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Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature

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Ok, the question for me at the moment is what books am I going to put up on this gorgeous new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary last December. It’s just now getting here from the special order department. The problem is that it’s going to sit in our living room next to its nearly identical mate from a previous anniversary. That one has all my very best books, all hardback, beautiful bindings, matching sets—the works. I’ve got a few more matching sets of books—the complete works of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, that kind of thing. But I really need space for books I really use day in and day out. Our house is getting overrun with books. How do I choose? Well, I’m certainly not going to put all my 100s of cheap paperback Westerns in my new bookshelf. Ah, the pains and dilemmas of a Literary Life.

Well. I’m starting a new series on one of the Big Questions of literature—the question of What is Art? You know, we’ve all asked ourselves “I like it, but is it really art?” Last Thursday’s post started setting up the series and you might want to go back to that post. I also want to say a few more things by way of introduction to the series before we see what Leo Tolstoy said on the subject beginning next Tuesday. Let’s consider that field of philosophy called The Philosophy of Art

Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature

The philosophy of art is appropriately complex, worried over by philosophers and critics endlessly, for good reason. As rich and varied as the arts themselves are, so are the debates over the nature of art itself. University Courses, entire departments, endless books through the ages are devoted to the philosophical questions of art.

So, clearly in a blog such as The Literary Life, there is not much I can do but attempt to simplify for the moment some of the ways we approach to the really Big Questions of art, and in my case, literature.

The textbook discussions—and thus the party line—generally fall into four areas, typified by the following four questions:

  1. Questions of quality: What is good art and what is bad art? Or what makes a novel, poem, or symphony great? How do we evaluate the quality of a poem or a novel?
  2. Questions of ontology: Of origins, essence, being–such as what is an “original” work of art? And what makes something a work of art in the first place? In other words, what is art?
  3. Questions of aesthetics: What is the essence of beauty within the work and how does it manifest itself? Originally the study of sensory experience, aesthetics evaluates the experience of the studied effect the work has upon the appropriately qualified audience.
  4. Questions about Ultimate Value: Why is Great Literature important, anyway?

For a moment, then, let’s consider this last question because it is a question that goes beyond what art is but also asks what its purpose, function, and importance are in our lives. This is the contextual framework I hope to keep in mind as we consider this month what it is that makes something truly a work of art, particularly what it is that makes a work of literature a work of art.

Here’s the typical argument. Great Literature matters because it provides the perceived history and carries down the essential stories of a civilization’s culture.

Ok, but plenty of literature and art, such as poetry, most visual art, and great music, do not necessarily tell stories, develop narratives, and may not actually convey any information in the sense of story or history.

And then much literature serves simply to divert similar to the same way a decorative, pleasant painting’s main purpose may be to cover an otherwise bare wall. Or some music is simply soothing and serves mainly to make a stressful day more relaxing. I’m a fan of the Spa channel on Sirius XM.  And for the majority of people such concerns are the only ones that matter and arguments for some literature being greater than other really are not important.

But surely such uses of art seem to trivialize and demean it. Beethoven’s great symphonies, Rembrandt’s monumental paintings in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the epics of Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy—these works inspire virtually a religious fervor, and we define Western Civilization in terms of them.

With these things in mind let’s start talking about the Big Question: What is Art? And I really mean let me hear from you about what you think. 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. And 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.

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