Politics and Society

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Brief Foray into the Minefield of Modern Aesthetics

    This essay - in which I make no claims to any  profound originality, but only to the more or less orderly collation of various active ideas which guide my thinking about Literature and Art, and which I whole heartedly hold to be correct -  is intended as both a general statement of aesthetic principles, and as a prelude to the immediately following discussion of Richard Yates's The Easter Parade.
   It will be seen that I am still 'solid' with the New Criticism' school of thought, generally, and for that reason have made no great effort to reference the obvious sources. (I will be more intent on reference and rebuttal when it comes time to refute the foolishness of the newer schools of thought, such as 'de-constuctionism', and 'reception theory'--all Post-Modernist philosophies which I abhor.)


      “As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal,
       intentional choice.”
                                --- David Foster Wallace, from his Kenyon College
                                    Commencement Address (2005)
        He goes on to say:
                     “. . .learning how to think really means learning how to exercise
       some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and
       aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you
       construct meaning from experience.”

    This essay is long overdue. What started as a casual review became a late summer exposition of aesthetic First Principles. I hope it makes up for the time lost!

    Earlier this summer, I was inspired to seek out Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, after reading a careful and insightful review of it by one of my favorite blog-artists, Kevin from Canada. (See his review here.) A point he later made in discussion about the “depressing” vision of Graham Swift (regarding his novel, Wish You Were Here) – a point which applies equally, if not more so, to Richard Yates - got me to thinking very seriously about ‘the vision’ of the artist' –i.e. his/her bottom-line view of the world - and how we should assess or react to this as readers. I was finally brought to a consideration of my own ambition and perspective as a reader. So, I guess we can say, that I owe this article to KfC, though he can’t and shouldn’t be held accountable for its content!
   In response to a posted comment about his review of Swift’s novel, KfC had this to say about Swift’s book:        
         I deliberately avoided saying that I “liked” it because, in fact, I didn’t —
         but that is because of the unrelenting gloom of the story and its key themes.
         I was very impressed by it and think it is an excellent novel, if approached
         with the right frame of mind. On the other hand, I would not fault those who
         said they wanted no part of it.  (Italics added)
Though I am in substantial agreement with KfC as far as it goes, I was immediately intrigued by this explanation of his reserve, because I have often felt the same ambivalence about certain books (and authors). And, while I agree with his point, the reservation left me wanting more. The key phrase here, the one that caught my attention, was ‘the right frame of mind’. It immediately got me thinking, yet again: What is ‘the right frame of mind’? This time, though, I needed to have the answer.

    This is always an important question: one I think one must always keep in mind, not necessarily while reading, but certainly when we are trying to properly appreciate a work of Art. It is especially pressing when dealing with the work of authors whose themes and outlook are as uncompromisingly dour as are those of Graham Swift and Richard Yates. These are two writers whose vision of the world, through book after book, is bleak, to put it mildly. (Richard Yates, an American author, is now barely current again in the cultural psyche with the 2008 release of the apparently un-loved movie “Revolutionary Road” - based on his book of the same name - which starred Leonardo DiCaprio.) It is no wonder that some readers, even serious students and followers of literary fiction and artist-as-messenger types, cry ‘no mas.’ (But now, whether this is due to the book or to the movie is anyone's guess!)
   We can say, of course, that in this world there must be something for everyone, and that, of course, no one is obliged to read these writers - these are the devil-may-care platitudes that usually come into play in these discussions - but that, it seems to me, is a rather weak-kneed  and specious response. The deeper question concerns his full response: viz. the work is worthwhile (“an excellent novel”), though it may not be for everyone. Is there a contradiction here? When we say a novel is excellent, or even just worthwhile, aren’t we saying it is, or should be so for everyone? In other words, Aren't we obliged, somehow, to like, or otherwise appreciate, these writers?

   I think one of the reasons this is a somewhat difficult question to answer stems from the fact that there are certain attitudes and opinions toward Art that have been slyly smuggled into the discussion without a proper vetting of their credentials. These ideas are generally assumed to be so basic and obvious as to need no explanation or justification. Indeed, they barely require mention. Tony Eagleton is surely correct when he writes (in Literary Theory, 1986) that these tacit assumptions can and usually do reflect an underlying socio-economic and political ideology, which influences judgment--often profoundly and surreptitiously.  In a less politically tendentious vein, though, they are also known and rightly suspected by others, as in the discussion offered by D. F. Wallace in the lecture quoted above as epigraph: therein he says that they are the “default assumptions” and/or ‘attitudes’ that he is eager to displace by education.
    In the West generally, and in America in particular (but not, therefore, to a greater degree) an ideology has crept into the discussion of literature and art which posits artistry, or artistic talent, as a productive capacity of individuals and “industries” (the movie industry, the publishing industry, the music business, etc.), the output of which are artworks: movies, books, albums and concerts, and such, all of which are subsumed under the heading of “products of the entertainment industry.” This undue conflation of Art and Industry is more than just journalistic shorthand. It is a thoroughly pernicious capitalistic reduction of Art to the status and level of a ‘commodity.’ As such artworks, such as novels, are relegated by the ideology to the level of ice-cream treats, with similar appeals and analogous qualities. Some we find to have, figuratively speaking, flavors and textures more enjoyable, as experiences, than others; but, of course, de gustibus non disputandam est: i.e. there is no point in arguing about taste. Either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. By faulty logic and tacit consent a standard is generated: viz. a book’s value is assessed as a function of its tendency to produce pleasure. The implicit answer, then, according to this view is: No,  you don't have to like or appreciate this author/book if it doesn't please you to read him/it. It’s ok not to like, appreciate or read this author—and/or others like him. In the end, 'like' and 'appreciate' have been conflated, i.e. become synonymous!

   This is not my ideology! This is not my perspective! (Nor do I assume it is that of Kevin from Canada, though I should like to let him speak for himself.) Such a view is, in fact, entirely anathema to my appreciation of Art with regard to its history and its accomplishments. Though the process of creation of artworks does indeed result in salable, transferable, and enjoyable (or detestable) items, this doesn’t even begin to set the table for a true appreciation or consideration for the value of these artifacts. In other words: These considerations alone do not put us in the right frame of mind! Rather, the result is exactly the opposite!
   The fact that this perspective is so pervasive is itself something debatable: a claim, which it would take months (and a book length study) to document. Nevertheless, I make the claim as a matter of experience, and stand by it as a matter of conscience, and I will defer its defense to another time. For now, I take (and offer) it as given.


   Artists do not merely present us with products – be they books, music scores or paintings—for what do these terms represent, except categories of communally interpreted and conceptualized objectification? Artists present to us something less abstract, and therefore, more real. They present to us permanent possibilities of experience. Philosophy buffs will recognize in this the near perfect echo of John Stuart Mill’s definition of a material object (read: a real thing); a definition which was taken over by the “pragmatic” philosopher William James, and assumed even by Wallace Stevens as well, whose poetics (see The Necessary Angel, 1942) included a very similar description of the poetic object: the poem. This - the permanent possibility of experience - I believe to be the essence of the work of art, its object and its motive.
   It is because I believe that Art provides us with an alternative realm of possible experience (‘alternative’, that is, to the external, everyday realm of common, sensible experience), that I also believe that Art is much more than a distraction or a mere entertainment. It is chiefly an accomplishment. I would say, a grand accomplishment, which can, and must, be judged for its relative success at providing what it sets out to provide: a particular – non-sensible - kind of experience.* This is where the analogy with ice cream treats must end.
    I cannot seriously judge a book, a movie or a symphony merely on the basis of its entertainment value any more than I would waste my time (or yours) commenting on the quality of its paper, the number of pixels on the movie screen or the relative softness of the seat in the concert hall. These things, so far as I am concerned, have nothing whatsoever to do with the work or experience of Art as Art (though I do like a medium soft seat for long concerts)!
    By ‘seriously’, I mean to say that I will distinguish judgments according to their intentional weight, by the comprehensiveness of their scope – how much or little they take into account in being rendered. We are not talking about quick, or “snap” judgments here. We often have an early, first, or immediate impression of an experience: likewise, we are often moved powerfully by nostalgia or patriotism or personal bias (say, at our children’s recitals), but this is not a serious judgment, though our reactions may be expressed in the same (kind of) terms, and even with similar degrees of vehemence. A serious judgment is a comprehensive and considered judgment.** This should go far to already distinguishing Art from Ice Cream. The one allows of serious judgment, while the other does not.
   Note well: this does not mean that people cannot, or should not, enjoy books and even Literature the way they enjoy ice cream. Only that comparing the two, or judging the two by the same standards, is patently ridiculous, and at odds with the very nature of each one.  That’s apples and oranges, all over again. It will always be ok, with me and with the world at large (excepting of course the publishers and printers, aka 'the industry') to simply like or to dislike a book. But it will not be a matter of critical response, but of reaction or response—merely!
   Similarly, but from the artist’s point of view, the relative pleasure of the experience is of little consequence. I doubt that Beethoven ever cared whether his subscribers could – or would want to - go home whistling his ‘tunes’ (though I am sure that he cared how they were ‘received’.) His symphonies weren’t meant to be transferable commodities, which we could carry away in memory as if in a pocket, or share like gossip or cheesecake with a friend. And yet, there was certainly an intent on the artist’s part to deliver a work of Art to those who are willing to receive it. So, if not a commodity or a moment of entertainment, what are we to call the object of this intent? May I suggest the not-so-obvious: ‘a permanent possibility of experience’?*


    I judge a novel by the quality and kind of experience it offers. The kind of experience I seek out or prefer at any given time may vary with the seasons or my moods, but it is always an experience I am after. And taking the time to study or ‘appreciate’ art is motivated by a desire to experience something higher, deeper, better than the haphazard experience of mere life can offer. Though my conception of better and worse may change, and certainly has changed more than once in the course of my reading life, for periods of time both long and short, and for reasons, I suppose, both good and bad, the fact remains, that in Art, as always, I am looking for a life-enhancing experience, one which elevates, informs, and inspires what I take to be the best of myself: my awareness of the many facets and aspects of this life and their relative significance. Therefore I seek those artworks which offers me something new, sharpen my mind, educate my heart, and quicken my spirit --and I try to distinguish them from works that don’t.
    Personally, I find I am best and most thoroughly inspired by Literature—though others may find equal (or more) satisfaction and merit in any other Art, or none at all. After all, regardless what the lobbyists may say at budget allocation meetings, Art is not a necessity for life. It is an enhancement, surely, but not necessarily (if ever) more. Those most lucky ones who find all of what they need in ‘mere life’ are no less human, nor are they less well educated, for that! Most, however, seem to feel a need for something different, if not something more. So we look to Art, each perhaps for his or her own reason(s), but still in a common effort to identify and evaluate what we find there, and try to assess its value. For that reason, then, this ultimately personal ambition is not something which one can easily or definitively set down as a criterion. It is a relative goal, a shifting perspective; even a moving target. Luckily, though the goal may be ever so elusive, we find that there are commonalities among our criteria for satisfaction. (It is important to note that I take this as an empirical matter of fact, not a theoretical necessity!) That is, most of us want  - mostly, or most often – the same things.  

   Not every artwork seeks to present the same kind of experience. That’s why we can wonder, investigate and criticize. But the first responsibility of the critic is to identify, as best he or she can, the kind of object/experience the artist (or artisan) is offering up for appreciation. Simply put, the first question is “What did he intend?’ and the second must be “Did he succeed?” What kind of experience did the artist intend to provide, and did he succeed in doing so? Next, of course, comes the all-important question: ‘Was it worth doing?’  Not all kinds, nor even tokens within kinds, are of a piece. Not all are of equal value. Not all are worthwhile, and some are downright harmful. It is the critic’s job to discover, by careful attention and scrutiny, what kind of experience is offered and to judge that object as to its quality: i.e. its worthiness of appreciation or further consideration —else, we don’t need critics. Again, in the words of the late DFW: “The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.”  
   I am well aware that I have constructed here an argument from authority. In Logic, this is considered a fallacy! But here, it is less so, I think, for the self-consciousness of it. I am arguing, even as Wallace would have it, that the decision to focus on Art, as such, is itself a conscious choice and an event worth noting, for its significance. Indeed, it would be a failure of logic itself to ignore the consequences of this decision.

   So, what is, then, the right frame of mind, with which to appreciate – or evaluate, assess, or to criticize – a work of Art? I suggest, that it is that frame of mind which I called ‘serious’ in the sense I indicated. It is a frame of mind which takes a comprehensive account of possible (and best) answers to the questions as to what the author is about doing, whether he or she has succeeded in that effort, and finally, whether that effort was worth while for him/her or for us/me. Since no one is obliged to value, pursue or opine about works of Art, it is not incumbent upon anyone to like or dislike an author or his/her work. But IF one is to make judgments about a work of Art, it must be done on these terms, just to be fair--and to avoid being glib. Art is not merely ice cream for the soul, no matter how good a sales pitch this slogan might be. I think KfC and I will agree on that point, as well.

*  It will be necessary at a future time to delve more deeply and specifically into the nature of this non-sensible experience. For now, suffice it to say that Artistic experience belongs to the imagination in its capacity to link us, more or less, directly with a world beyond our own subjectivity. With this sole stipulation, I deny and denounce the common view of many literary theorists in specific, and Post-modern philosophy of meaning in general, along with the silly solipsism they embrace.

**Again, further consideration and development of this concept, in detail, is surely needed and is promised to follow - eventually - but, since I have begun these essays to work out these very ideas, in the necessary and appropriate detail, it will take time - and opportunity or occasion - for this promise to be fulfilled.
   Meanwhile, of course, comments and criticisms are still welcome!

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