Saturday, April 5, 2014

Aesthetic Merit

One of the spheres of conflict that I run into on the Internet from time to time is the relative merit of an artist, usually in literature, and occasionally in painting. This occurred recently in a post on willful ignorance, in which the example was given of an actor who thought very little of Shakespeare and was dismissive of him as a playwright. The author of the article claimed that it was obvious that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in English, and that the actor was intentionally and defiantly ignorant on the subject. Some of the commenters, myself included, argued that, while Shakespeare is clearly one of the most important writers in English, and certainly he was highly skilled in what he wrote, one can dislike his work and make a case that other authors are better writers in some respect. I mentioned Flaubert, who, I believe, wrote a more skillful depiction of a person, Emma Bovary, than any characters that I know of in Shakespeare. In fact, some of Shakespeare's comedies are so ridiculous that I'd rather watch cartoons. This is not to say that Shakespeare wasn't a great writer. Rather, he must be looked at within the context of his time and place, and the media with which he had to work. There is nothing wrong with disliking Shakespeare as long as one can make a plausible case, which in fact isn't all that difficult.

Over the years, I've had arguments about Henry James, Proust and Lorrie Moore, in which their defenders behave as if it is received wisdom that their pet author is God incarnate. To be sure, there is something good to be found in each of these authors, but one must look further than conventional wisdom if one advocates their deification. It seems as if fanhood makes people blind to the limitations of their gods, which represent, to them, a belief system that reflects their own self-worth. So, if you make a case that Henry James was a long-winded buffoon who couldn't observe his way out of a paper bag, that Proust should have gone back to school and taken a course in concision, or that Lorrie Moore needs to be kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location where she will be deprogrammed from her delusional fixation on failed relationships and the unhappiness of life, they are far more likely to demonize you than to give the matter any serious thought.

Perhaps it is easier for me than others to find fault with icons, because I myself have never been indoctrinated by academic instruction in the arts. Moreover, there has been nothing in my experience to prevent me from thinking that the U.S. throughout most of its existence has been a cultural backwater compared to Europe, and that it is still catching up. I have questioned much of the wisdom that is fed to American students all the way through college. From a sociological standpoint, it is easy to see how conformity is molding people's thoughts.

For these reasons among others, I have become disappointed with contemporary American literature and its criticism. Literary fiction seems to be published only within the parameters set by universities and publishers. More disturbingly, the parameters for its criticism are controlled by the same universities and publishers, creating a closed loop that excludes free speech. The literary community resembles an oligopoly that is only tangentially related to art, and in which everyone is on the payroll except the consumer.

Ultimately, aesthetic merit depends on irreducible subjective judgments, but that doesn't mean that discussion is unnecessary. I get the sense that the educational and corporate systems in the U.S. have improperly relegated the arts to a private positive experience that lies beyond the purview of critical scrutiny. However, when open criticism is excluded, you are left with a system that can only be called thought control.

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