July 19, 2006

Votary theory at work


My sister Kate is finishing her master's program and is posting chapters from her thesis online. It's well worth reading--not at all ponderous or dull or "academic." By "votary theory," she means literary criticism that "focuses on the creativity within artistic works" rather on their political implications. "Artistic works," she argues, "should never be subsumed by signifiers, ideologies or political labels." Rather, literature should be appreciated in terms of the

internal delight which a reader/spectator feels towards a work--the enthrallment, the self-forgetfulness, the merging of the reader with the author's world.

Such that the reader feels compelled to entangle her own creative impulses with those of the author/artist. Unless the reader is able to willingly insert herself into the world created by the artist and imagine or visualize herself within it, the work of art will not find or grow its audience. Simply put, Stephen King wouldn't sell zillions of books if his readers treated his characters as completely "other" and beyond projection onto their own lives.

I recently stumbled across a similar line of commentary, on a quite different tangent but aimed at the same target. In his scathing critique of Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, August Kleinzahler observes that the overarching intent of art is to entertain, and that artistic talent tends to go in the same direction that the media and remuneration are headed. Meaning that the "next Mozart" is probably composing film scores and the "next Shakespeare" is probably now a showrunner for a syndicated television drama.

Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain. And in this, Moby Dick or Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are not different than the movie Cat in the Hat or Britney Spears wiggling her behind on stage; the former being more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority . . . .

Just as the new genre of the novel drew off most of the brilliant young writers of the nineteenth century, movies, television, MTV, advertising, rock 'n' roll, and the Internet have taken the best among the recent crop of young talent. Do you suppose for a moment that a spirited youngster with a brilliant, original mind and gifted up the yin-yang is going to sit still for two years of creative writing poetry workshops presided over by a dispirited, compromised mediocrity, all the while critiquing and being critiqued by younger versions of the same?

Kate followed up my recommendation of the above with a supporting quote from Camille Paglia:

English has evolved over the past century because of mass media and advertising, but the shadowy literary establishment in the United States, in and outside academe, has failed to adjust . . . . My attentiveness to the American vernacular--through commercials, screwball comedies, hit songs, and AM talk radio (which I listen to around the clock)--has made me restive with the current state of poetry. I find too much work by the most acclaimed poets labored, affected, and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets.

Or as one of her English 101 students put it: "I don't like Shakespeare--well, I don't like how we were supposed to take him apart. He wasn't fun that way." Too much of modern education is like that, unfortunately.

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