Sunday, May 20, 2007

Art Saves (Because It Must): A Brief Review of The Plain Janes

You may remember, Gentle Reader, that Mr. Reads and I Hopped Across The Pond this past January for my Research Trip Of Grand Proportions. When I (finally!) stole a spare moment or two from research to look at Art, Mr. Reads dragged me, kicking and screaming the whole way, to the Tate Modern. Not that I pooh-poohed the idea of Art, in General. I adore Art, particularly as I Cannot Produce It. I don’t have that talent for visualizing something out of nothing. If I stare at A Blank Page, I can only see, as Mr. Hamlet would say, Words, Words, Words. I am a Writer, by nature, by profession, by trade, by choice, and most importantly for this discussion, by Training. My plans for a comic book—yes, even I, Gentle Reader, have plans for A Comic Book Of My Own—have been aborted, time and again, by my sincere lack of artistic talent. One cannot break through in a medium that proclaims the marriage between Art and Text if one cannot produce half of the equation, no?

Rather, I kicked and screamed my way to the Tate Modern because not only was I leaving the Tate Britain, and thus Waterhouses and Rossettis and Siddals (oh my!), but also because Modern Art baffles me. It is true, Friends. I have no appreciation for the Modern or Postmodern Artistic, and sometimes even Literary, Sentiment. I am a Victorianist, by nature, by profession, by trade, by choice, and most importantly for this discussion, by Training. I *understand* Victorian art. I *adore* Victorian art. And while I dally in the 20th Century for the occasional Magritte or Picasso or Dali, my heart and my understanding are rooted firmly in the 19th.

I offer you this rather lengthy and personal introduction so that you understand the oddity of my absolute joy over discovering a room, yes, an *entire room*, devoted to those most militant of artistic activists, the Guerrilla Girls. I do not like Modern Art, Gentle Reader, nor do I like Postmodern Art. That of course includes the Dadaists, the Performance Artists, and should therefore include the Guerrilla Girls. But even Mr. Reads, who has known me for almost ten years, was surprised to hear me squeal with delight inside That Most Auspicious Of Monuments To The Modern And Postmodern Art Movements, the Tate Modern.

And Squeal I Did, Friends, loudly, publicly, to looks of surprise and consternation from My Fellow Museum-Goers. The Guerrilla Girls are activists who draw attention to the lack of women and minorities in the arts. Their militant tactics included such things as plastering posters such as This One (gratitude, Tate Modern) to raise awareness of women and minorities working within the arts. This is a cause I appreciate and believe in. This is an artistic movement that I have admired for as long as I have been aware of it.

So when This Humble Author realized that Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg’s The Plain Janes offers a microcosmic look at the effects of guerrilla art in one small town and one small high school, you can only imagine the squeal of delight over said discovery. Even further, when This Humble Author realized that The Plain Janes details the use of such guerrilla art by a Young Woman as a means of recovering from the Shock and Horror of a terrorist attack, you can only imagine how much I fell in love with this book.

“Art Saves” are the words written on a notebook Main Jane recovers from the bombing site. “Art Saves” are the words she takes to heart when she rescues a John Doe from the bomb site. “Art Saves” are the words Main Jane repeats, like the Prayer They Are, to make sense of a senseless tragedy. She is a Survivor, she is a Hero, she saves One Man from the rubble, and still, her whole world falls apart.

Gentle Reader, you may be aware of the fact that This Humble Author is from New Orleans, and that I was home, visiting family, when we had to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina. The Reads Clan and the Reads-in-Laws were the lucky ones. We all had somewhere to go: most came here, to Mr. Reads’ and my house, and others scattered across the South, to various friends and family. But with Math there is always Aftermath. So many of our Friends and Family Lost Everything. And while we are Grateful for the Lives Saved, we still Struggle Through Recovery.

That is to say, The Plain Janes is a title that I would give to any young man or woman trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy. What Castellucci and Rugg do, and do Very Well, is avoid the idea of The Perfect Happy Ending. This book understands that Not All Endings Are Perfectly Happy, and that is Perfectly Okay.

Even further, what Castellucci and Rugg do Even Better is offer an alternative definition of Hero. A Hero is not only someone who saves, but someone who survives, as well. Because it’s just as hard to pick up the pieces and carry on as it is to pick up the person lying next to you and drag him or her to safety. Because Being A Hero means being strong, even in the face of danger, and being strong, even in the face of ceaseless fear.

That’s what affects Main Jane the most, Gentle Reader: ceaseless fear. Her parents move her to the suburbs for her safety, and she hates it: the lack of culture, the high school cliques, leaving her friends behind, and most importantly, leaving behind John Doe, the man she saved, the man whose notebook she holds on to, like the talismanic item it is, the man to whom she writes, detailing her pains, her fears, her frustrations. Because Main Jane’s parents aren’t the only ones suffering under ceaseless fear. Her mother’s incessant phone calls affect Main Jane’s tranquility, certainly, but so, too, does her desire to reinvent herself. To throw off the cloak of normalcy and popularity, and to become The Person She Wants To Become.

And so she begins that quest. She refuses the popular girls’ offer to sit in their lunch group and finds the right table for her. “And then,” Main Jane says, “When you least expect it: Paradise!” She means Jane (the actress), Jayne (the brain), and Polly Jane (the athlete). Even when the Janes, her “tribe,” are “completely unimpressed” with her, she says, “I just know that these girls, these Janes, are my friends.”

Taking cues from the words “Art Saves,” Jane comes to the Startling Realization that so few ever come to: in order to save others, you first Must Save Yourself. So she uses art to cement a relationship with these Janes. They form P.L.A.I.N., “People Loving Art In Neighborhoods,” a secret group that performs (Guerrilla) Acts of Random Art. They form friendships. They bring a community of teenagers together.

As with almost all stories involving teenagers, lines are divided quickly between The Teens and The Adults. And The Teens seem to understand that Art *can* Save, because It Must. That is to say, what some see as vandalism is a way to bring beauty back into a world so devoid of it. The acts of the P.L.A.I.N. Janes are acts of creation, not of destruction. They become ways of making sense in a world that lacks sense, lacks understanding. Through these Random Acts Of Artness, Main Jane not only gains friends she wanted (the P.L.A.I.N. Janes) and friends she didn’t (Cindy, the Queen Bee), but she also gains a sense of self.

Art Saves Main Jane, as she predicted it would.

The link between Art and Tragedy is solid, Gentle Reader. Tug on it, and you find no give. Art reflects larger senseless tragedies, as the poetry of WWI soldiers such as Mr. Sassoon or Mr. Owen reflects, and art reflects personal tragedies, as well, smaller in scale, perhaps, but just as tragic, just as senseless. Ask Ms. Bishop, and she will tell you that “The art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster” (“One Art”). Ms. Plath will tell you, too, that “Dying,/is an art, like everything else” (“Lady Lazarus”). And while These Great Poems use the word “art” to denote skill, they intend for us to understand skill as talent, as grace. Something one has an affinity for, to do very well (to do it so it feels like hell, so sayeth Ms. Plath). Art becomes a way of understanding tragedy, certainly, with the act of the poem, the painting, the photograph, the book. But art, by its very nature, is a skill set, a way of *dealing* with tragedy, not only with the act of the poem, the painting, the photograph, the book, but also with the community of the poem, the painting, the photograph, the book.

Art is public. By its very nature, it is meant to be shared. By its very nature, it is meant to speak, and speak loudly, to those who wish to hear. And by its very nature, Art is meant to be interpreted. While some see Salvation, others see Despair. What The Plain Janes makes perfectly clear is that while some see Destruction, others see Creation.

A common consequence of Destruction is Creation, Gentle Reader, and while said Creation is open for interpretation, The Plain Janes interprets it as self-creation. As self-understanding. For one teenaged girl, one Main Jane, yes, but through her, for dozens, perhaps hundreds of others.

Art Saves, because it must.

7 comments:

Ragtime said...

Thanks! I hadn't really been that interested in the Minx comics, but I will certainly look at this one now.

What age range do you think they are aimed at primarily? Teenage? Pre-Teen? Precocious eight year old?

Scott said...

Wow, I really want to read this now.

Somewhere in your post, I think there's another topic about how "female" has come to represent creation and "male" destruction. Although, I do think that the larger trend is that creation tends to follow destruction, regardless of gender. There's always a batch of new books and scenarios that spin out of a Crisis or Civil War. But it's like a baptism by fire to get to that point. It's kind of like what Dan Slott said in an issue of She-Hulk (I'm paraphrasing): People are only interested in things when they are destroyed.

One of the things I like about manga is that it's easier to believe in the characters and the dangers they face. Because the stories are finite, things like death have greater weight.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Ragtime,
Thanks! I hadn't really been that interested in the Minx comics, but I will certainly look at this one now.

Some of the other previews look really interesting, as well. There are previews in the back of The PLAIN Janes.

What age range do you think they are aimed at primarily? Teenage? Pre-Teen? Precocious eight year old?

Probably teen and precocious pre-teen. Might be a bit old for the eight year old, particularly with the struggle against authority issues. But then, some eight year olds are Quite Precocious and could handle just fine!

Did the Ragkids ever get to see Iron Giant? :)
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Scott,
Wow, I really want to read this now.

The praise every reviewer wants to hear. Many thanks :)

Somewhere in your post, I think there's another topic about how "female" has come to represent creation and "male" destruction. Although, I do think that the larger trend is that creation tends to follow destruction, regardless of gender. There's always a batch of new books and scenarios that spin out of a Crisis or Civil War. But it's like a baptism by fire to get to that point. It's kind of like what Dan Slott said in an issue of She-Hulk (I'm paraphrasing): People are only interested in things when they are destroyed.

I hadn't thought about it that way but you're Absolutely Right. Women are so often defined as creation, and men destruction. What I find so interesting is that I read this on the heels of watching The Fountain, and the whole idea behind that movie is that in destruction there is birth, in death there is life. These two texts really spoke to each other for me, reading/watching them so closely together.

One of the things I like about manga is that it's easier to believe in the characters and the dangers they face. Because the stories are finite, things like death have greater weight.

I, too, like finite stories, but I *adore* the series. As a child, I always wanted to know What Came Next, and comic books spoke to that in a really interesting way for me. I've never quite recovered.

Ciao,
Amy

AcadeMama said...

Thanks for the details on the book! (Or is it a comic book? A series?) I think I'll get a copy now, saving it for when Hurricane H is *mature* enough to "get it" in all its purpose. You instantly [as in, as I read your post and think about it] brought it to my attention that comics are a genre to which my daughter has never been exposed. And, as a mother, literary scholar and reader of just about anything that has words, I should absolutely thrust this genre upon her for at least a tiny bit of exploration. I bet she'd LOVE the costumes, artwork, super powers, etc. Further recs for an 8-yr old who is, unfortunately, currently under the dangerous influence of all things "popular" (i.e. Top 20 pop music, all "cute" clothes, and hip-hop dance)?

I'm surprised you hadn't run into -so to speak - the Guerilla Girls and/or their artwork before. They've also done some great work here in the U.S. at NY's Met. They're notorious for putting on their Guerilla masks and *crashing* a big fancy-schmancy art opening, in which violence against women, minorities, etc. appears glamorized, fetishized, and other ways highlighted.

Amy Reads said...

Hi AcadeMama,
Thanks for the details on the book! (Or is it a comic book? A series?)

Comic book or graphic novel will get the job done, I think :)

I think I'll get a copy now, saving it for when Hurricane H is *mature* enough to "get it" in all its purpose. You instantly [as in, as I read your post and think about it] brought it to my attention that comics are a genre to which my daughter has never been exposed. And, as a mother, literary scholar and reader of just about anything that has words, I should absolutely thrust this genre upon her for at least a tiny bit of exploration. I bet she'd LOVE the costumes, artwork, super powers, etc.

I really think she would! I adored comics as a kid, esp. at her age, and I watched Wonder Woman religiously. I wore the underoos under my school uniform, too. I was Quite the Fangirl, even then!

Further recs for an 8-yr old who is, unfortunately, currently under the dangerous influence of all things "popular" (i.e. Top 20 pop music, all "cute" clothes, and hip-hop dance)?

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, without doubt. There are probably several Manga series she would love, although I'll have to do some poking around, because I'm not very well-versed in Manga. Kat & Mouse she could read now, I think, and the new Supergirl looks to be quite wonderful for her age range.

I'm surprised you hadn't run into -so to speak - the Guerilla Girls and/or their artwork before.

Oh, I have! Sorry for the confusion. What I meant was that I was so happy to see *an entire room* dedicated to the Guerrilla Girls. I've been a huge fan of them since the early 90s :)

They've also done some great work here in the U.S. at NY's Met. They're notorious for putting on their Guerilla masks and *crashing* a big fancy-schmancy art opening, in which violence against women, minorities, etc. appears glamorized, fetishized, and other ways highlighted.

I love the campaigning to promote women in the arts, particularly as realistic models. Great, fantastic stuff.
Ciao,
Amy

Ragtime said...

Did the Ragkids ever get to see Iron Giant? :)
Ciao,
Amy


Alas, we have become captives of the Rag-in-Law's Netflix subscription. We make recommendations, and then movies show up, and the we have to watch them quickly in our free time or else the Rag-in-law does not get her next movie promptly. Iron Giant has yet to burble up to the top of the list.