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Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature



Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 2

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 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.

Oh 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?” This is the second part of the series. So you might scroll back and start the series in order. It’s up to you.

But here 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. 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 here in  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 in this series 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. I don’t know if that’s ok or not.

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 really get into the Big Question: What is Art?

Paul Varner

More Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature


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.

Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature


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


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.

What Does It Mean to Lead a Literary Life?


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.

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