words, words—what?

A blogalectic with Jenna St Hilaire and Masha

George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton famously confronted each other in a singular debate. Their subject was the reasonable question ‘Do We Agree?’ Shaw argued yes; Chesterton argued no. The particulars on which they may or may not have agreed (broadly, social structure and the distribution of wealth) is beyond the limits of the present blogalectic. But as I’ve read and engaged in the comments this week, I find myself return to Shaw’s eloquent and poised repartee:

I cannot say that Mr Chesterton has succeeded
in forcing a difference of opinion on me.

We appear this week to have unearthed a difference of opinion between my two lovely compatriots in this blogalectic. The question at hand is whether there is a threshold below which Art does not cross; is there, in other words, an objective breaking point between novel and dreadful, emotion and sentiment, edginess and smut, poetry and verse? Jenna answers thus:

Because I believe that the objective baseline for art is communication. Wherever we communicate, the creative principle is there. God may not be, of course. But our inherited ability to put available words to the expression of our ideas is present in everything from the illiterate troll comments on YouTube to Shakespeare, just as the refrigerator-framed drawings by a child come from the same source that gave us Raphael.

Are those troll comments and mighty works of crayon, then, art? Yes, in the most basic sense. Are they good art? Do I even have to ask? There is great art, and there is good art, and there is weak or flawed art, and there is plain old bad art, and I think we can agree to some extent on those definitions. But I don’t draw a line on my bookshelf between Jane Austen and John Grisham and say of the latter, with a shake of my head, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Masha responds swiftly and strongly:

Can there be a created thing that fails to be art? Can there be a thing that has so completely lost it’s beauty, it’s truth, it’s goodness that it is in no way Art, that it crumbles and will not endure? As I understand her, Jenna is saying that there is no such thing – all our communications, banal to beautiful, blessings to curses – all are art.  I can’t agree.

I’d like to be mistaken, I’d like her to mean that all of life has the potential to call forth Art, that for the artist, the smallest thing has riches that can brought to light. I would agree. It is the way in which we fling ourselves into experience, into the light and darkness of life that makes the experience artistic, the ability to “say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing” that turns the Thing to art: absorbing, nourishing, growing, and then making the experience anew – so that it touches beauty and endures- which makes Art.

The debate explores more detail in the comments and Jenna’s blog, and they both agree they have a disagreement.

But I disagree. Ladies and Gentleman, I cannot say that either of them have succeeded in forcing a difference of opinion on me.

In asking the question of whether or not there is an objective baseline where drek leaves off and Art begins, we are assuming a question hitherto unasked in this discussion: What is Art?

Now, I’m not going to answer that. And there will be a rather absurd level of reduction in the following discussion. I merely point out that it’s a rather important definition to have to hand when one is talking about where Art begins or doesn’t. So to summarise briefly, it would seem that Jenna would say that Art is Communication, and Masha would say that Art is the expression of Beauty.

But it’s more complicated than that. Jenna says:

There is great art, and there is good art, and there is weak or flawed art, and there is plain old bad art, and I think we can agree to some extent on those definitions.

This presents a continuum, and the question of threshold still hold to the point. We are no longer asking where Art begins or does not, but where, say Good Art begins, as opposed to Weak Art. Poetry, perhaps, as opposed to Verse?

So Masha says:

We are not intimate enough, with ourselves and with our world to call forth it’s beauty. When we are able to take an experience and make it intense, alive, and enduring, then we make art; but not all of our words are living, and none are the Word: none are Beauty incarnate, we have no certainty that what we produce is Art.

If I can be so bold, the ‘Art’ that Masha seeks to produce seem to correspond with Jenna’s conception of ‘Good Art’: the sympathetic communication of the intimate and the universal through beauty. But, Masha says, ‘we have no certainty that what we produce is Art’, because ‘our communication’s fail, we fail.’ We may have Art, or we may have failed communication. Which, to use Jenna’s parlance, is ‘Flawed Art.’

The question of the continuum—here is Good Art, Art, or Beauty; there is failure, bad art, or non-art—seems to be a moot point. We’re all agreeing that there’s some continuum with Beauty on one end and Hideousness on the other. As Jenna says, ‘I think we can agree to some extent on the definitions.’ Oh yes, the definitions, but less so the words.

Why we choose a word we do is fraught with everything from dialect to emotion to the weather to childhood memories. Unless we clinically detach ourselves with the purpose of establishing a strict terminology, we’ll be fumbling about in words like ‘like’ and ‘love’ and ‘good’ and ‘art’. Because we don’t really know what any of them are. Not in words.

The question at stake here isn’t Good Art, or the Beautiful, or Art, per se, but—where where do we draw the line on the bookshelf? Because we do, like it or not. If we know our craft as well as, I think, the three of us do, we draw lines on the shelf. What is to be aspired to and why? What must always be read? What, in other words, is the literary canon of Art? Or is there one? Should there be? There always will be—we can’t help it, humans like drawing lines—but should there be? Is heaven a place with no bad prose?

Someone could write a book on that. The answer will largely depend on one’s familiarity with the particular art in question, and on culture and Zeitgeist as well, because art cannot be separated from craft. (Scrap-bookers realise this intuitively, of course.) A troubling question indeed, but I’ve got to stop this blog post in a moment.

I have to say that Jenna, with her usual eloquence, is right. And Masha, with her admirable precision, is also right. The words are different but the thoughts are pretty near the same (give or take some Platonism).

And I still cannot say a difference of opinion has been forced upon me.

2 thoughts on “words, words—what?

  1. Good post. Very good. I’ve wondered that myself, reading Masha’s post and the comment thread from Monday. Give or take some Platonism is right…. my mom’s thoughts came with a whole “You need to come from a Hebrew worldview, not a Greek one” that I didn’t feel particularly qualified to write about.

    Favorite line: “Is heaven a place with no bad prose?” Ah, mercy. My immediate, raw response: “I hope not.” Probably out of a wish for Harry Potter. Haha. 🙂 Although I was down at an ordination Mass at St. James’ Cathedral today, and the music was pretty splendid, and considering some of the stuff I have to sing at normal Masses, I might have a bit of a double standard. I would be okay with heaven not having any bad music. And if the Gather hymnal shows up, I’ll think I went to the Other Place. 😛

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