on the importance of being a snob

In response to Jenna St. Hilaire, ‘The Effects of Taste on Objective Criticism’ and Masha, ‘The Effects of Objective Criticism on Taste.’

Ladies and Gentleman, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for: the blogaletic is back.

This time, my sparring partner Jenna and I welcome a third to what is now the melee, Cynageria Masha, who is equally articulate in all things literary. Jenna launches her attack on Mondays, Masha parries and counter-attacks on Wednesdays, and I shall be the sinister figure in black sinisterly emerging from the shadows on Fridays.

This time, our subject is the nature of art and whether or not criticism can be objective. Jenna has this to say:

I believe that objective criticism is loosely possible—but loosely, and on the plainest levels. If Austen can be called out for lack of wit, we can suspect our taste of affecting even the simplest and most obvious critique. I’d say it’s important to understand that for humility if nothing else. No matter how educated, no matter how well-read, any of us can put forward wrong criticism.

Of course, the very idea that we can be wrong implies that there is right and wrong in the art of critique.

Masha replies:

Literature, by which I mean writing as an Art, must be objectively beautiful. To be beautiful, it must contain both Truth and Goodness. The standards for beauty, despite common misconceptions, are objective, and the study of beauty – Aesthetics – is something that can be undertaken by anyone, and is necessary for any serious writer to have at least a working knowledge of. In Literary criticism, an objective understanding of beauty is often what stands in the way of a purely subjective response to the work.

Aesthetic standards tell us what to look for in any work of art, whether written, sculpted, painted, or lived.

Good thoughts, all. Each slightly at odds with other. So, since you’ve all been waiting I’m sure, here’s what I think:

They’re both sort of right.

I believe in objective criticism and relative beauty. By which I mean: beauty is culturally relative, and varies within each tradition of art, often quite widely. But within that culture or tradition, it can be objectively evaluated.

Consider, for instance, the rough and nasal vocals of folk singing—completely unsuited to the open and resonant style of the opera house. Yet within each stream of art, we can point to various practitioners and say, this person or that person is objectively superior in their expression of the art and the mastery of the craft.*

Now, for the sake of our collective sanity, we’re restricting ourselves primarily to the Western Literary tradition, particularly the English language. This includes (at random) Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Fielding, Eliot, Dickens, Wilde, Swinburne, the other Eliot, Chesterton, Hemingway, Paton, Mandela, Rowling, Pullman, and Mrs. Oliphant. And many more. I am fusty enough to believe in a ‘canon’ to which people must be admitted only grudgingly. I am edgy enough to want to call it a repertoire, instead of a canon.

So, when Jenna says that objectivity should only be ‘on the plainest levels,’ I balk. What level? What’s plain? A coherent paragraph? A well-turned phrase? Then how do we distinguish between, say, a beautiful poem and a Pulitzer winning article? The demands of the two forms are wildly different. If we begin to complicate it, though, where do we stop? It would seem there is an objective standard whereby we can say that the sonnets of Wordsworth are inferior to those of Shakespeare—despite the subtle differences of their form. But this doesn’t seem to me to be ‘at the plainest level.’

I suspect, though I cannot prove, that the higher level of art the writer tries to attain, the more complex and structured the objective baseline for criticism should be. If someone wants to, say, write like Hemingway, they will immediately face the singular and unfortunate difficulty of not being Hemingway. In that case it is doubtful that they will be able to write as well as him. If, however, their name is Albert Camus, they may well draw inspiration from his style to feed into their own voice and create something quite different—one might argue better, though that treads on the tricky room of taste. But both Hemingway and Camus are, for various reasons, afforded unquestioned places in the repertoire, or canon.

But when Masha says that ‘aesthetic standards tell us what to look for in any work of art,’ I have to ask, whose standards? I think that perhaps a more nuanced way of looking at this is to suggest that aesthetic standards give us a place to begin an understanding of a work of art. All the knowledge of aesthetic standards in the world did not prepare the world of art criticism for that ‘impossible Spaniard,’ Picasso—who tore the standards down and made up his own. But it took a Picasso to do that. On might prefer—as I do—Van Gogh or Leonardo to Picasso, but that cannot diminish the depth of what Picasso achieved. Although I could have inserted Burns, Chesterton, and Twain in there. But that would be more difficult and, I suspect, more controversial.

Because the idea behind a standard of art is the idea of discernable beauty and effective expression. But it is the unfortunate bane of literature that we have been bound by a discipline with a sensitivity to Zeitgeist and market demand (or not). We are hampered further still by the concept that anyone who can read, can criticize, and that anyone who can write, can write well.

This is not true.

Intelligent criticism is based off a long study and mastery of the art under criticism. And criticism itself is arguably an art. Thus, command of craft, experience in the discipline, and the freak of innate gifting all play a role—as with any other art. Which just makes things complicated for everybody.

The point, ultimately, is this: if beauty does not exist and cannot be objectively ascertained—if anybody can say whatever they want about art and it’s all equally valid—if competence of an art and a distinction between one’s taste and aesthetic judgement have no meaning—

…then really, what’s the good of anything?



*To define terms: by craft I mean the rules and technique of an artistic discipline; by art I mean the mastery of craft to the successful expression of emotion or thought inexpressible any other way. (That’s what I mean for the present, at any rate.)


5 thoughts on “on the importance of being a snob

  1. Obviously folks will continue going round and round on this question until the sun burns out and the earth becomes a cold, lifeless ball. Nonetheless I think you’re on to something when you say, “beauty is culturally relative, and varies within each tradition of art, often quite widely. But within that culture or tradition, it can be objectively evaluated.” Trying to determine who’s the best among J. S. Bach, Duke Ellington, and Fleetwood Mac is a meaningless exercise, but within each genre there’s a meaningfully defined canon that constitutes “the greats”.

    By the way, I’m immensely pleased to see someone else who named their blog after a Chesterton work.

  2. Actually, I don’t like the way I worded that part about objectivity on the plainest levels. It wants desperately for definition. I was beyond overtired on Monday as I wrote that up. 🙂

    I agree with just about everything you say here, which ought to make writing the coming Monday’s post interesting. But I’ll manage.

  3. So, yes..I took long enough responding. I thought about just using my next post to respond, but then Failed, due to an over-enthusiastic response to Jenna’s Monday post. But, now that I have a Real keyboard, with all the keys in good working order, I can type a whole-lot faster. 🙂

    Unfortunately for agreement’s sake, I disagree with nearly everything here – but I’m hoping its a matter of, as Jenna says “talking past on another” 🙂 The Definition I’m working from with regard to Beauty forbids it being a “culturally relative” understanding. Beauty, as an aspect of the Divine, along with Truth and Goodness, can no more be relative to culture than can Truth or Goodness. Obviously though, there are cultural differences in how we connect to Objective Beauty, which is why both a Picasso and a Degas can be beautiful, though both adjusted the means by which they connected to Beauty in different ways. If we can adjust our terminology a bit, I think there can be more agreement – “prettiness” or “attraction” being culturally relative, “Beauty” being universal and Objective. Von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics would be helpful in clearing all this up, expect there are a lot of volumes and they’re mostly long..I think reading a lot of Rilke helps, but I generally think reading a lot of Rilke helps with everything..What do you think, can we agree on terminology?

    …also, Pullman, really?? He loses any right to be considered literature by being blatant and bad propaganda. He wants desperately to be an Atheistic Lewis but can’t because he’s not Lewis and not clever.

  4. That last comment sounded harsher than I intended..the feelings are the same, but honestly, there is no personal derision..at least, not for you 🙂

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    alexbpop–welcome! Yes, Chesterton has brilliant titles to steal! 🙂

    Jenna–that’s about how I felt. I very much enjoyed your post the other day and will write up my reply for later in the week.

    Masha–interesting. It’s definitely almost talking past each other; I’m not strictly Platonic in my thought, so my definitions weren’t running necessarily along those lines. Your definition of Beauty seems to me to have more to do with why something beautiful will appeal as deeply as it does to the humankind, and why every culture on the world possesses a form or artistic expression. But I would contend that the reflection of Beauty–that is, what is deemed beautiful–is culturally formed and culturally relative.

    Within a given culture, of course, competing aesthetics (by which I mean manners of expressing or depicting Beauty) can be weighed against each other, and to a certain extent this fuels the interminable battle of ‘taste’ (although that’s often marked by incredible ignorance of actual aesthetics). I’m not sure all aesthetics are created equal, but I’m not sure trying to convince anyone of that is worthwhile. And it can then be difficult not to slip into condemning an aesthetic merely out of cultural ignorance, unwitting or otherwise. Especially in judging the past–which is in many was a separate culture–this can be problematic for serious criticism. We need to take all these things–these various expressions of Beauty–on their own terms.

    I have to ask, though, if Beauty is universal whether it is redundant to say it is objective? This may be to technical to the thread, but if we are all in some way part of a universal, separate from but striving towards, then something universal would seem to transcend the subject/object distinction; we become on this plane simultaneously the knower and the known.

    You are right in that we should distinguish terms; Beauty, as a universal, is not the same as beauty, a cultural artistic expression which is arguably in response to, in search of, or an engagement with Beauty. Neither ‘prettiness’ or ‘attraction’ seem sufficient, so I guess I’d resort to the clumsy little-b / big-B distinction. Although Kant’s contrast between the beautiful and the sublime may be useful, though both of those would be expressions of a search for the Universal, I suppose.

    And yes–Pullman! 😀 I believe in catholicity in criticism–anything (nearly) can and should be the precinct of the critic. And Pullman is actually a better stylist than many people give him credit for; he’s more things than His Dark Materials, and his other works are quite popular in the UK. I gained renewed respect for him when he began to campaign to save England’s libraries. I don’t share his atheism, but I do respect him as a writer and craftsman. He’s an alchemical writer, too. Just saying. 🙂

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