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May 27, 2013

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My first university degree is in art. I was young and lacked self-confidence, so I did not speak up when I heard people saying that art should do this or that or be done this way or that way. However, in my mind, especially during art history class, I did wonder why all those creative people could be so narrowminded and presumptous. All those "shoulds"! All those rules!All of which get dated and get replaced with more "shoulds" and rules.

I do think there is good and bad in art, but the goodness or otherwise is not tied to the following of the conventions of a particular style.

Ths issue you raise is a little different. The artists (writers) aren't sayig that writig should be done this way or that; they are claimiing that the book should be appreciated a certain way.

Again the narrowmindedness from creative people!

BTW I don't like books with dislikable annoying protagonists, particularly if the author doesn't seem to realize that the protagonist is annoying. Why would I want to spend my time being annoyed with a fictional character? But that's just me. If other people want to be annoyed, well that's their business.

I'm retitling some of my favorite books:

Remembrance of Things Annoying.

Annoying House

Annoying Heights

Henderson the Annoying King

The Iliad, The Odyssey, And The Annoyance

Annoyance's Rainbow

Pride and Annoyance

Annoying Expectations

A Portrait Of The Artist As an Annoying Young Man

The Man Who Annoyed Lolita

Far From The Annoying Crowd

Jude The Annoying

One Hundred Years of Annoyance

Hamlet, the story of an Annoying young Man who couldn't make up his mind. To be or not to be, that is the most annoying question.

Annoying Meridian

Everything That Rises Must Be Annoying

Annoyance In The Ruins

Anna and Emma: Two Annoying Broads

The Annoying Comedy


I don't find annoying protagonists annoying; instead most of the time their annoying nature is pointing to something.

I do find some writing annoying. For example, I'm trying to read David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", which thus far -- 150 pages -- is infinitely annoying.

Interesting, though I'm not sure why words like 'we' and 'you' are so privileged to have a a single immutable meaning. Perhaps it is just living in a place where the language rarely includes pronouns, but it seems unavoidable to me that 'you' can mean 'me' and 'we' can mean 'you' and arguing that solely these words, out of all the words in the English language, have a meaning that is so blocked off from other meanings seems strange. You/we use words to try and put your/our images into other people's minds, and you/we use all the possible tools to do that. They aren't claiming that books should be appreciated in certain ways, they are trying to persuade whoever reads what they wrote as to the correctness of their views. I'm not precisely sure what the alternative would be.

What one would like, in a literary critic, is someone whose taste corresponds with one's own. But, since that is rarely on offer, the next best thing is a critic whose taste is the diametric opposite.

I remember years ago being delighted to discover Pauline Kael's movie reviews. Because, with incredible consistency, I couldbe confident that anything that she loved would be garbage . . . and anything that she panned would be worth seeing. To a student on a budget, knowing which films to spend money on was priceless.

lj:

I'm not precisely sure what the alternative would be

Well, what about the alternative I'm presenting in my edits? I mean, these writers are necessarily talking about any particular book, they're talking about literature *in general*. They're trying to persuade people to read many books they way they do, looking for the things they look for.

There's a difference between liking and appreciating. It seems to me that a helpful critic would explain what there is to appreciate about a painting or novel or movie. The reader might learn something from that, learn a little more about painting or writing or film-making.

But a person can appreciate without wantig to particpate themselves. I absolutely hate Bergman films, for example, since I can get angst-ridden and depressed all by myself and don't need help.

Moby Annoyed

Annoying Dick

Well, what about the alternative I'm presenting in my edits?

I feel like the alternative you are positing is the 'non-persuasive' one. (interesting how 'non-persuasive' could be read as pejorative, but in this case, I just mean, it avoids trying to persuade someone of another viewpoint)

Rather than the original versions, which try and convince people that this is view point they might wish to consider, your versions avoid any hint of the idea that 'I'd like you to agree with my viewpoint'. If you take the desire to created shared understandings out of communication, what exactly is the point of communicating? Of course, you could mandate that any time someone wants to convince a reader, they need to add semantic content that makes it clear rather than saying something like 'you never know' or 'you have to try the special here', but it seems to contradict a general tendency in human communication patters, in that I will invoke your viewpoint to try and have you consider something more the way I want you to.

I actually think it's refreshing for critics to take and hold their own point of view, rather than attempt it to impute it to a nameless, faceless...many.

As for annoying characters: try reading Memoir From Antproof Case. The motivations behind the main character's actions do finally get resolved, but it's a bit of a slog.

Along the lines of the Count:

Breakfast of Annoying
The Annoying Age
Annoyingbiscuit

Portnoy's Annoying Complaint

Atlas Annoyed, And By Now, Completely Fed Up

The Girl With The Annoying Tattoo

Kafka's "The Annoyance", in which Gregor Samsa's parents and sister grow weary of fumigating his bedroom.

The Heart of Annoyance, and one its film derivatives, "Annoyance Now"

Crime and Annoyance

Stopping By Woods On An Annoying Evening (and then leaving in a huff)

Thus Annoyed Zarathustra

Annoy Away, Jeeves

Through The Annoying Glass

Emily Dickinson's "Annoyance 1109"

Freud's "Civilization and Its Annoyances", in which the good doctor summarizes his theory of penis annoyance, later to be fleshed out by Peter and Hull in the "The Peter Annoyance". (also see Philip Roth's contribution above)

The Silver Blaze, in which Holmes introduces the case of the dog that DIDN'T bark in the night, in which the lack of an annoyance was the clue to the mystery.

I wore that pretty thin, didn't I?

Please don't be annoyed.

I won't attempt to top "Annoying Dick", but there's a few lesser titles:

Of Mice and Annoyances

Great Annoyances

Something Annoying This Way Comes

As I lay Annoying Everyone

An American Annoyance.

Aresenic and Old Annoyances


I'm going to be doing this in my head all day.

"Of Mice and Annoyances" is my favorite so far.

Let us not overlook Flannery O'Conner's "An Annoying Man Is Easy To Find"

And to turn the tables a bit, Helen Gurley Brown's "Annoyance and the Single Girl" (and it's sequel, never finished, "Sex and the Annoyed Girl, Single Or Not") comes to mind, along with Louisa May Alcott's "Annoying Annoyances", which is kind of an Annoyance-22.

Annoyance On The Bounty. The Annoyance Over the River Kwai. Annoying Private Ryan

George Lucas' "Star Annoyances"

Well, this week is shot.

Milton Friedman's "Free To Annoy" and von Hayek's "The Road to Annoyance".

Marx's "The Annoying Manifesto".

Frank Capra's classic "It's An Annoying Life"

"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and easily annoyed"

I dunno, "Something Annoying This Way Comes" has a substantial amount of win.

I Annoy the Body Electric?

Just to take things in a totally different direction. I had a sudden thought as I read the title of the post this time: Do we (should we) care about the likeability of the author when we consider a book? (Or, obviously, the artist when we consider a work of art?)

I learned not to a long time ago. I was part of a social group that included a couple of science fiction authors -- Poul Anderson and Randall Garrett. Poul was one of the nicest, most likeable, guys you could ever hope to meet, and his books were good. However Randall's writings were, in my opinion, far better -- yet in person, as a human being, he was a dead loss.

Like its cover, you can't judge a book by its author.

It's An Annoying, Annoying, Annoying, Annoying World.

wj, it's the Wagner year. My opinion of Richard's character is quite low and not just because of his anti-Jew rants. I think those had less to do with racism but envy, perceived violations of his pride etc.
The guy was a parasitic slimeball with no sense of shame.
But few would dispute his importance in the history of music.

The Annoying Man and the Sea
The Grapes of Annoyance
The Annoying Luck Club
Pride and Annoyance

That said, I think that one of the key points that Dr. Science is talking around is that "Serious Literary Fiction" is just as much a narrow, limited genre as all of the other stuff its fans dismiss as genre fiction. It has its own quite restrictive set of rules about permissible characters, topics, and settings. There's a whole great world of literature outside of SLF, but somehow its fans want to claim their own genre as the only one that counts and everything else as unserious.

Obsidian Annoyance

One more funny out of you, Counselor, and the Annoying Revenue Service will be auditing your returns.

Broadly, there're two types of authors: One writes literature, the other writes for a living.

Ah, catching up, I see this has become (amusing) annoying.

[from the Capitol Steps, in the voice of H. Ross Perot]:

I'm annoyed, and my dog's annoyed, and together we're a pair annoyed.

Oh honestly, Charles. Do you really mean that over-the-top erotic fanfic[1] is "literature"? Do you really mean that Margaret Attwood doesn't write for a living?

Try again, I know you can do better.

[1] I'm thinking specifically of the type known as crackfic, e.g. the story where the characters are Girl Scout cookies.

I think Charles' aphorism is still dominant in 'serious' literature criticism. And German critics were among the worst there. For them popular != bad. They pulled their hair out when Kipling got the Nobel price. The fact that commoners read and liked his stories was seen as an unrefutable proof that Mr.RK was a hack writer. It was not helped by the fact that the quality of the translations into German was on occasion atrocious and the critics did not bother to read the original English.

For all I care everybody should read (or watch, or listen to) whatever they like - especially since fewer and fewer young people are reading literature at all, so if they can be tempted with some cheap dope, maybe they'll graduate to heroin via cocaine later (terribly tasteless analogy, sorry).

BUT, having taken part in many a discussion about "high vs low" culture and all that in my student years I have never understood why popular culture needs such fervent defenders: IT'S ALREADY POPULAR, goddammit, billions are enjoying it and billions are made selling it.

So when some midbrow, pomo literary magazine or some geeky fanboy/girl want to sell me yet again on the latest pop culture fad, I just shrug my shoulders. When they go on the attack and try to diminish the value of what I consider "serious" highbrow culture, then I get angry.

Why?

Firstly because I love this stuff and find it highly rewarding (I also like a lot of the mid- and and some of the low-brow stuff, don't worry).

Secondly because I think it's better - there, sacrilege, I said it - in the sense of being deeper, more complex, more interesting aesthetically, more challenging etc. ...

Thirdly, it's incredibly hard to survive producing this stuff in our blessed capitalist society, so it needs all the support it can get.

Also, not many people ever come into contact with this serious stuff, most people only ever in school under duress, so it needs a lot of marketing from all corners for people to even acknowledge it.

Finally, it is the pinnacle of our culture, (which in turn is the pinnacle of humanity, at least to me) and it should be recognized as such and taken pride in rather than snootily dismissed.

Yes, I was being somewhat facetious. I remember an author describing being at a gathering of "serious" writers and being snubbed when it was discovered that he was so crass as to write for cash.

Quite a few people have expounded upon Literary Vs Commercial writing.

I think there are few things more likely to spoil enjoyment of the classics than the 'under duress' reading in school followed by forced interpretation of the same along predetermined lines.

I don't agree with novakant very often, but I'll second the comments he made here.

Again I see a parallel between this discussion and the history of the visual arts. A couple people brought up the snobbery of those who assume that if a book is popular it must be bad. Or assume that the test of quality in a book is that the serfs and peons don't want to read it.

When I was in art school the prevailing assumption was that good art was actiely disliked by all those cultural illiterates out there and, therefore, if a style or piece was popular, then it had to be bad.

Rejection by the majority signified quality.

Of course nobdy said this overtly, but it definately was part of the atmosphere. An awful lot of bad art got foisted on to galleries and museums under this belief.

But the really dumb thing about that snobbery is the rejection by artists and galleries of their audience. The same people who assumed that art had to be inaccessble to ordinary people in order to be good, whined that nobody wanted to go to galleries any more! Or fund the NEA.

Classic Annoyance!

Again I see a parallel between this discussion and the history of the visual arts. A couple people brought up the snobbery of those who assume that if a book is popular it must be bad. Or assume that the test of quality in a book is that the serfs and peons don't want to read it.

ditto for music. and for TV shows. and movies. and really, for anything where someone can claim to have a "guilty pleasure" (by which they mean "something that's so popular you'd be surprised that someone of my sophisticated taste could like it").

My Band Could Be Your Annoyance

There's also "I was into that before everyone else." (The corrollary is "It used to be good, but now it sucks.")

Born Annoying

I have a memory from high school: a student asking a teacher why we had to read "MacBeth". The teacher responded that when we grew up we would find ourselves in social situations where all the other grown ups had read it and we would feel stupid if we hadn't.

I knew at the time how offensively lame that answer was, but of course didn't say anything, being too young.

There is absolutely no reason for snobbery that holds that "popular art isn't good art." There are all kinds of ways to look at art, to enjoy it, to participate in it, to love or hate it, etc.

However, there is such a thing as art (and I include literature in that word) that is on a higher level than other art. There is some art that stands up to time. No one can tell me that The Brothers Karamazov and The Da Vinci Code stand on equal literary footing.

I'm not saying that anyone has to read or enjoy the former, or that the latter isn't a fun read. Also, I don't think that art, or appreciation of art, necessarily improves someone as a person. (The Wagner example comes to mind.)

I do think that some art more than some other art can lead a person closer to enlightenment. That's just a belief, and maybe it's wrong, but that's been my experience with art, particularly challenging art that I've spent any time with.

One more observation: as much as I think the classics (famous art by dead people) are worth experiencing, I also think it's important for me to try to live in my own time, and to appreciate some of what contemporary culture offers. Sometimes it's too soon to assume that what's happening now is or isn't for all time, but it's fun to try to weigh in.

Terry Pratchett gets 'accused of literature' not merely occasionally anymore ;-)

Just my personal opinion: people would be a bit more appreciative of 'the arts' when they were encouraged more to dabble in them themselves (but not under duress). Write your own sonnet, compose your own fugue or minuet or try your hand at Celtic ornaments. I find those examples to be especially useful because they allow to get to something relatively quickly. They have a comparatively rigid structure that can serve as a support more than being a hindrance. I find 'free' forms much more difficult and thus frustrating.

No one can tell me that The Brothers Karamazov and The Da Vinci Code stand on equal literary footing

The Brothers Karamazov and The Da Vinci Code stand on equal literary footing.

You didn't say I had to keep a straight face, not that I am not.

Laura wrote:

"The teacher responded that when we grew up we would find ourselves in a social situation where ..."

I thought that sentence was going to end somewhere along these lines:

"... where you meet a powerful, influential married couple who believe the ends justify the means and that the end of you is one of their means and you might also be surprised to learn that the female half of the couple, while not leaving her fingerprints on the planned deed, is the most willfully ruthless of the two."

That teacher either WAS lame or decided after being asked the question -- why read MacBeth --- one year after the other to forgo the student eye-rolling and barely stifled yawns at a more substantive answer (maybe, "because reading and watching Shakespeare is the surest way to observe and learn the universal verities of what it is to be human, and without political and religious dogmatism interfering to boot.") and go for the weakest link.

That's what Harold Bloom and others have said, and I buy it, regardless of the fact that mentioning Harold Bloom will bring Gary Farber (one can hope) swooping into the thread to tear me a new canon like Pallas Athene diving from Olympus and having a word in Achilles ear.

Another good answer the teacher might have given, if the question was asked today, was "because you might be in a social situation where you are watching the Netflix-produced "House of Cards" (the British original was much better .. so there) with a bunch of friends and you might have a leg up on the ensuing discussion, since really "House of Cards" is just fanfic (if I understand what fanfic is) that uses "Macbeth" as its source material.

Or better, a person could play a word game like Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, and Martin Amis used to play over way too much alcohol which had as its starting point pretending that Shakespeare (he of the highbrow) had named his plays after the manner of the titles of Robert Ludlum's (low to middling brow, but mostly low) Bourne series of novels.

Rushdie, for one, came up with the "The Dunsany Reforestation" for "Macbeth" and "The Elsinore Vacillation" for "Hamlet".

The rest of this is random, and probably annoying observations.

I think "The Lord of the Rings" is better, higher art than "Harry Potter".

I think Daffy Duck in the "the Scarlet Pumpernickel" -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_te1wrVxEm4 -- is better than anything Scooby-Doo ever rolfed out.

But not better than "The Scarlet Pimpernel", which itself ain't up to the highest forms of literature, he sniffed.

Then again, who am I to say, he said, thinking to himself who am I to ask who am I because the hell if I know, though probably Shakespeare did, or would if he could, which he can't, so we're stuck with Nathaniel West, Alice Munro, and Saul Bellow, which is a good place to be.

If I had attended the the debut of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" more than a century ago, would I have given up the permanent wave for the new wave or would I have removed my pince-nez with one pinky-raised hand and flown a pointy paper airplane fashioned from the program notes into the back of Stravinsky's head.

If I had attended the Armory show of 1913 introducing the Impressionist painters would I have popped a monocle and gasped in outrage or would I have made my way to Claude Monet's studio like a besotted Jim Morrison fan.

I dunno.

sapient wrote above of the enlightening powers of great art, which I sometimes buy into, but then I read a great book like Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory" and I'm enlightened to believe the opposite.

Not only is Fussell's history of World War I the best I've come across but it's real theme is how the participants (and the folks on the home front in their blood lust enthusiasm) in the mutual slaughter were the product of the highest pinnacle of civilization and the most sublime culture of high art and literature and how the experience and later the memory of this pointless slaughter (20,000 dead in one day of fighting) was colored by great classics that nearly all had on the tip of their tongues for lengthy quoting on demand, most of the quotes cut short in the middle of the sentence by a sniper shot to the throat for extravagant bleeding and throat gurgling in no-man's land for a couple of agonizing days.

Then, of course, in World War II you had German officers listening to Schubert lieder and using their finger as a bookmark in the volume of Goethe when they were so rudely interrupted by an underling who wanted to know if the orders were to burn yesterday's Jews or should we wait for today's train so we don't waste precious kindling, meine Kind.

The Armory Show 0f 1913.

My monocle would have popped at Duchamps's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and the Matisse, not the Impressionists, because I might have ruined an earlier monocle on them years before.

I'm what ya call a low-brow snob.

They say the Beatles never left a dry seat in the house, but they said that about Elvis too, and Sinatra, and Rudy Vallee, and before him Mahler and Liszt, and in Mahler's case, so it goes, it was HIS seat.

There no accounting for what leaves the seats wet, thinks Justin Bieber's publicist to himself.

On the matter of the effect of Liszt on the audience I recommend that excellent biopic 'Lisztomania' (Dir. Ken Russell) ;-)

There is absolutely no reason for snobbery that holds that "popular art isn't good art." - sapient

Of course there's a reason. It is simply this: the elite have good taste, in art as in all else. Whereas the hoi polloi, pretty much by definition, do not. (That is, after all, part of why they are not part of the elite.) So if something has mass appeal, it must be appealing to bad taste, and hence is not good art.

Q.E.D. -- at least if you fancy yourself one of the elite.

@wj: So if something has mass appeal, it must be appealing to bad taste, and hence is not good art.

I think there's a bit more to it than that. As a fan of contemporary visual art, I can say that appreciating it on the level of a serious snob requires dedication and training. The art may (or may not) have a superficial appeal, but it also has a deeper meaning that comes from alusions to previous artworks, disagreements about the proper form of art, etc. If you want to talk about it on the level of an art snob, you have to put a lot of time and effort into it. Being able to do so is a form of social signaling that you have the leisure time to devote to a pursuit with no obvious constructive value.

Not, mind you, that this kind of thing is exclusively restricted to the upper reaches of society. People form lots of little cliques based on following the right kind of leisure activity. You can prove your devotion to your social group by demonstrating intimate knowledge of that group's favored music, TV shows, sports teams and events, etc. It's a way of creating and enforcing entirely arbitrary social distinctions.

wj wrote:

"Of course there's a reason. It is simply this: the elite have good taste, in art as in all else. Whereas the hoi polloi, pretty much by definition, do not. (That is, after all, part of why they are not part of the elite.) So if something has mass appeal, it must be appealing to bad taste, and hence is not good art."

Yet, appealing to the hoi polloi is where the money is.

How many fine poets, ostensibly part of the academic elite because they need a day job, make a lick from their collections?

But I think Gary Busey has a volume of doggerel coming out soon and I'm pre-ordering and looking forward to his appearance on Regis.

And, I hear Michelle Bachmann has a book of aphorisms on the way from Regnery Press which AnnoyingState rube Annoyic Annoyicson is buying in bulk (to store in his wife's shotgun cellar) to keep the sales of bullsh*t artificially high on the New York Times bestseller list so that crap looks like a slap in elitism's face.

This, meaning the general use of the word "elite" in this culture, is starting to sound a little Limbaugh/Kardashian/Michelle Bachmann/Ted Nugent/Sarah Palinish to me, in which the tacky velvet painting lovers whine about being victimized by the "elites" because the latter put down the formers' essential tackiness, and the whining itself is so remunerative as a result of the fleecing of the willing and oppressed tacky masses that tacky, for want of a better word, becomes a political power center and an elite, ruthless one at that, that ends up finally canning the "Elite" word and coming out with what they really meant all along: "Jew", not to be confused with Israeli, which God will take care of in short order, Love, Jesus.

As Basil Fawlty declared, "This is exactly how Nazi Germany got started."

I'll let yous guys parse out the relative low and high brow essentials of the character Basil Fawlty and his creator. ;)

Monty Python were revolutionary high-brows, low-browing the high brows in stunningly high brow fashion.

And annudda question: Was the "Piss Christ"
low brow or high brow, (maybe it was crotch-level brow) and was the artist one of the elite or was he taking on the elite, who in this American day and age, are the hoi polloi?

Roger Moore, I agree with what you said about what it takes to be a serious art snob, or a snob in whatever social clique you happen to be involved in.

But what you said doesn't necessarily translate in what serious art is. I hold with my own opinion that "good art" creates enlightenment, in that (as the Count said) it reveals what it is to be human (maybe in a way that's not so good, and maybe in a way that leads us to more bad).

In any case, it changes (enriches) our perspective in a way that entertainment does not.

Obviously, all experiences change our perspective to some degree, which is one reason we are different people when we're old than when we were young. But art gives us the opportunity to find meaning in whatever we delight in, and whatever we suffer.

Funny, Count, that you should mention Piss Christ. Was the piss surrounding Christ from Christ's perspective? Does the piss mean that the artist pissed on Christ, or that Christ has been pissed on? What's the meaning of piss, "a sterile byproduct of the body secreted by the kidneys"? Is it really that bad?

Art asks lots of questions.

"good art" creates enlightenment,

What is Buddha? Three pounds of flax.

I stand by Joyce using Dedalus to quote Aquinas:The beautiful is that of which the apprehension is pleasing. (Hey the original is Latin) "Apprehension" which involves reaching out to the object, being the important word.

Is serious art that which is approached with seriousness, and entertaining art approached casually and carelessly? Dare we not laugh at aught?

How are a flower and Rheims Cathedral both beautiful? Does the privileging or placing in qualitatively different from nature aesthetic categories of artifacts, created beauty, separate us from nature? Umm, nope, it doesn't, as much as we would like it to.
Did Kant say that beauty was the recognition of the teleological in the particular? Probably not.

Said as someone who last night watched four hours of a modern fracturing of Racine's Andromaque intercut with the dissolution of a marriage...in French. Followed by an episode of Inu X Boku SS.

Buddha nature isn't in everything, it is everything. Even Dan Brown.

And, back to Doctor Science's post:

"One thing being part of the fanfic community has soaked into my bones is that there is no single, universal response to any story."

Sure. There's no single, universal response to anything. As anyone who visits this blog knows, there's no single, universal response to certain crimes. There's no single universal response to military actions. There's no single universal response to anything.

But it's a fair question as to whether a particular response is legitimate, is thoughtful, is informed, is truthful, etc.

My response to Mad Men is that it's fascinating from many perspectives:

1) Does the program faithfully represnet the era, or does it contain anachronisms?

2) Is Character X someone I can believe is real?

3) Is Character X someone who would have lived in the 1960's?

4) Does the program cast some light on what happened in the decade it portrays?

5) Do I emerge with a greater understanding of what life is like now based on what happened then?

I'm sure that there are more questions to ask. In addition, great art should be somewhat (IMO) engaging, if not entertaining. It should invite people in. Sometimes the entertainment value overwhelms the meaning. Sometimes the meaning is inaccessible for lack of entertainment value.

good art, like every other kind of good work, engages its material on its own terms. it's a process of exploration and discovery.

you're successful if you manage to wrestle some of what you find into an artifact that makes its character, qualities, and meaning perceptible to others.

i.e., can you bring it back alive.

it's really hard f***ing work.

to me, one simple (possibly simplistic) razor for weeding out the good from the bad in the realm of artistic work is whether what folks can take away from your work is something they already knew, or not.

it can be really fun, and entertaining, and useful, and even valuable, for a community of people to tell themselves the same shared story, over and over. in whatever form or medium. more than that, actually, it can be a profound and bonding shared human experience.

but the work of doing art - poein, techne, trouvere - is something else. it's the work of uncovering what the material has to say.

Buddha nature isn't in everything, it is everything. Even Dan Brown.

Agreed, and I'm not against Dan Brown. There's more of Buddha where there is more, and there's more in Dostoyevsky's work than in Brown's.

Or maybe there's more of Buddha where there's less - I'm not a Buddhist, but I believe that deeper engagement means deeper experience.

one simple (possibly simplistic) razor for weeding out the good from the bad in the realm of artistic work is whether what folks can take away from your work is something they already knew, or not.


Good art for me is what makes my experience seem like art, or makes the art seem like my experience (in a "yes, that's where I've been") kind of way. So, yes, some art allows people to recognize their own experience and put it in a larger context.

But some art asks you to go where you haven't gone. "You must change your life."

But some art asks you to go where you haven't gone.

I.e., whether what you take away is something you already knew, or not.

I'll also put in a brief, limited, but sincere good word for the much-maligned critics of the world.

The role of the critic is two-fold:

1. help folks see what's in the work
2. build an audience, not least so that folks who do the work can eat

like everything else, there are folks who are good at it and folks who aren't.

I think that it is too difficult to define good in art because the there are as many ways for art to be good as there are people to articlulate their concept of goodness.

It's easier to define bad in art: false (as in doesn't ring true or inconsistant in ways tht undermine the development of the piece), full of mistakes, incomplete, too overtly derived from someone else's work, cliche'd, stereotyped, clumsily propagandistic in an overdone way ( I don't think there's anything wrong with having an obvious message, but there should be something to the work besides the message--otherwise it's just advertising).

You all can probably think of additions to the list.

Of course all art does not fall into a nice neat good or bad dichotomy.

@sapient: I hold with my own opinion that "good art" creates enlightenment,

Sure but creating enlightenment isn't somehow a natural property of the artwork. Whether or not people are enlightened by an artwork depends on how they understand it, which again depends on their familiarity with the medium and the subject matter. To take an extreme example, Dutch still life painting involved a whole elaborate code of allegorical meanings to different elements. Somebody who is in the know can see an elaborate statement about life and morality, while somebody who isn't just sees a bowl of fruit. By your definition, whether it's "good art" depends on the viewer.

This underlines a vital point: art is a medium of communication. Like any communication, it is successful if the intended audience gets the intended message. Generally, "serious" or "elitist" art is only trying to communicate with a small audience of self-identified elites and either ignores or deliberately tries to baffle everyone else, while popular art tries to reach as broad an audience as possible, even if that means restricting itself to a simpler or less subtle message. If I were trying to define a difference between ordinary and great art, it would be that with ordinary art, the audience only gets the message the artist intends to send. With great art, people are able to find valid meaning that the artist didn't intentionally include, and the more meaning people can draw from it the greater the art.

Roger:

Sure but creating enlightenment isn't somehow a natural property of the artwork. Whether or not people are enlightened by an artwork depends on how they understand it, which again depends on their familiarity with the medium and the subject matter.

If I were trying to define a difference between ordinary and great art, it would be that with ordinary art, the audience only gets the message the artist intends to send. With great art, people are able to find valid meaning that the artist didn't intentionally include, and the more meaning people can draw from it the greater the art.

Aren't you saying that a "natural property" of "great art" is that people are able to find meaning in it, whether or not the artist intended it? And doesn't that depend on the art, not the people?

I mean, I make stuff, and my friends think the stuff I make is cool. But it's never going to be put in an art gallery, because as much as I might be happy to make it, and my friends (being happy that I'm happy) happy to see it, who else cares? It's not art. It's fun stuff to make. Whereas some people make stuff that makes people want to go live in a different country, or fight against poverty, or get a divorce, or come out as gay, or write a poem. Or maybe just learn more about art. That "stuff" is different.

russell, I didn't see your comment - thanks.

I agree with you about a critic's role, to help people see what's in a work, and to build an audience (promote) work.

But there's also another role for a critic (and one that artists don't like). That's to say how an artist could be better.

Let's take the poetry critic, William Logan. He is probably hated by almost all poets as being unnecessarily brutal. Some of the poets he reviews are universally beloved, but he cherry-picks their weaknesses.

Still, most of what he says is true (even if not totally representative of the particular poet), and he casts some light on how to evaluate contemporary poetry.

Not everyone who writes a stanza is a "poet".

Not everyone who "makes stuff" is a sculptor or an "artist".

One thing about art: it's worthy of discussion, and (yes) argument.

The purpose of art has changed over time and with that change has come different ways of distinguishing bad from ordinary from great. The distinctions fluctuate because they are constructs of people in response to the roles artists and arts are playing in a given culture at a given time. And, to further confuse things, within a given culture at a given time, people will vary on how they make the distinctions.

This is why I don't take any of the distinctions very seriously. i do think that art can be lousy, ordinary, wondrous. i just don't think it is possible to define the difference very satisfactorily.


BTW the idea of the great artist as alienated and misunderstood, appreciated only by those in the know, is a new idea. I skipped around a lot and went to four universities before graduating with my art degree. Since each university refused to accpet each other's art history credits (even though they all used the same text) I took the same art history class three times.
So I got well grounded in art history.
At one point I could name all of the major cathedrals in France, England and Italy.
The stereotype of the starving artist, the symbiosis between elites who want to be seen as "in the know" and artists who feel the need to be avante garde, the idea of art as something the ordinary person is too dull to appreciate: this is all relatively new.
Art history is the history of people saying "Art should do this and be like this" replaced years later by people saying, "Art should do that and be done that way."

But there's also another role for a critic (and one that artists don't like). That's to say how an artist could be better.

Good point and well said.

Thanks for the link to Logan, I will check him out!

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