One of my pet peeves — and I have many — is the rejection of the notion that art and literature can be great. The academic community, especially, has taken the lead in reducing all evaluation to feeling. But, as I have told my aesthetics students for years: art is not spinach! It cannot be reduced to a question of whether or not we like it. Instead of concentrating on the painting, let us say, its imaginative technique, its harmonies and perspective, subtle nuances of balance and imbalance, exceptional style of coloration, we look and say something like “It just doesn’t do it for me.” In a word, we stop talking about the painting and focus instead on our own personal responses. We do the same thing in ethics, of course, where we insist that good and evil are merely words we attach to our acceptance of rejection of certain types of actions — such as rape and murder. “That’s just not the way we do things here in Peoria.” How absurd.
Robert Persig wrote a cult novel years ago titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which he concluded that no one can define “value,” but everyone knows it when he sees it. The same holds true of great art and literature, it seems to me (though experience helps). It also holds true in such mundane things as sports where we all recognize the greatness of a basketball player such as Steph Curry or a tennis player such as Roger Federer. Greatness, like value, cannot be defined, but it is putatively THERE in the world. It cannot be reduced to feelings — though feelings are certainly part of the equation.
There are great writers and great painters, just as there are great composers, dancers, actors, and, yes, basketball players. They stand out from the rest and they invite us to revisit their performances or their works. A great novel — such as Middlemarch by George Eliot — invites repeated readings. It has well defined and interesting characters who remind us of people we know, even ourselves, and thus gives us insight into our our minds and hearts, and of those around us. It is beautifully written, with elegant dialogue and suggestions of irony and humor. And the plot draws us in and takes us on a trip we are sad to see end. A great painting invites us to look at our world again and try to see what the artist saw, adding depth and dimension to the ordinary world. In fact, this is the great crime, if you will, of the reduction of all artistic response to personal reaction: it closes us off to the world around us.
I regard this as part of what I have called in print our “inverted consciousness,” our collective determination to turn away from the world and focus attention on ourselves. It reaches its pinnacle with the aspergers patient who is unaware of the effect he is having on others. But we all seem to be subject to it in differing degrees. However we label it, the phenomenon translates to a shrunken world, lacking in color, sound, and dimension.
I have always thought that this is the real value of great works of art and literature. They open to us a world we would otherwise ignore in our fascination with things personal. Doubtless we should have strong feelings in the presence of great works, but those feelings should not be allowed to close us off to what is going on in the work itself. And it is what is going on in the works that discloses to us added dimensions of our world, makes of it a three or even a four-dimensional world instead of a flat sheet. We need to look, hear, and see the world around us. And this is what great works or art invite us to do.