Lee Smith (b. 1944)
Contributing Editor: Anne Jones
Classroom Issues and Strategies
There should be little difficulty drawing students into an engagement with "Artists," since the style is accessible and the concerns familiar. The task may rather be in some sense to de-familiarize the story, to complicate what may initially seem to students its self-evident meanings. One way to do this would be to suggest that the conclusion seems to offer a clearcut "solution" to the problems of the story: The narrator rejects her grandmother's "art," accepts Mollie Crews as another kind of artist--an artist of the possible? of the body?--and thus "grows up." Her grandmother's "art" metamorphosizes into children's toys, thus capitulating, in effect, to the "art" of Mollie Crews. The story, "Artists," thus becomes a moral tale of oppositions, of illusion and reality, false art and true, and so on.
A teacher might then invite students to argue with this claim. What, if anything, feels unsatisfactory about it? What areas of the narrative are not addressed by it? Are there ways in which the story itself contests its own apparently explicit meaning and conclusion? What should we make of such contradictions? On the other hand, those who find the conclusion a satisfactory "kernel" of meaning to take away might be asked to defend their view. Are these two views of the story analogous in some ways to the two views of "art" represented in the story by the grandmother and Mollie Crews? How might such an analogy affect one's sense of the story? And how does the narrator evolve as an "artist" in the terms of the story?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The title offers a major theme: Artists come in several varieties. How they vary constitutes several related themes. Social class and class mobility, for example, seem to be linked with two different forms of art; Is the grandmother's art of denial and illusion a sign of class pretension and Mollie's art--in her "studio" over Western Auto--a sign of class "authenticity"? If so, does the story reify class (and class stereotypes, such as associating sexuality with the working class) and resist mobility? Or are there other issues involved in the grandmother's aesthetic denials? The third "artist"--the narrator, Jenny--suggests another major theme: a girl's accession to womanhood. Why does she associate it with cutting her hair and kissing Scott? Is her self-described "growing up" only an acceptance of gender expectations?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The narrative strategies seem most interesting here. At which points and why does Jennifer shift the tense of her narration? When, how, and why does her diction shift? A close analysis of the first paragraph will introduce most major themes to students; working as a class to unpack this paragraph could be a good exercise in teaching close analysis. Key images--like the David figure--can also offer students an opportunity to develop those skills.
"Artists" appeared first in Redbook and was later collected in Cakewalk. Thus its audience was initially popular and female. This offers the opportunity to discuss the question of high/low culture and its permutations in modernism and postmodernism. How could we "categorize" "Artists," and what are the effects of such categorizations? How does "Artists" take this as its own theme?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
"Artists" can be read in several contexts: as an example of Lee Smith's work (this would require outside reading, of course); as a southern story (with Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines, for example, in this anthology); as a story of art and artists (with, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Artist of the Beautiful" and Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"); and as a contemporary story in its subjects and strategies.