Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Jeanette Winterson

You may find the cover of Art Objects  titillating at the first glance. Before you rush to judge, you must know that Jeanette Winterson is a writer who is actively involved in the packaging of her books. In an interview with the Paris Review she had said,

I like getting on with the nuts and bolts of the book after that [the writing process]… how can we use it [the book] as an image tool? Those things interest me.

The cover of Art Objects shows a woman swimming underwater, light glinting off her exposed behind, or so it seems. On closer inspection, you will see the woman is clad in a conservative swimwear (that covers her back and thighs, unlike bikinis). The word ‘Objects’ is right across the woman’s shiny behind. Winterson already has you in her trap.

The trap: the word ‘Objects’ as a noun and having it written across a woman’s body on the cover.  The first thought when you look at the cover is “objectification”. After setting up the premise for  the first essay ‘Art Objects’, Winterson takes out the rabbit out of the hat:

Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector’s item.

She reveals the layer beneath the word “objects”; it is the verb and not the noun. She explains further,

…art objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean.

Art Objects is a collection of ten essays divided in to three parts: Art Objects, Transformations, Ecstasy and Energy. The first section, from which the title of the book is derived, has just one long essay. In this essay, Winterson writes about her first encounter with art (a Massimo Rao painting). The essay deals with the general perception of Art being elitist. She argues that looking at art is like being dropped in a foreign city, in an unfamiliar territory with an unfamiliar language and unfamiliar customs. To perceive art needs patience, time and ‘the ecstasy of the privileged moment’. The moment when we find the one piece of art that moves us, jolts us and as Winterson writes

“…remind me of feelings, thinking, I did not even know I had…”

The discovery of such nuggets of revelations spurs you on to turn the pages of the book.

The second section called Transformation contains four essays, two about Virginia Woolf, one about Gertrude Stein, and one about the relationship between readers and writers. Winterson is a self-admitted lover of words and their underlying connotations. She considers Virginia Woolf as her ancient ancestor, mentor and teacher. Winterson, like Woolf, believes in associative power of words. She is adept at playing with multiple meaning of words, as evident from the title of the book.

The third section of the book, Ecstasy and Energy, is more personal where Winterson writes about the books she collects, her way of life and sexualising of art. The essay ‘The Psychometry of Books’ is a beacon for the bibliophiles, including yours truly. In this essay, she reveals in clear tangible words, the strong intense emotions towards books. She starts off with this line:

Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it.

Must do it.Because books are not just bound up sheaves of paper, they too are Art. They are Art containing words, prose, poetry that has endured the ages. I find myself being envious as Winterson talks about her first edition conquests, “Signed and dated of course”: Robert Graves’s To Whom Else, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Orlando (two signed copies, she boasts), Vita Sackville-West’s The Land, D.H.Lawrence’s Pansies. And why this obsession with first editions? Because,

The making of a book and the creating of a book come together only once in the history of a book.

All others are just well-packaged clones, imitations. A first edition is timeless and one of its own kind like a sculpture or a work of painting.

Being a reader and a writer are not always mutually exclusive. When you read consume books more than any other life-essential matter, you have an urgent need to purge all that you have gathered within yourself. If like me, you too find writing as the most effective release after a gluttonous consumption of words, Winterson’s last essay in the book, ‘A Work of My Own’, will appeal to you. Here, she talks about her own struggles as a writer, what drives her, and how she perceives the art of writing.

Some of Winterson’s ideas and principles in Art Objects are hard to agree on. Of course, effrontery is one of the objectives of this book. Winterson is disdainful towards what we consider  conventional milestones of life: acquiring an education, a job and material possessions. She alludes to art as the only means of rescue out of the monotony. While advocating for the alternate, Winterson becomes condescending towards the mainstream: be it ideas about life, marriage, media and technology. This seems hypocritical when she is striving to break art free from elitist perceptions. In this sense, Art Objects is a manifesto and “a collection of personal convictions” that has to be read with a pinch of salt. However, it makes for a good read for someone interested in art, literature, books and for those who want to understand the creative struggles of communicating through art.


  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Genre: Nonfiction/Criticism
  • Publisher: Vintage International; First Edition (1997)
  • Language: English

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