I know that this should be an update about The Lion King, but it isn’t. I am too jetlagged and sick to finish writing that right now, and also I accidentally didn’t save a portion of the post when I last worked on it. So, that happened. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to say, since there is just a plethora of strange controversies people have dreamed up for this movie. It’s not like Cinderella, where there are all literally multiple books written about it, and an entire social phenomenon named after it, the Cinderella Syndrome. With these ’90s Disney films the controversies tend to be based more in ’90s radicalism and ’90s counter-radicalism, and neither strikes me as very intellectually substantial. The movie itself is more interesting than the controversies, and its influence on the changing world of musicals is probably going to dominate the discussion.
So, until I get that done, isn’t this supposedly a literature-based blog?
Well, yes, it is. Or, rather, it’s a literati based blog for culture and pop-culture, because someday I hope to get an article in The Rumpus… So, literature.
I had a conversation before Christmas with a few undergraduate writing students, and they expressed a certain frustration with professors who expected them to write in a “literary” fashion. Sometimes I think professors assume too much about what their audiences have in their personal lexicons, especially with terms as relatively vague and baggage-heavy as “literature” and “art”. These are ideas that have encompassed not books, but entire libraries, fields of study and philosophical arguments dating basically to the beginning of philosophy itself. Plato wrote on art. It’s a long discussion. And, while I don’t want to imply that these professors did not do a good job of explaining what they meant, or that I can do better in a blog that could alternatively be called “Two Nerds Bitching”, I do think that there’s an assumption that students have been tossed into the dialog of ideas a little earlier than what might be the case.
Actually, I think that this might be interpreted unfairly. I think many professors believe that they should not have to dumb down their classes and that students, whose primary occupation should be learning as much as possible in this rather novel period of life, should supplement their courses with additional material. This is true. However, I think that many bright students get left in a sea of terminology and possibly biased or partial definitions and, with what may be seen as an overwhelming abundance of library material, might come away with headaches and confusion. So, instead of saying that I have an answer to questions as vast and timeless as “What is art/literature?”, I’ll instead talk about what other, smarter people have talked about.
First of all, if you’re repeatedly being asked by a professor to write in a certain way, whether or not that professor has the carte blanche on all that is literary is secondary to what you are supposed to learn in this class. 9 times out of 10, the professor is trying to teach students raised on Hollywood blockbusters, TV, and fast-paced YA series how to use certain techniques. So, unless you’re just so revolutionary and brilliant that you need to fight against the system and show the world that your experimental, postmodern novel-in-verse is the next Finnegan’s Wake, I’m guessing this is an attitude problem. Obstinance isn’t a virtue in and of itself, and sometimes you need to do your writing exercises, draw your still-life sketches, play your etudes, do your plies and rond de jamb, practice your batting swings, and learn your multiplication tables. I don’t know why people think that writing is any different. You’re probably not going to suddenly breathe out the next classic novel without ever practicing your writing or studying the greats. It’s as unlikely as picking up a guitar and, without any practice or ever listening to music, shredding like a rock god. I’d like to dub this “American Idol Syndrome” or, since I currently live in the UK, “X Factor Syndrome”, the idea that out of nowhere you’ll suddenly become a star. It doesn’t matter that the winners of these shows have histories of practice, because they only really exist to their audiences between certain hours of the day, and their rise is like magic. Such is the reality in reality TV.
But, I do think that this frustration goes beyond the goth girl who dropped out of my undergraduate fiction writing class because she wasn’t allowed to submit Lord of the Rings fanfics. I think that this goes beyond people who just don’t want to write character-driven stories, or who think that they will be the next J.K. Rowling and therefore do not need to study Faulkner, and so on. Certainly, these people are real (horribly, horribly real), and, yes, they are an enormous drag on every writing course they enter. “Why do I have to read Moby-Dick when I’d rather read an urban fantasy about fast-talking wizards?” they say. Or, “I read popular fiction because I know what sells and I’m going to sell!” they proclaim, dully unaware of how much popular fiction is written by staff authors, or that the majority of such submissions are rejected unread. It’s terrible.However, there are plenty of bright, bookish people who get themselves on the wrong end of a confusing use of terminology. They don’t understand what their professors want. They don’t understand why they like something that seems lowbrow, or hate something that’s supposed to be highbrow. I think that a lot of talented and intelligent students somehow find themselves in this situation and burn out. And, I think that many professors believe that these students are like the “I don’t have to read writing to understand writing! I’m going to be a bestseller!” types, and brush them off.
I think that a lot of people first become unsettled by this discussion when they realize that their likes do not exactly pair up with everything that is or has been critically acclaimed. They find themselves reading a book and going, “Why do people like this? Why am I supposed to like this?” It’s like meeting a popular person and finding yourself in that uncomfortable situation when you seem to be the only one in the room who doesn’t like him. I think that this happens a lot in the visual arts and music, as well. People look at a Rothko and think, “I don’t get it. It must be crap.” People listen to classical music and are shocked to find themselves bored by Mozart and Dvořák, but enjoying Katy Perry. How can that be, when classical music is supposed to be so good and Katy Perry is so… whipped-cream boobies?
I think there’s a place between embarrassment and reactionary snobbery, and many people fall into it. “Well, yeah, I didn’t like Rothko. That’s because I haven’t been brainwashed into liking that arty bullshit! I’ve got common sense on my side. Sure, I like Vampre Night 7 better than Steinbeck’s works, but that’s because I’m a book-lover, not a hipster! And, yeah, I think Transformers 2 was a good movie and didn’t get Wild Strawberries, but that’s because I understand the common man, not that elitist crap. I might like Flo Rida, eat food that is cooked in 120 seconds, and think that Raphael was a Ninja Turtle, but at least I’m not a kale-eating snob who uses artisan cheese knives and wears vegan shoes!”The tragedy here is that these people are hurting themselves, just as much as a person who refuses to eat anything but fast food. The unglamorous secret is that you’re not going to like everything. And that’s okay. You won’t like every film that makes it big at Sundance or Toronto, you won’t like every piece of classical music, you won’t enjoy every play, you won’t fall in love with every painting or sculpture, you may not get a performance piece, you might not like that Nobel Prize-winning author, and you may even dislike books that people call “classics”. And that… is okay. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, what you’re experiencing is normal.
The arts come from people, people with their own quirks, perspectives, and visions. It’s like getting to see someone’s personality in audio or visual form. And, like the people you meet every day, you may not like everyone. This, however, does not mean that you should give up on art, music, ballet, “arthouse”, or literature. You may not like a guy named Ted, but that doesn’t mean that every Ted, Teddy, or Theodore in the world is an asshole.
Furthermore, those professors talking about art and literature have their likes and dislikes, as well. I had a professor who hated Death of a Salesman, and a professor who thought Shakespeare In Love was a really wonderful movie. I happen to like Death of a Salesman and I think Shakespeare In Love is the second most overrated Oscar winner after Titanic. There is room for discussion.
You see, the arts are not the sciences,and I think schools have done kids a disservice in not explaining this. I partially blame standardized tests, which turn everything into right or wrong answers, little fill-in-the-bubble sheets with simple, multiple choices. However, while there really is an answer to an equation and only in advanced math do we get more discussion (which, frankly, I don’t understand), the arts aren’t like that. Did you know that many people think some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t any good?Did you know that writers as prominent as Jane Austen were loathed –by other prominent writers?
Personally, I dislike a lot of critically beloved art and literature. I don’t like The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Jeff Koons, or anything that Marina Abramovic has been doing lately. I don’t think that most of the Oscar winning movies are very good, especially things like The King’s Speech (although Circuit B will disagree with me about that one). I even think that Nirvana is an overrated band, and I don’t like Verdi’s adaptation of Othello, and I didn’t enjoy Les Triplettes de Belleville, or most of John Updike’s writings.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I should dislike all epic fantasies, English literature, postmodern art, performance art, Oscar winners, grunge bands, Italian opera, animated arthouse films, or strong, masculine voices in literature. This doesn’t even mean that I dislike everything these artists and writers have done. Furthermore, this does not give me grounds to depreciate the artists. They simply do not speak to me, but they do speak to many other people and I have to respect that and understand why.
The fact is, and this is the crux of the problem, the arts require a certain understanding to appreciate them. They have their own “languages”. Musical notation is, in fact, very much its own language. But, so is color, visual symbolism, visual cues, cinematography, acting, mise-en-scene, textures and brushstrokes and shapes, and, yes, language itself has its own dialects. While most people understand that language has dialects, especially when trying to speak to someone from another culture, it is for some reason often ignored that writing should have different dialects. However, this is true. One cannot, for example, say that a single, standardized, essay-type dialect is suitable for all of literature. Imagine if Shakespeare were forced into these structures? Or, how would you like to listen to a rapper who sounded like an academic essayist? Even various essays use different levels of formality depending on their function and purpose.
Just as you cannot step into a conversation with people whose language you do not speak, you may not be able to access an artist’s work whose “language” you do not understand. What people do not realize, however, is that this doesn’t mean that they have a problem. You’re not at fault for not knowing someone’s language. However, if you want to converse with this person, you need to learn how to communicate. An inscrutable painting, a piece of music that bores you, a work of literature that you simply do not “get”, these may simply speak a different language than the one you are used to.
The good news is that very often basic exposure breaks down these barriers. NPR did a report which showed that listeners who were unaccustomed to certain kinds of music literally did not process the notes. Their brains simply could not comprehend all of the sounds. However, repeated listening allows people to learn the musical language and appreciate the subtleties of sounds and unfamiliar chords. Furthermore, scientists believe that literature actually affects a different part of your brain than, say, the next vampire romance or slick cop vs. the baddies novel. Unfamiliarity with the complex syntax and vocabulary, as well as the subtle character development and action, can be like working out a muscle that you don’t normally use. If you’re accustom to taking walks, even good walks, you’re still probably going to hurt when you take up marathon running or mountain climbing. It’s the same here.
Many people decide that when they cannot get into art or literature that they have some sort of terrible problem, or that the art/literature has a problem. The answer is that neither you nor the arts have a problem. You’re just not used to the art yet. It’s like not being able to swim a certain distance, run a marathon, or enjoy a really exotic dish. You just need to get used to it.
So, that comes to the frustration with this vague idea of what art and literature are.
I think there’s a subtle difference here that people aren’t always getting. That is: art can be anything. But, it isn’t everything. There’s a difference between what art can be and how art succeeds.
Art and literature are basically anything intended to be artistic and literary, as well as some highly successful things that maybe weren’t intended to be that high brow at the time but nevertheless affected culture profoundly over time. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, and obviously doesn’t do justice to the discussion of aesthetics. However, I think it does answer the questions of those who do not understand what their professors are talking about.
“Why is it art?” should really be less of a question than, “How is it art?” When confronted with a professor saying, “You need to be more literary!” don’t ask what it is to be literary, but rather how something is literary, and how it works. It’s in the writing of the book, the turns of phrase, the subtle development, the way the writing builds on traditions or breaks traditions. It’s in the compositions of artwork, the techniques, the designs. It’s in the musical theory and the composition and the performance of a piece. The how-is-it-art is in the parts, which give you the completed whole.
This is why we cannot use trope identification as a form of literary criticism, because the existence of a “Draco in leather pants”, and a “woobie”, and a “word of God” reference to something greater than the book itself does not have anything to do with the actual book-ness of the piece. This is also why “symbolism” (eg “This symbolizes that the bad guy is Hitler!”) is not literary criticism. Any hack can do that. As redundant as it sounds, the first thing to care about in writing is the writing –and that is the same for art, music, and so forth.
You see, in visual arts we’re more comfortable with just flat-out saying this, while literature, being naturally more verbose, we’re more likely to write fourteen books on the subject. In visual arts, anything can be art. However, not everything is, as any artist or critic will tell you. So, where is the line?
The fact is, there is no multiple-choice, standardized test bubble answer –check here for art, and here for not art. The arts are very much a dialog, discussing life in different eras, and what their goals are, how they change from time to time, school to school, and person to person. Like learning a new language, the arts require audiences to put forth some effort to communicate with the pieces, and not simply sit there and expect to be entertained, as one might be with a Michael Bay movie or Vampire Academy novel.
But, I also think that knowing there is this effort and dialog does cause some people to over-think the arts. They are confronted with a piece of writing which they do not understand and they start doing the literary criticism version of what Calvin and Hobbes do with math homework.
They start making up really complicated ways of reading the piece and then get frustrated, as though they are trying to crack a code instead of read a book/view a painting/listen to a song/watch a film. I think that bad teachers, who make students analyze the color of curtains instead of the quality of prose, are to blame for this Da Vinci Code style reading.
In actuality, most books, music, film,and art are meant to be enjoyable. They may have a more subtle or informed sense of enjoyment than what you may get from Avatar, but they are meant to be enjoyed.
Take David Foster Wallace, for instance. His book, Infinite Jest, is often brushed aside as a “hipster” or “elitist” work. This is entirely due to the fact that it is over a thousand pages long and is non-linear in structure.(Because heaven forbid anyone sustain disciplined reading over an extended period of time! I guess Les Miserables is proto-hipster, then.) However, what might surprise those who sniff at his work is that David Foster Wallace was probably one of the least elitist writers ever. And, when wondering what his work is supposed to be about, he gives you not only the most concise answer but also the best answer for what to look for in literary fiction:
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
And there you have it. That’s why literature affects you differently than the zooming pace and snappy dialog of the sexy FBI agent and his will-they-won’t-they-do-it partner in the latest instalment of the Xplosions and Guns and Sex series.
I once read a terrible internet meme that said something like: “I read so that I can escape reality.” Now, while we all need an escape now and again, that is still a horrible sentiment. You read not to find comfort in the struggles of those who overcame in the past, or to find out about yourself and others, or to understand the world, or to seek beauty, or to empathize with others? You read because you don’t want to think about these things and would rather imagine supernatural love triangles and magic powers? What, do you not think you have any invested interest in what happens on planet earth? Yes, bad things happen to people. Let’s not eat lotuses and forget about it. We have some duty to our neighbors. We do not have the right to be ignorant of life and therefore end up hurting someone, voting poorly, developing prejudices.
And I think that really sums up the difference between a quality work, and something that professors/critics/literati-types won’t like. Good art is about being human. It’s about finding beauty. It’s about sharing in this great dialog of all these minds. Great art, not commercial, lowest-common-denominator production, is about the common person, reaching out to everyone, open to anyone, produced by anyone, the most democratic and glorious celebration of human life and individuals in this existence we call being human. The mega-studio blockbuster is made by executives so rich that they will never move in the same spheres as you, and made from collections of marketing data. It’s mass appeal is as calculated as selling corndogs, and made from elites and for the purpose of filling pocketbooks. One has to move beyond this strange prejudice that “easy to understand” means “for the common person”, which holds the corollary that intellectual pursuits cannot be achieved by common people. That, not the pursuit of beauty, is the truly elitist position. The person who says, “Well, I am not brainwashed by art and literature so I know that Moby-Dick is bad!” is the real elitist, setting himself apart and above all the many, many minds that have been moved and influenced by these great works.
The fact is, literature and the arts are about being human. When we do not understand them, it very often comes from too many preconceived notions and the worry that the piece will be too difficult. In fact, very often the opposite is true. Very often the piece is simply the story that was inside a particular artist, and that artist’s voice is trying to tell it in the best way that she knows how. And that may sound corny and mushy and too simple for a piece that seems so complex, but it isn’t. You know that “oh-so-elite” David Foster Wallace? Here’s something else he said:
“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”
I remember watching with my mother this documentary called Between the Folds. It’s about origami, which doesn’t sound like an interesting documentary subject, but, like I mentioned before, it’s not the what but the how that makes something art. And, this is actually one of the most delightful and entertaining movies I have ever seen.
In the documentary, the origami artists discuss their development in a relatively new art form –that being the origami as fine-arts sculptures. What is interesting is how the art progresses through stages that usually take eras for arts to develop through, and how the documentary brings attention to this. Toward the end, the artists begin to look at the medium they love so much, which they have given up jobs and devoted their lives to working with, that being paper, and start to think about how little they can do with. I mean this in the most positive sense. Paper, to these artists, is absolutely beautiful, and they get a sort of kinship from the process of touching and folding the paper. I think many people forget the relationship between artist and medium, one which is very often something like a love story. If paper is beautiful, and touching and folding and working with paper is itself beautiful, then why should it simply be an art that dazzles people with the artists’ ability to draw up mathematically complex plans and turn them into 3D paper dragons?
And so, the artists begin seeking minimalist folds, one or two folds, abstracted and focusing only on the beauty of the paper. When the documentary was over, my mother said to me that it was really fascinating that as the artists matured in their craft, artists who were fully capable of creating very complex and mathematically detailed paper sculptures, were drawn to the simple. What does this yearning for simplicity say about humanity?
I think that being able to see this process, and how delighted the artists are, and how in-love they are with their craft, really helps demystify the idea that non-representational art is for this elite class of critics to interpret to the people, like guardians of an oracle. Take Rothko, for example, an artist often considered too obtuse for audiences, or possibly even a great bullshitter. No one except maybe Pollock gets as many “my kid could do that” comments as Rothko. But, this is because people are looking at his art the wrong way.
Like the origami artists, Rothko could paint in both representational –and surrealist– styles. However, he was drawn to simplifying his medium. It is like the artist Kandinsky said in his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, art is more than just looking difficult. If you want that, go watch a trapeze act. Art is about expressing something about yourself, and life, and about seeking beauty, and about trying to present something rather special to the world. Rothko is about color.
I do not understand how these self-proclaimed guardians of beauty, against “Modern” art, cannot find any beauty in color, in the way it relates to other colors, in the way the light plays with it, in the delight of paint itself, in the sheer joy of color and medium. Do they ever find themselves in contemplation over a single drop of perfect alizarin crimson? Because that’s what it’s all about, no obtuse cipher of jargon and terminology, but the rapture of it, the beauty of it, the fact that colors, and paper, and words, and notes, and movement, and texture, and syntax are beautiful.
These supposedly difficult prose pieces are simply relishing in the sound, texture, and music of language, its power to move,surprise, delight, terrify, enlighten, enrage, and soothe. The complex notes of classical composition, which sound like incomprehensible noise blobs to the unaccustomed ear, are really these fantastic, unique sounds, which blend together in beautiful techniques to create some of the greatest music in the world.
So, there isn’t an easy answer as to what it is that makes something literary or art. And, yes, if you’re serious about it you’ll have to do a lot of studying and expose your mind to the greats of your field, the best writers, musicians, artists, et cetera. But, if you love it, this is what you will do already. It’s what you will want to do. That’s how people who love their art behave. The person who loves music is not the person who plays the radio and dances along to the Top-40 whatever, but rather the one who listens to the best of the best, and practices. The artist doesn’t just like putting posters up or “liking/sharing” something that looks cool; artists practice art and study the art world. People who love books are not people who dully consume them like potato chips, or madly seek out fandoms to obsess over, or correct typos on the internet. They care about writing, about quality, about great words, about language, about ideas.
That kind of care is really the baseline for the answer. There is no exact answer, because this isn’t a science. But, the desire to enter this dialog of art, to work with the world of art and what it has done, to be aware of the arts and their ideas, and to love and delight in the materials themselves, this is the how. It won’t always work, but might.