What Makes Art?

“From the eighteenth century onward, enlightened opinion has held that art plays an important part in the life of the individual and society, some would say a decisive part.” (Lionel Trilling)

It has been said that if four artists were to sit down on a hillside and paint a landscape the result would be four entirely different paintings. The reason, of course, is that each artist interprets what she sees differently. I would argue that it is precisely the interpretation that makes art. The artist does not merely copy what she sees (as Plato would have it), she creates an entirely new work each time. It’s what makes art art and not, say, craft. The two differ in that one respect.

There are craftsmen who can reproduce what they see in exact detail. Some of their works are more accurate than a photograph. With rare exceptions, what they produce are not works of art. There may be artistic elements in the craftsman’s work — the determination of what to copy, the arrangement of the items in the work, and the like. But the work as a whole usually lacks the truly creative element and this is what is essential: art is so much more than a mere copy.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In performance, the artist creates a new work every time she performs a work. I recall in college when we were discussing Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” we listened to a performance recorded by Wanda Landowska — regarded at the time as one of the very best harpsichordist in the world. The tutor who was leading the discussion — himself a performing artist (and a Jew who had been sent to a Nazi prison camp where he had his fingers smashed so he could no longer play the piano. That’s what they did.) — continually noted that Landowska was repeating and/or playing slower than Bach had indicated in the score. The tutor did not regard this as a fault. Rather, he insisted that this was the mark of the true artist as performer: taking the work as written and interpreting it in her own individual manner. This was the creative artist performing the work of a creative genius.

Many years later I recall listening to a recording of a Bach organ piece I was familiar with played by a friend of mine in which he played the piece much, much slower than anyone else I had ever heard play the piece. He admitted it was much slower than Bach had even intended. But it was the way he thought the piece should be played. It was his interpretation: it was his work of art — courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancer interprets the music she dances to and the actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. No two dancers will dance the same dance the same way — and the same dancer will likely dance it differently each time she performs the piece. So also with the actor. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is unique. The element of interpretation is the creative element which makes each performance a work of art. The music on the sheet or the lines in the script are in themselves works or art — or they can be. But the performance is a new creation each time it is performed.

The craftsman, as mentioned, can reproduce an exact copy — at times with exceptional accuracy. Norman Rockwell regarded himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He worked from photographs and the results were remarkable in their own way. But they were not works of art — with a few rare exceptions. The element of interpretation was missing almost always as Rockwell simply chose to reproduce what he saw. And he did this with remarkable skill. His works are highly treasured as the works of a man who could present us with scenes from ordinary life that generated strong sympathetic responses. But those responses are the same that we might feel if we were to see a photograph of the same scene, or reflect back on scenes from our childhood. They are not the responses that a truly sensitive person feels when regarding a work of art; they are not aesthetic responses . The spectator, in the latter case, responds to the mysterious element of creativity, that sudden expression that suggests the artist’s interpretation of what was seen.

In art, therefore, we have three different elements: the artist herself who paints, sculpts, composes, performs, or plays; the work itself which must contain the element of creative interpretation; and the response of the spectator who also interprets. Each work is unique, as is each performance and each response. It’s no wonder, then, when no two people agree about the same work of art — because no two people see the same thing and the object itself is highly suggestive, rich with possibilities.

This does not mean we cannot discuss art, of course. There is still something “out there” that we respond to in our own way. The person who is practiced in viewing art will often be able to point out features that another might miss and there may be features of the work that have yet to be uncovered and that we can come to see or hear if we open ourselves to it and to one another. But the point is that there is something to discuss and agree or disagree about. It’s not all a matter of opinion. Not by a long shot!

And it is one hellovalot more interesting and enriching than the toys we have become fascinated with.


Why Sports?

I have a number of friends who tend to look down their noses at sports and those who “waste their time” viewing or participating in sports. What’s the point, they ask? Why so much fuss about hitting that ball back and forth over a net or rolling that tiny white ball into the small hole in the ground?  Clearly, they cannot see it. And many who do see it are unable to see much of anything else. But there are reasons, good reasons, for participating in sports and while watching athletic events in person or on television might not be the most productive way to spend time, it beats such things as drinking or smoking pot — though, perhaps, it’s not as much fun. (I wouldn’t know [wink, wink]).

In any event, I do think there is a defense that can be made for participating in sports at all levels, from the lowest to the highest.  As others have pointed out, they tend to develop “character” and that is something that seems to be on hold pretty much anywhere else. I’m not talking about Division I sports at the University level, especially football and basketball. We know that character is the least of the concerns of those involved in those activities. The scandals that break out almost daily drive home the point that those sports are corrupt at their core and leave many former athletes dazed, discarded and wasted on the sidelines, victims of alcohol or drugs, out of work, frequently penniless, and full of pain.

But at the junior levels, in the schools and even in college at the Division III level where sports are played for the fun of it — for the most part — character is developed through self-denial, discipline, and the frequent experience of failure.  In no other walk of life these days, least of all in the schools, do we allow kids to fail, ignoring the well-known fact that failure is a very valuable life-lesson. In this regard, I hasten to add, the strange new practice of awarding trophies to all young participants and refusing to keep score defeats the purpose of sports — those aspects  of sports that are worth preserving.

Sports are also one of the few remaining places where it is not only appropriate but encouraged to discuss “greatness.” Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game? How about Bill Russell? And is Rod Laver the greatest tennis player to have ever wielded a tennis racket — or is it Federer (or, perhaps, Martina Navratilova)? And so it goes. The Commissars of Culture who dominate the scholarly citadels have disallowed the notion of greatness in the arts, literature, and even behavior since it is now the case, apparently, that it is all a matter of taste. Period. There are no great writers, only those we prefer. There is no great art because it’s “all in the eye of the beholder.” We cannot talk about Great Books because there are no such things. They have been tossed into the bin waiting to be burned by professors who prefer to hold forth about postmodern theories and discuss the latest tome by a minority figure who has been wrongly ignored.

I have held forth on this topic many times because it seems to me to be so intellectually lazy and wrong-headed. There are clearly great writers, painters, and sculptors as there are great dancers and musicians. Not only can we discuss over a beer (or two) whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but also can also discuss over a glass of wine (or beer) whether Mozart was a great composer, perhaps the greatest ever, and whether or not Elizabeth Wharton was a great writer. I’m not saying that the discussion won’t get heated at times, or even that there is an answer that we would all agree upon. But the issue can be discussed, because there is greatness in our common world. It is rare, but it is there along with real beauty, ugliness, fear, spitefulness, and generosity. Indeed, our world is full of richness in all shades and colors. And we can talk about that world and come to some sort of agreement about the things that go on in it, even with those who see things entirely differently. Out at least we used to be able to do so.

In any case, the argument in favor of pursuing sports at all levels has to do not only with the fact that it does build character through self-denial and discipline, and, of course, acceptance of the lessons of failure. But it also teaches us about greatness. It opens our eyes to things going on around us and prepares the field for an intelligent discussion not only of greatness in sports but anywhere else as well. Furthermore, it helps participants to develop coordination and strength, a healthy body to accompany our healthy minds. The Greeks knew it, like they did so many other things. But many of us seem to have forgotten it, or are determined to look away and snigger at the horrible waste of time on the part of those who participate as well as those who simply watch and marvel at the beauty sports sometimes display, the sheer magic of what the human body can do, and the vicarious release of passions that might otherwise lead us in the wrong direction.

Once More With Feeling!

In an age that places a premium on feeling, that even tends to wallow in feeling and seeks everywhere the expression of “honest” feelings, it is refreshing indeed to read in a short story by Thomas Mann a passage that leads us in another direction entirely. In art, surely, the premium placed on feelings and raw emotion would seem to be entirely appropriate. Mann thinks otherwise. His hero, Tonio Kröger, is a poet and he is holding forth about the nature of art in the company of a close friend who is a painter. Both of these people should know what they are talking about and both agree that art is a matter not of feeling, per se, but of feelings under control. And it is precisely the issue of control that we seem to have lost somewhere in the discussion of the value of raw emotion as the only honest expression humans are capable of. Kröger makes his position clear:

“Nobody but a beginner imagines that he who creates must feel. Every real and genuine artist smiles at such naïve blunders as that. A melancholy enough smile, perhaps, but still a smile. For what an artist feels is never the main point; it is the raw material, in and for itself indifferent, out of which, with bland and serene mastery, he creates the work of art. If you care too much about what you have to say, if your heart os too much in it, you can be pretty sure of making a mess. You get pathetic, you wax sentimental; something dull and doddering, without roots or outlines, with no sense of humor — something tiresome and banal grows under your hand, and you get nothing out of it but apathy in your audience and disappointment and misery in yourself. For so it is. . . feeling, warm, heartfelt feeling, is always banal and futile, only the irritations and icy ecstasies of the artist’s corrupted nervous system are artistic.”

Flaubert put it simply: “Discipline makes art of impulse.” The notion that the artist simply sits down and “let’s it all hang out,” or that she creates her best work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is a fiction. The artist’s mind, her intellect, is never disengaged. Our tiresome devotion to raw emotion, the face of the crying athlete after a loss, the histrionics of the player on the football field after a routine tackle, the pumping of the fist after a three-foot putt falls in — all of these are regarded by so many of us as the only totally honest expressions that humans are capable of. And this is also a fiction. It is not emotion or feeling in and of itself that are valuable, that delight us or create works of art that can make us weep; it is what the artist does with those raw feelings, how she works them into a poem or a story or a painting, that makes us marvel and weep.

This is not to say that the artist, in particular, does not feel. On the contrary, artists are among the most sensitive of humans and we are lucky to live among them. But the good ones know that it is not enough simply to feel. It is also necessary, for their art, to take those feelings and blend them into something beautiful, something that reveals to us features of our common world we would otherwise miss. Otherwise they simply “make a mess.”

It has always struck me as a feature of our culture that we err on the side of what we call “honesty” in prizing emotion and we pay little attention to the self-discipline that is required not only in good or great art, but also in the conduct of ordinary human interaction, the formation of what was once called “character.” The Greeks prized self-control. We prize selves that are out of control. This may explain a lot — not only why so much of what passes for art is mere sentimentality, dull and doddering, as Mann would have it, but also why the quiet ones who go about their business and do the right thing by others and for their art are so often ignored or dismissed as somehow insignificant. In fact, they may be the ones we should pay closest attention to in our tizzy to hold up the model of raw emotion we see on the field or in the gallery as the highest expression of human beings.

Is That Funny?

For many years I have wondered what makes the comical funny. The best analysis I have ever read is found in the book The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler. In that book, the author suggests that the comical is essentially like the act of creation in the sciences or in art: it is a bisociation between two “matrices” that suddenly intersect in the surprising “eureka” moment. The musicologist Leonard Meyer suggested that this bisociation, this element of surprise, is what makes great music great and separates it from the ordinary. In any event, regarding the “eureka” moment, as Wikipedia tells us:

“While taking a bath, [Archimedes] noticed that the level of the water in the tub rose as he got in, and realized that this effect could be used to determine the  volume of the crown [he was asked to value]. For practical purposes water is incompressible, so the submerged crown would displace an amount of water equal to its own volume. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained. This density would be lower than that of gold if cheaper and less dense metals had been added. Archimedes then took to the streets naked, so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress, crying “Eureka!”

Got that? In any event, Koestler insists that, like discoveries in art and science, comedy involves two different matrices that surprisingly meet in the”punch line” or the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events or actions and emotion is released as laughter.  As he put it in his somewhat technical language:

“The humorist [solves] a problem by joining two incompatible matrices together in a paradoxical synthesis. . . . instead of a fusion, there is a collision; and in the mental disarray which ensues, emotion, deserted by reason, is flushed out in laughter.”

We call this “getting the joke.” Freud insisted this release of emotion was in fact a release of the sadistic impulses that society demands we repress until an “acceptable” way of releasing them is found — in comedy, for example. We also release the same impulses by witnessing  a violent act that we feel sure involves no real pain — such as a football game or a prize-fight (though the latter raises some interesting tangential questions). When we realize there is pain sympathy interrupts the flush of repressed emotion that would otherwise be released as laughter. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, between laughter and tears, though they both involve the release of some sort of emotion.

I recently came across an example of this in one of my favorite sit-coms in which the main character demands that his roommate wear a wool sweater (with no shirt underneath) until he is able to rectify a situation he brought about seven years before. He had forgotten to return a DVD to the video store and his roommate demands that until he returns the DVD he must wear the sweater. It takes many days of visible suffering on the part of the roommate before he admits that he cannot find the owner of the store that rented the DVD — or any of the man’s descendants. The main character than reveals that he knew about the failure to return the DVD seven years before and had paid for the DVD at the time. He was using the sweater as a “teaching moment” to teach his roommate how much he himself suffered when things do not go as he had planned.

Some may have found the suffering of the young man funny, but I did not. It crossed the line between humor and outright sadism, I thought, a clear example of the close proximity between humor and those sadistic impulses Freud talks about. Instead of releasing those emotions, however, it fostered them.  There was no bisociation of which Koestler speaks and no subsequent flush of  pent-up emotion. Just anger at the main character for the way he was treating his roommate and presumed best friend. To be sure, there is a subjective element in humor, and in this case I simply found it unfunny.

It seems to me that the comic genius of someone like, say, Jerry Seinfeld, arises from the fact that he sees in the ordinary certain features that when brought together in a sudden “fusion” releases emotion in the form of laughter in the majority of his audience. His genius also resides in the fact that he knows just where to draw the line so that the emotion will be somehow “appropriate” in releasing our baser impulses. The humorist must be careful not to allow his comedy to become mean or nasty. The clown knows that if he throws a pie in the face of an innocent victim we will laugh — unless we suddenly become aware that the man was actually hurt. We don’t laugh at another’s pain — unless we are outright sadists — but only if we are sure that real pain is not involved. If the chair is removed from under a person about to sit down we laugh only if we are sure the person was not hurt. This is the civilizing effect that demands that we repress the sadistic emotions and release them only if we are assured that no real pain is involved. But those impulses are there beneath the surface and if we were uncivilized we would doubtless express them by inflicting real pain on one another.

Thus when folks like me worry that we seem to be becoming increasingly uncivilized, even barbaric, that our urge to live with others (which is the heart and soul of civilization) has been lost in our determination to become isolated from one another — lost in our electronic toys perhaps — there is the real danger that we will stop laughing at the staged discomfort and pain of others and openly relish it and demand the real thing.





Freud And The Poets

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

But we might do well to pay attention to what Freud says, despite the fact that few read him any more and he has been dismissed by so many — even a great many of those who owe their profession to him. He was correct about so many things and even when he was wrong he had important things to say about the human mind and about the struggles we all have to make to maintain what we call “civilization.”

Ernst Cassirer said that poets create culture, which is the intellectual and emotional shell we surround ourselves with in order to help aid us in our struggle to maintain civilization — “the will to live in common,” as Ortega y Gasset would have it. It takes determination, according to Freud, because it requires restraint and even repression of the basic impulses to violence that dwell at the center of the human psyche. And this is an everyday struggle. Civilization, according to Freud, is the result of the sublimation of those instincts and the redirection of them outward in the form of the creations and discoveries that make our world larger and more interesting. And who better to lead us in this struggle than those creative artists, including the poets, who bring us out of ourselves and take us into a wider and deeper world, the world of imagination that enriches what we like to call the “real world”?

What is required, of course, if we are to join the poets and artists in their journey, is what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This requires what he called “poetic faith,” an effort of imagination that is becoming increasingly difficult for growing numbers of people whose sensibilities have been dulled by an entertainment industry requiring no effort of any kind, much less an effort of the human imagination. These days it’s all “out there” and we need only sit and tune in. But we miss so much and in the process we become less human in so many ways because our interactions with others require an active imagination and without interaction with others we become lost within ourselves. Some, including myself, would say this ship has already sailed.

In any event, we have become less and less interested in “the will to live in common” and increasingly, as Ortega would have it, “hermetically sealed” from the real world and unable to use our imaginations to build a bridge and walk with the poets and artists into a world which is truly rich and full of delight — all of which we miss in our preoccupation with our selves.

The place of the poet is to aid us in the effort to save culture, while at the same time we are urged to question it and wrestle with the deeper questions about the worth of our culture as we struggle to achieve true selfhood;  and in the process we strengthen and preserve civilization itself by enlarging our world and ourselves enabling us to engage something greater than ourselves. Freud warned us early in the last century that the preservation of civilization requires effort and it appears that as we increasingly ignore the help of the poets he admired so much that effort is becoming increasingly difficult for a great many people to make. It is easier to simply turn on the television or check out social media; and we are well aware that as humans we dearly love to take the path of least resistance.

“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.

Antiques Roadshow

Several years ago I posted a piece about the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” where folks bring in their treasures to find out what they are worth. I want to expand the point I was making at that time. As you assuredly know, folks dust off the antique vase that has been sitting in the attic for years collecting dust and stand in line for hours to ask an “expert” how much it’s worth. The underlying assumption here is that value is a  function of cost. We want to quantify everything and cannot accept any sort of value in our world aside from cash value.

Except, perhaps, utilitarian value: what can it do? We do readily recognize this sort of value: the vase can hold flowers. But there are other kinds of value as well, such as  sentimental value, the value of colors on a canvass, and, what interests me most, moral and aesthetic value. Why have these sorts of value gone by the board? I wonder.

In fact, I have wondered about this for years and some time ago I even wrote a book about it titled Rediscovering Values in which I defined values (aesthetic and moral values) in the following manner:

“Values are regional properties of objects or events that ‘require’ a positive response on the part of anyone who considers the object or event with discernment.”

Now this sounds a bit technical, but it is easily unpacked.  My main point is that values are putatively “there” in the world. The “requiredness” of which I speak is a notion developed by the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and it refers the quality of the smile of the baby, or the regional properties evident in the act of a starving child who takes the bread he is offered and hands it to his younger sister. I don’t speak of the feelings these things evoke in us, I speak about the act itself or the smile itself which provoke those feelings. In addition, requiredness may simply refer to the strong sense of necessity that attaches itself to the conclusion of a valid syllogism or the final line in a mathematical equation. When we see that A is greater than B and B is greater than C we are “required” to acknowledge that A must be greater than C. Our world is full of properties in the region of objects and events that make them more interesting and important to us, that “require” positive or even, at times, negative responses. These qualities are all around us if we only open our eyes and ears.

Thus I also talk about the “discernment” of the one who responds to those values and this is equally important. Discernment is a function of experience, sensitivity, and imagination. Those who have lived in the art world for much of their lives, like our friend “Zeebra” for example, tend to be much more discerning judges of works of art than the rest of us. Those who have suffered through many trials in the world, or experienced them vicariously in well-written novels, are in a better place to respond to the regional properties we call “moral values.” It is possible, of course, that there are people who are born with an innate ability to respond to certain values — a heightened development at birth of the right side of the brain, perhaps. But experience, sensitivity, and imagination play a very big role. And experience and imagination are not, by and large, valued by our culture (sorry!). We prefer to reduce all value to quantities we can measure and add or subtract with our electronic devices that tell us all we think we need to know about our world.

But, if I am right, we miss a great deal in this sort of reductionism. We miss the many features of the world that the artist sees, the many sounds the musician hears, the subtle movements the dancer sees, and even the beauty of a well-hit tennis shot or a fade-away jump shot. These things take training (experience), and sensitivity. And they take imagination and at times effort. One needs to look around and one needs to open oneself to the “regional properties” of objects or events that surround us and attend to them long enough to allow those properties to make an impression.

Instead of taking the vase out of the attic and dusting it off and then taking it to an expert to find out how much it is worth, we would be better off dusting it off and placing it near us, perhaps with freshly cut flowers, so we can appreciate its many beautiful properties and those of the flowers, both visual and olfactory. It may not be “worth” much in dollars and cents, but it may be worth a great deal as an object that can make our world richer and fuller.

In Defense of the Classics

One of the charges laid at the feet of people like myself who have read and taught the “Great Books” of Western Civilization is that they are “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” What this means, I suppose, is that they were written by and for those few “effete” intellectuals who can explore the hidden treasures that remain opaque to the rest of humankind. I have always had a problem with this charge and as one who has actually taught many of those books to so-called “marginal students” I can attest to the fact that most of the so-called “classics” can be read and understood by anyone who gives them a chance.

I recall going into a liquor store a few years ago (for a friend, of course!) and running into one of my former students who mentioned that she had thoroughly enjoyed reading Boethius in my class and thanked me for assigning it. She was talking about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I required in one of my Humanities courses. We also read a couple of Plato’s Dialogues, several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, and portions of Homer’s Iliad, among other great books. To be honest, we seldom read entire works (except the short ones like Boethius and  More’s Utopia), but it was certainly the case that those students could have read complete works had they chosen to do so. And some have gone on to do just that. My goal was to give them a taste and get their minds stirring.

Then there is the testimony of people like Irving Howe who noted that:

“There were the Labor night schools in England bringing to industrial workers elements of the English cultural past; there was the once-famous Rand School of New York City; there were the reading circles that Jewish workers, in both Eastern Europe and American cities, formed to acquaint themselves with Tolstoy, Heine, and Zola. And in Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine we have the poignant account of an underground cell in Rome during the Mussolini years that read literary works as a way of holding itself together.”

I also read about an experiment in a New York prison involving a dozen inmates who read and discussed “classics” in philosophy and political theory and were excited about the books and thoroughly involved in the discussions. The notion that these books are “elitist” is absurd. I know that and so did James Seaton whose book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism I have referred to previously. In that book Seaton lays to rest, once and for all, the myth that these books are elitist or undemocratic, though he is primarily interested in works or art and literature and the rejection of those standards that would allow us to evaluate great works. I will quote a portion of Seaton’s book at some length because he puts his case very well:

“The notion that the affirmation of standards in art and culture . . . is intrinsically undemocratic depends on the mistaken assumption that the same standards should be applied to both politics and art. The unexceptionable idea that it is possible to arrive at generally acceptable but always debatable criteria for distinguishing between better our worse works of art and literature is confused with the truly undemocratic notion that it is possible to distinguish between those who are fit to command and those who are only fit to obey on the basis of such criteria as race, sex, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinions, or indeed any criteria at all. . . .

It is true that the cultural prestige of the twentieth century avant-garde has lent itself to the notion that those comparatively few capable of appreciating avant-garde art constitute an elite, culturally, spiritually, and even morally superior to the rest of the population. Although this kind of elitism does not have the disastrous consequences associated with elitisms based on race, politics, or religion, for example, it is nevertheless based on false premises. As Henry James demonstrates in discussing Flaubert, it is quire possible to appreciate artistic achievements of modernism without condemning those, the great majority of the population, who are either less appreciative or simply uninterested. On the other hand, the notion that there are a certain number of literary or artistic works whose greatness has been firmly established over many generations is not elitist in any pejorative sense of the word. The so-called ‘canon’ [of Great Books] is established, evaluated, expanded, and re-established in a continuing process by the accumulated judgments of the ‘common reader’ . . .. Ralph Ellison’s thesis that the cultural implications of American democracy include a willingness to recognize artistic excellence wherever and whenever it appears provides a specifically American version of the traditional humanistic literary criticism that art and literature should be judged first of all by artistic standards for which criteria based on class, race, religion, or politics are irrelevant.”

Now it is true that Seaton is primarily concerned about literature and art, but his argument applies to all of those works in the “canon” that are said to be great and which have been swept aside by those who are convinced that they are the root cause of  injustice and human suffering the world over. The works of “dead, white, European, males” are rejected out of hand (by many who have never read them, I strongly suspect) on the grounds that they are elitist despite the fact that they were written or created for ordinary folks and are accessible to all if they are literate and willing to make the effort. The notion that they can be called “great” is rejected out of hand as well because the idea of “greatness” is also said to be determined by an elite group of intellectuals. As Seaton shows, this is false on its face.

The fact of the matter is that there are some works that have stood the “test of time”and remain relevant today. They aid us in understanding the human condition, ourselves and the other members of our human community, in ways that science cannot. In addition, they make it possible for us to appreciate sudden insights and beautifully written prose or poetry and to admire the art that reveals to all of us aspects of our world that would otherwise go unnoticed — especially in an age in which so many of us have our noses buried in our electronic toys.

If you are asking yourself how on earth this is relevant to your world, recall that these deniers are the ones who have brought us “alternative facts” and “political correctness,” among other modern horrors. The rejection of standards of excellence is simply one more sign that most people would prefer not to take the time or the trouble to think and would insist that “it’s all a matter of opinion.” It’s certainly the path of least resistance and we do like to take that.


I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.

Conrad’s Art

I take it as given that Joseph Conrad was a consummate artist. He worked at his craft devotedly and somewhat self-consciously. An excess of self-consciousness would have flawed the finished product which, in my view, was seldom if ever flawed. The artist must know when to “let go” and let his or her work have its head. Conrad knew. His novels are beautifully written and filled with insights into the human condition, powerful images, and flowing prose. It beggars belief that this man was writing in his third language — after his native Polish and, later, French. He was convinced that English allowed him to better express the subtleties of language and evoke the most powerful images.

Take the following brief descriptions as an example — selected almost at random from Conrad’s novel Chance:

“As often happens after a grey daybreak the sun had risen in a warm and glorious splendor above the smooth immense gleam of the enlarged estuary. Wisps of mist floated like trails of luminous dust, and in the dazzling reflections of water and vapor, the shores had the murky, semi-transparent darkness of shadows cast mysteriously from below.”

And again:

“It was in the trade winds, at night, under a velvety, bespangled sky, a great multitude of stars watching the shadows of the sea gleaming mysteriously in the wake of the ship; while the leisurely swishing of the water to leeward was like a drowsy comment on her progress.”

Or, finally:

“The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames thrown over the somber immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity.

Art requires imagination, not only on the part of the artist, but also of the spectator. Fully appreciating art requires of the spectator a suspension of the critical, discursive faculties and the willingness to embrace the work on its own terms. Conrad worked very hard to present in his novels hints and suggestions that pointed just beyond the words themselves and which demanded of his reader an effort, a willingness to engage the work fully in its own terms. Some have characterized his works as “impressionistic.” As Conrad himself tells us:

“[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts  in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. . . .

“All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret springs of emotion. . . . My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all else, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

Art cannot be translated. It must be met on its own ground. And to the extent that we are unwilling to make the effort and open ourselves to the wonders that art can make available to us our world shrinks and diminishes. When we mistake mere entertainment for true art, demand that we be allowed to remain passive while the work dulls our senses, we move farther away from that which has the capacity to open to us a world we will otherwise remain blind to throughout our lives. The artist works in three-dimensions and we ignore his or her work at the risk of reducing our world to two dimensions and missing out on what might otherwise allow us to grow and to see and feel things that we must otherwise completely miss.

This is why we read. This is why we listen carefully to music. This is why we visit galleries and concert halls and witness the elegance of human bodies in motion. Conrad knew whereof he spoke, and he spoke of writing as only one of many forms of art. As we gradually become less and less willing to make the effort his words will fall on the ears of increasing numbers of people who will simply not know whereof he speaks. Because, above all else, engaging art fully requires an effort of imagination and in our modern world imagination is held in low esteem, art is regarded as frivolous, we are reluctant to expend effort, and we settle increasingly for mere entertainment as our senses become slowly but surely dulled and our world shrinks accordingly.