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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bluebeard is Kurt Vonnegut’s most extensive examination of artistic endeavor, namely painting by abstract expressionists, but in reality all artistic activity, including literature. Although precursors of this artistic meditation are elements of earlier works, including the questioning of the truth-telling capacity of literature in Cat’s Cradle, nowhere else has Vonnegut directly faced the fundamental issue of whether art at its highest is representational of reality or is a self-enclosed, nonrepresentational medium for presentation of the artist’s emotions. The narrator, Rabo Karabekian, an elderly artist of Armenian ancestry who began as a copyist but becomes an abstract expressionist, can copy anything but is frustrated by the criticism that his representational painting lacks “soul,” or emotional profundity. Then, his work as an abstract expressionist is condemned as so subjectively nonrepresentational as to be meaningless. His abstract expressionist work is also jeopardized by modern technology, as he uses a paint, Sateen Dura-Luxe, which is supposedly a significant improvement on earlier paints but which literally disintegrates after a few months, sabotaging virtually all of Karabekian’s expressionist paintings, including a huge one on public display in New York City. Thus, again, Vonnegut satirizes the blind faith of the modern world in technology, a theme throughout his fiction.

Humiliated by his failings as both representational painter and abstract expressionist and motivated by the suicide of abstract expressionist friends and by the death of his wife, like several Vonnegut narrators, Karabekian emerges from his personal underground of tragic loss of loved ones and personal failure to make a final, successful attempt at art. Realizing that the greatest painting, and by implication literature, is representational of and commentative on life, the narrator turns to his most powerful life experience, the view of the valley where he and other World War II prisoners were taken at the end of the war and released. With thousands of people present, of virtually all nationalities, conditions of health, occupations, and mentalities,...

(The entire section is 508 words.)