Monday, March 21, 2011

Day 15

It seems as if my attempts at a daily journal of my life (which is admittedly mundane) is being transformed into a daily journal of aesthetic theory.  Which is fine with me....

Subjectivity Vs Objectivity in Art

This has come up in recent posts, and it's something I want to talk about.

I ran into this issue a lot teaching creative writing--often after a student poem was critiqued.  The class would offer its feedback and the author would respond with something along the lines of "well, that's great, but that's just your opinion.  I like this, and that's really all that matters."  The assumption was: art is subjective, and therefore our comments about how to 'improve' the poem were of slight use, at best.  Some people like chocolate, some people like vanilla and that's all there is to it.  De gustibus non dispantdum.

But this attitude reveals a fundamental mistake.  Just because art is not purely objective doesn't mean it's purely subjective.  To put it another way, it's one thing to compare chocolate ice cream to vanilla; it's another thing to compare chocolate ice cream to burnt plastic.  No, I can't prove that Auden's "In Memoriam of W.B. Yeats" is 'better' than "Random Poem" by John Q Smith.  But that doesn't mean the two poems truly really do possess the same artistic power.  I.e. just because one is not objectively better than the other doesn't mean it isn't better.  And if a reader comes along and insists they truly prefer John Q Smith's "Random Poem", it's reasonable to assume they haven't spend much time reading poetry or didn't read either poem very closely (or, maybe, are being willfully perverse).  We might all have our private canons, and I appreciate that within those canon it's hard to say if Emily Dickinson is 'better' than Walt Whitman.  (THAT is a chocolate vs. vanilla type distinction).  More than that it's probably not meaningful, since our ideas of 'better' are going to dovetail with what we think poetry SHOULD do, and probably we all have slightly different of what poetry is and should be.  (Obviously for 'poetry' here we could insert 'movies' or 'novels' or whatever). However, just because we all have slightly different ideas of what poetry should be doesn't mean we have to descend into a realm of pure subjectivity. If you go out and interview 5000 people who read poetry with any frequency and ask them to compare "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" with "Random Poem" by John Smith, I'd guess that close to all of them will tell you "Lovesong" is a better poem.  We all of us share certain assumptions about what a poem or a novel should be, and certain works fulfill those assumptions more perfectly than others.  Yes, assumptions change (as do canons of artistic taste), and are challenged and occasionally temporarily collapsed (as by Dada, Art Brut, etc).  But  again, just because a thing can't be known with complete objectivity doesn't mean it can't be known at all.

So what if I come along and say I LOVE Random Poem, you ask?  Surely you're not saying that means I'm WRONG.  Well, yes, I am.  Insofar as taste can be wrong, you are.  Taste has to be developed, it has to be worked at.  (This is why, at least in theory, some people are qualified to be critics.  They have developed their taste to a higher acuity than most others).  This is perhaps not a fashionable thing to say, but I think it's true.  This is why most serious readers go back to books even if they didn't like them on first reading.  If ten people who I respect as readers all assure me that The Idiot is a great book, my assumption on finishing The Idiot and hating it is NOT: those people were all wrong.  It's that I missed it.  And nine times out of ten, when I wait a year or two and go back to it, I find that the artwork that I didn't like at first has now begun to let me into its pleasures.   There's a whole list of writers and visual artists that I still haven't been able to bring myself to like very much or deeply, to which I keep returning, every few years, in the hope that I will eventually 'get them.'  (This list includes, among others, Cezanne, Cervantes, Montaigne, Raphael, and Faulkner.) In their essence, this is what English classes are (or should) be about; trying to teach students to develop an appreciation for artists that they might not otherwise, trying to give them a way in to pleasures they might not otherwise be able to access.

Now of course it could be said: well what's the point?  I genuinely LIKE "Random Poem" even though you tell me that "Prufrock" is much better.  What's wrong with that?  And more to the point, why in the world should I spend hours rereading and studying "Prufrock" just so I can obtain from it the pleasure that I already find in "Random Poem", which I didn't have to work at at all?

The short answer is: pleasure.  All art at its core is about pleasure.  It's a high form of pleasure, but it's pleasure nonetheless (although, since I would argue the highest pleasure comes from learning, and since the best art can teach, it's not a negligible thing, that pleasure.)

Where was I?

Oh: pleasure.  The long and short of it....  the reason it's worth fighting to appreciate Dante or Proust or whatever is because the pleasure available within those works is greater, deeper, richer, more profound, than any pleasure you can obtain elsewhere (within the world of art).  THIS is why "Random Poem" is not as 'great' as "Prufrock" and THIS is why it's worth spending the time to 'learn to appreciate'--to access the pleasures contained within--art which might at first resist us.

And there are all sorts of ways to do this, and that's a subject for another post.  Although, randomly, I just thought of the critical exposition featured as 'extras' on the DVD of La Regle De Jeu (Rules of the Game) which made me appreciate that movie about 100 times more than I did previously and helped to convince me that it is, in fact, the greatest (or one of) movie ever made.

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And I will write about this later, because now the housekeeper is here and the Binks has gone INSANE. A situation to manage....

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Ok, Binks at Doggy DayCare.  I have to work on my play; this is a subject I could write about for another hour.  I  know the stuff above is somewhat scattered; I'm not working on a coherent essay so much as trying to sketch out some of my thoughts.  I'll keep posting on this, I guess, since it seems to have excited some interest.

Oh, and to make a clarification: I never intended, at any point, to suggest that "Craft" is something insignificant.  Well-crafted work is absolutely worth our time, and since I think art generally tends to exhaust one emotionally, while craft does not, I spend a lot more time experiencing craft than I do art.  I've seen 80% of the Coen's movies, and I absolutely admire their work.  I think they're something's missing though, something that keeps them from greatness.  There's a cruelty throughout their movies, a lack of empathy, a tendency to view human beings as if we were specimens being manipulated by super intelligent aliens.  But all that's not to say I don't make it a point to see their movies: I do.  They're inevitably better than 95% of what's out there.

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That Engineers album I mentioned a few posts ago, by the way: Keeps getting better.  Absolutely worth buying.


Barbara Carlson said...

This post is elitist talk -- keep it up. I am sick to the back teeth of the ignorant Americans' notion that everything is art or everything is great. It isn't.

And as for Binky going INSANE when the housekeeper arrives -- watch Dog Whisperer (Ceasar Millan). You're hurting Binky when you don't let him get balanced and unafraid of things.

Cartooniste said...

ANCIANT. I've been thinking about you.

I have a lot of blog to catch up on, which is exciting.

I think there is a hidden question buried in your musing here, which is not whether Prufrock is an objectively better work of art than Random Poem, but whether Random Poem can still be worth reading despite being lesser in aesthetic and emotional achievement than Prufrock. Can a work that is "bad" still have something worthy to say about culture, or the human experience, or emotion, or outlook? Can its badness even be part of what makes it important? I think, maybe, yes. In some cases, yes.

The question of quality in art has interested me for a long time, both in my previous intellectual life (in which American visual art has always had to apologize, in a sense, for being of lesser aesthetic achievement than its European counterparts, at least until the 1940s, at which point American art ceases to be "American" and becomes "modern"), and in my current working life, when I have to face that I will never, no matter how hard I work, ever be as good as Edith Wharton. Ever.

Subjective response to artwork is no excuse to avoid revision, of course, which is what it sounds like you had to deal with in your classes. But a strict hierarchy of comparison is, at root, a kind of futile enterprise. The pleasure you identify is worthy, and difficult, and fleeting, but isn't there also a pleasure to be found in fitting a given artwork into its cultural context, its moment in time, or its mode of production, to provide a more nuanced picture of a moment in time?

Also - we've moving to Ithaca. Send help.

ANCIANT said...


Your comments deserve a full post, which I will try to devote to them soon. (About Ithaca, mostly).

Briefly, though:
Yes and no. I take your point about there being different ways and approaches with which one can come to a "bad" poem, ways that may make its perusal and analysis equally, if not more, rewarding than considering "Prufrock." But I would argue (I think) that those approaches are scholarly and historical, as opposed to aesthetic, ways of reading.

This is not to denigrate them, of course. I read scholarship (some) and I'm certainly glad to have it (especially since it provides jobs for several friends and relatives). But I do think considerations of relative aesthetic merit have their place--more than that, that they have value.

Because in the end, we don't have that much time. Every year tens of thousands of new plays, novels, poems, books, etc roll off the presses. They all are clamoring for our attention. And I only have so many hours, so much intellectual energy, to devote to reading them. So, it becomes necessary to make choices. Yes, I have time to read "Prufrock" and "Random Poem", but when you start to weigh, say, "In Search of Lost Time" vs "Infinite Jest", the decision becomes more significant. If I'm going to spend months of my life and a huge amount of energy searching for deep pleasure, it's reasonable to come into it seeking some kind of assurance that, in the end, I'll find it.

Of course, the downsides of this admittedly 'great books' approach are several. You don't ever get to evaluate the NEW; you lose spontaneity; you shut yourself from the possibility of surprise, etc. And, as I've noted elsewhere, everybody has their own canon. If you only read in one or two of them, you risk closing yourself off even more, reading only material that conforms to what you think a book should be, and thus experiencing the kind of narrowing of the soul which art, at its best, should prevent. (I think, for some reason, of a guy I knew who spent ten years of his life reading nothing but Sci Fi and Fantasy).

Anyway, I'm interested to talk about this more, in the future.

Good luck with Ithaca. I hear it's very lovely there.