You look at all the wonderful books of Great Literature on your bookshelves and admire your collection. You occasionally hang out at a coffee house called Monk’s or some such down the road on open mic night and listen to poetry readings. You drive over to Fort Worth, in Texas, to go to the new Impressionist exhibit at the prestigious Kimbell Art Museum. But when you get there you are torn, because just across the street is the Amon Carter Museum, equally opulent and well funded. But the Amon Carter is devoted to Western Art, or as sneering elites say, Cowboy Art. Inevitably the question arises: Can Western paintings really be art? You know the Kimbell has real art. But what about the Carter? Or, is all the slam poetry and spoken word stuff from the coffee house actually art? Why is this novel by Charles Dickens on my shelf unquestionably Great Literature but the paperback down on bottom by John Grisham maybe a bit questionable? You may like something, but, you ask yourself, is it art? (Of course, yes, I’m really talking about myself here.)
For the next few weeks I would like in The Literary Life to take up the biggest question of all about literature as art: What is Art?
That’s really the biggest question of all. Last fall The Literary Life took up the question “What is Taste?” If you didn’t read those posts back then, why don’t you scroll back through this blog, or click back on the calendar beginning October 15, 2015 and review those posts. There I took up such questions as Who Has Taste? Is Literary Taste Indisputable? And so forth.
And as I based the questions of Taste upon a classic text by David Hume—“Of the Standard of Taste”—so too I will be working out the ideas of what makes one work of literature art and another not art from Leo Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” You may find the full text of Tolstoy’s book numerous places on line. But here is one link to a site that will give you several viewing options. “What is Art” actually is a short book. But I intend to just focus on a couple of chapters (5 and 15). Here’s link for the curious: https://archive.org/stream/whatisart00tolsuoft/whatisart00tolsuoft_djvu.tx
But don’t worry. I’m not going to assume everyone will have read Tolstoy or read his piece recently anyway. We will take a gentle approach, I promise.
As always, my blog posts for these Big Question series are intended to be interactive. Please jot down your ideas and questions in the comment box. For those reading in LinkedIn and Twitter, please enter your comments in the actual blog itself for all readers to see. I if you don’t mind I would like to place any comments elsewhere in the blog comment box and discuss these ideas with other readers.
So, you like it, but you really wonder if it’s art? Let’s find out what some answers are to this very Big Question. (Spoiler Alert: the answers usually tend just to be more questions.)
Let’s keep considering the Great Writers of English Literature and seeing how they responded to their roles as part of the power structure of the ruling class of Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s how Cultural Studies work at its most basic.
Let’s accept the fact that the British Writers of, say, the nineteenth century, were a major part, a highly influential part of the power structure of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, and let’s think about what the values were of that power culture and how those values shaped the world then and how those values persist today.
Great Britain was the greatest colonial power of its day. Its empire covered the globe and its former colonies still feel its cultural dominance, right? The values of Great Britain’s power class we now know have proven terribly destructive to most of the world. And yet many of us as part of the power class of the current most powerful nations in the world may be blind to the terribly destructive cultural values of our predecessor as most powerful nation on earth.
Of course, you may say “So what,” and even among intellectuals, most simply leave such issues at that. But for those who consider Cultural Studies professionally, this question has long been settled across the board. How do you answer the question “So what?”
Let’s see your comments.
That’s it for my series on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Now, go back to your study and pick a fine volume of Great Literature from your shelves and lose yourself in their poetry, fiction, or drama.
As for me and The Literary Life blog, how about we take up perhaps the biggest question of all about literature and art: What is Art? And we will do so by examining what one of the greatest writers ever had to say: Leo Tolstoy.
Ok, it seems that nobody today wants to be considered elitist in our culture, as I have been writing about in my recent posts on Ways to Approach Great Literature. For many readers, Cultural Study is an antidote to elitism.
Here, for example, we would consider recent Great Writers of English Literature and their works in order to see how the culture of 19th and 20th century Great Britain formed those writers and works and how those writers through their works reflected their culture.
A basic assumption of Cultural Studies is that we all are products of the dominant culture. A few of us may be perceptive enough to know that and to react against it, but only of few can ever truly separate themselves from the power culture—even when we might think we have done so. Except, of course, those invisible people all around us who are rejected from the power culture.
Or, to ask a question from the last post again, Do the desperately poor from the Third World, for example, create art? Can that art ever possibly be considered great? Most readers would say no simply because the creation of art requires some measure of leisure.
So, one way to approach the Major British Writers and all the Great Writers is to notice what values they assume in their Great Literature. How do their values support the privileged class? When do they subvert the assumptions of power and privilege? What writers are mouthpieces of the power class and what writers countermand the assumptions of power?
In other words, we can see how these writers respond to their culture. Because they are distant from us much will be transparent. Perhaps, then, we can turn to our own culture and begin to see how it works as well.
This approach, however, presents as many problems, if not more, as elitist approaches. Nevertheless, cultural studies in its many guises, such as Postcolonial, Feminist, Gender, Popular Culture studies, dominate current academic debates in literature and English departments in the U.S. and especially in the U.K. Thus, what I have been talking about in this very short post is merely a blurb for the complex but favored Way to Approach Great Literature (as well as less than great literature). Preeminent among those problems of cultural studies is that literature no longer is read for its own artistic value but is seen as valuable primarily as artifacts for studying culture, then and now. In fact, most cultural critics would not separate Great Literature from other literature, the distinction between High Culture and Low Culture no longer being considered valid in any of the arts.
What do you think? Leave comments in the box below and be sure to keep reading these posts already posted on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Stay tuned for more next Thursday.
Here I am rubbing my fingers across the fine red mahogany of my new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary and looking at and smelling the fine leather bindings of my precious books written by the greatest authors of our civilization. I feel very smug right now.
What have we been talking about on this blog? Oh, yes. Different attitudes toward and approaches to Great Literature. Those of us privileged enough to lead a Literary Life are pretty special. Just think about what other people are like. Poor souls.
But wait. Do we really want to be perceived as elitists, as literary snobs? Are we really comfortable assuming we know who is great and what works matter? Just consider for a minute: who decides what constitutes the Great Literature that these Major Writers supposedly produced? Is there such a thing as Great Literature that transcends all culture, all gender or racial concerns, a literature that by independent, universal, timeless standards is merely great?
What are some implications for those of us who would answer yes to all of the above?
If you are reading The Literary Blog for the first time you must notice that I am mainly asking questions and rarely giving any kind of answers. But I guess that’s always been my approach to any issue. I’m pretty suspicious of questions that have easy answers. Obviously there are those kinds of questions in life. But the Big Questions about life, about art, about humanity, about politics generally don’t have easy answers.
So let’s talk. Post your reactions to these questions in the Comments box. Then engage with each other is robust discussion. There’s where truth lies.
Stay tuned for Thursday’s post and let’s keep asking questions.
Yes, I am going to spend the rest of my Literary Life reading only the greatest writers and only the greatest literary works. Ok, but stop and ask yourself: just who decides who the major writers of Western Civilization are and what makes them so “major?”
Does it matter that virtually all the major British, American, and Continental writers usually accepted in the Canon of Great Writers are white males from the middle to upper class in their countries? Just for the sake of this blog post today let’s just consider British writers.
Does it matter to you that nearly all the usual major British Writers were part of the privileged class, the class in power. We hear nothing about the classes out of power, the classes oppressed by these major British writers. Almost all the major British Writers were male. The values assumed in all their writings were gender specific, male values—hence, anti-female values. Does that matter? When a female writer is accepted as a Major British Writer, she tends merely to reflect male values. (After all, it was the males who allowed her to become a Major British Writer.)
Questions, questions. What do you think? Let us all know your thoughts in the comments box.
Elitism: Great Literature for the Sake of Great Literature
Why do we value Great Literature in our lives? That’s a pretty big question. Let’s look at several different ways we can allow literature a prominent place in our lives.
One way is to look at the great writers and their great works of art that they produced purely for the sake of studying and appreciating their great literature. That’s it. Why say anything more. I mean, there’s got to be much to say for this attitude. Let’s just sit back and be elitists? After all, we have proper literary taste, right?
Obviously, there can be much said for this attitude without the elitist label. After all, if great art is in fact humanity’s highest achievement (certainly a common idea), then studying the great art of particular periods, or of the past in general, is one of the highest activities we can do as educated people, right? So, we need no apology for studying great art merely for the sake of studying it. I mean, after all, most universities have entire colleges, much less departments, devoted to literature and art in general.
But, beyond that, part of what makes a highly educated person is a deep understanding and appreciation of great art and literature. Or, as I used to tell my students, nose sufficiently in the air, “So what will set you apart from the underlings you will work with in your highly paid profession will be that you have read Shelley and they haven’t.” Well, maybe another Big Question ought to be what is the place for snobbery and elitism in our literary lives? (I need to find that emoticon for “just joking.”)
Obviously, a deep study of Great Literature gives us a deep and abiding appreciation for humanity. The major writers of Western Civilization touch on the great universal concerns that we all can identify with.
But, there are problems aplenty with such an attitude and such an approach toward literature. Can you see the problems? Let’s start a discussion. Give out your ideas in the comments at the bottom of this post.
Then stay tuned for my take on problems with the elitist approach to Great Literature. Re-blog, re-text, and let others in your network know about The Literary Life. And please click the follow button.
For my anniversary present Jeanine bought me a very nice, very large bookshelf with beautiful wood and finish, exactly the kind of shelving anyone dedicated to reading the great authors would love having, I would guess. (Alas, the bookcase in the image is not mine.) I can’t wait to get some of my very best books up on the shelves and begin enjoying my simple library.
Of course, that got me to thinking. Here we are in January and the beginning of another season of reading, reading, reading, and, for me, of writing and blogging. By season I mean the academic year. I’m sure I will always run my life by it rather than the calendar year. But January means new beginnings and reexamining old thinking.
If you’ve been following The Literary Life blog, you know that for the most part I write about what I call the Big Questions of literature. Maybe someday I will get around to writing heavily again about specific authors and specific novels, plays, or poems. But when I think of actually living a life in which Great Literature matters, it seems to me that the Big Questions really matter.
After all, why do any of what we are doing? Purely for enjoyment? No I don’t think so.
Satisfaction, yes, but not enjoyment in the same sense some people enjoy watching The Bachelor on Monday nights.
So–the Big Questions. Those of you who began following my blog last fall will remember my series on literary taste where I asked the Big Questions about taste, such as What is Taste in Literature? Do you have Taste? and so forth.
Let’s look ahead to what’s coming up this winter and spring on The Literary Life blog when we will tackle such Big Questions as what are the ways we usually approach Great Literature? What is Art? Can we define greatness in literature? What is poetry and what value does it have? What is the function of criticism? And much more. In looking at these Big Questions we will work with the ideas of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin, Arnold, Mill, and Emerson.
As with the series on Taste, I really want to work these posts assuming some level of discussion and questioning. I have lots of questions. Not many answers, but plenty of ideas to think about concerning the Big Questions. I know you are all thinking people who read and absorb Great Literature not merely for the immediate thrill or good feeling, but with the same relentless questioning you apply to matters of your own profession and your other interests. So stay tuned for the next post.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote this poem at the beginning of the new century, 1900. As with most of Hardy’s works, “The Darkling Thrush” is not for the perpetual optimist.
The Darkling Thrush