David Foster Wallace in WalMart?

by Laurie McMillan

I just got super-excited. I was randomly reading this New Yorker article and at one point, the artist whose work was being described sounded a lot like David Foster Wallace. The artist, Brendan O’Connell, paints a lot of scenes from Wal-Mart, and he told a Boston Globe reporter that

“Trying to find beauty in the least-likely environment is kind of a spiritual practice.”

That line immediately brought to mind DFW’s point about everyday hum-drum life, and the many times we’re stuck in traffic or in a long line at the supermarket. It’s easy to be irritated about all the stuff that is keeping us from having a good time, but DFW says these moments are opportunities to connect with other human beings, to try to imagine what’s going on in others’ worlds.

And bringing these two guys together made me think more about the connection between literature and the visual arts, not least because Brendan O’Connell also mentions being inspired by John Updike’s story “A&P.” I love that story. And the story seems a bit like the Wal-Mart paintings and a bit like DFW.

“A&P” takes this everyday kind of scene of a grocery store, and the main character sees almost all the shoppers as sheep and cows. He sees himself, however, as a gallant hero who must rescue the hot girl in distress (spoiler alert: she gets kicked out of the grocery store for wearing a bathing suit). On the one hand, the story is about pushing ourselves to be epic and heroic through small, everyday gestures. On the other hand, it’s a critique of the shallow main character and his inability to see beyond some overly simplistic story of heroism that he really wants to inhabit.

I think that’s how WalMart art and DFW’s idea about paying attention to the water we’re swimming in need to work. On the one hand, yeah! appreciate that beauty.

On the other hand, notice the ridiculous and extreme consumption and consumerism that characterizes American life. And don’t be afraid to think twice about it.

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