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.
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.)