, that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see? 

There is a sense of urgency underlying the above passage that continues throughout the narrative; the protagonist is a dying man, and this is his final attempt to express himself to the world at large. The book resounds both with philosophical and artistic concerns, but also with the physical and administrative—whilst he is concerned with expressing his opinions and research into the arts and technology, there are also taxes to be concerned about, and the dividing up of his property between his three daughters (reminiscent of King Lear), as well as the sheer physical process of being operated upon, being in hospital, being cut up and stapled back together. The key to this work, as I have mentioned, is the invention of the mechanical player piano of 1876, and which can be discovered in the thousands of notes, clippings, working papers, drafts, and snippets that Gaddis left at his death. Much of his research was taken from popular newspapers and magazines, and his method for composing his novels involved a physical arrangement of such notes and clippings, physically inserting his own words and corrections between them.

Gaddis, and his protagonist see the invention of the player piano as the beginning of the end of art as a true art form. When every four year old with a computer can compose music, and every kitchen can have a calendar of the work of Picasso hanging above the kitchen sink, what then is left for the artist? In an ever increasingly mechanised world, what space do we have for the original, for the work of genius? Art, in Agapē Agape is in the hands of the politicians; it has become, as per Adorno and Horkheimer, the tool of propaganda, a sedative for the masses. If everyone can be an artist what value does the role of artist contain? It is true, that in the contemporary art market it is not necessarily the work of art that sells, but the presence of the artist: the artist as self-promotor, self-marketer. It is often less about the presence of the art as opposed to the presence of the individual, the ability of that individual to promote themselves.

I can understand Gaddis’ concern. The sheer proliferation of art today is overwhelming. It becomes so much more difficult to stand out from the crowd, and more often than not far too much time is spent in attempting to do this than actually producing artwork of sufficient quality; there are just not enough hours in the day. But above anything else I believe that we should all, be we professional artists or not, have the opportunity to be creative. If that involves the production of music, art, or literature through the means of mechanisation then so be it—there should always be room in society for different methods of artistic expression. The problem occurs when every second person attempts to present themselves as “an artist”. It is important that we all have the means to express ourselves creatively, but being an artist and making a living from it is hard. Really hard. And sometimes I wonder if the sheer abundance of work shared about the globe via virtual means makes the job even more difficult. Does it diminish the artist in the eyes of the world? I am not sure. I know for certain that I found the attempt too arduous. But I also know for sure that Gaddis’ protagonist’s method of giving up on art whilst complaining about the state of art is not the way forward. Why would anyone give up on anything they love, even when the going gets tough? I’m thinking that I should maybe go and do some painting.



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