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David and Art - Working Alongside the Writer

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Writers, Painters, and Composers all create works whose purpose is to invite the viewer inside.

Salman Rushdie is a writer who’s in the news today for the worst of reasons. Back in August, he was attacked on stage in western New York State before he was to give a book talk. His assailant had a knife and Rushdie was stabbed multiple times. It immediately brought back an episode that began 30+ years ago and put his life in non-stop jeopardy.

Salman Rushdie is an acclaimed British-Indian novelist who was born in Bombay in 1947. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1968 with a degree in history because he wanted to be a writer.

His second novel, entitled Midnight’s Children, won the Booker prize—a really prestigious British literary prize—in 1981, but it was his fourth novel, 1988’s The Satanic Verses that rather catapulted him to worldwide attention.

On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Iranian leader the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie calling for his death for blasphemy, charging that his novel had insulted Islam. He consequently lived in hiding for years, many of them in the United States.

In the decade however he has emerged more and more into the public eye. He’s taught at Emory University in Atlanta and at NYU; he’s served as president of PenAmerica, a writers advocacy group; and he’s gone out on the speaking circuit, defending the right of writers. I saw him in Dallas in 2019 speaking at the release of his 14th novel.

Rushdie once said that it’s the reader who completes his books. He was recounting the early days of the fatwa against The Satanic Verses and how, in his initial attempts to defend the book, he felt compelled to go over the story, line by line, in an attempt to explain why it wasn’t what people said it was. But he hated doing that. He thought it damaged the kind of open and individualistic response that he thought was at the heart of every reader’s interaction with a novel. Or, I would add, with any work of art.

What Rushdie is getting at here, in regard to the arts, is something quite important. Every work of art is an interaction between the artist and the person who perceives it. Whether it’s a poem or a symphony or an improvisational jazz number or a painting, a work of art is an interaction. A work of art is a substantive communication on the part of the artist, yes, but it’s also, in a real sense, a two-way street. As you listen, as you read, as you look, your reactions fill out the entire complexity of a piece of art. Your reactions give deeper meaning to a complex work than it otherwise would have. It’s in this inaction that art changes us, broadens our perspectives, and allows us to grow.