Thursday, March 22, 2007

sitting in the literature department...

Sitting in the Literature Department listening to a presentation on Coleridge today, I realized that most of what I've posted recently about "taste" is still very much at odds with academic thought. Certainly, there is still some sense that there are great works of art; however, to admit so openly is seen as a bit gauche, and variations on historicism still reign in the lit departments. Much of this is comparable to what we call "history from below" in our field. The idea historians came to back in the 1960s (earlier in France) was that historiography which deals with Kings and great generals is very limited and that we need to study average people to understand society. The result was a lot of studies of peasants, many of which are actually quite good.

A similar thing happened to lit departments a bit later- what is often called the New Historicism works either by relentlessly historicizing great works of literature, or by reviving things like comic books and diaries that we don't often think of as literature because, in doing so, we reveal formerly marginalized voices. Both techniques are great for historians, but what I've noticed is that lit crit writing almost never discusses preferences, or tastes, or even the quality of art. It's almost seen as boorish. And when I ask lit crit people about this, I always get the same response: "But, who can really say what is 'great literature'?"

Instead, most academic writing on the subject uses cultural texts in a referential way, as symbols for something else. So I have a good idea what Coleridge tells us about the British slave trade, which is of course very important historically, and haven't heard much in years about his actual craft, which is seen as somehow unimportant. The idea that great art is of its time and place, and yet transcends its time and place is pretty much alien in most literature departments that I've studied in. This is why I study history.

So, when I talk about the "clerisy' as I see them, I should point out that I haven't encountered them in the four universities that I've studied in. The idea of great works of art and great artists is something I haven't heard entertained. What's depressing about all of this is that I had hoped the 'culture wars' would lead to a wider appreciation of art, taking in all of the great works of art from around the world, and in turn a much larger definition of 'erudition'. Not cutting out the 'dead white males', but adding every great work of art from every culture and enriching the canon greatly. And yet, this seems to have happened in artistic circles, but not academic ones. I'd like to hear that I'm wrong about that actually and that I've just had very bad experiences with literature courses. But, I have to admit that I feel a sense of overall disappointment when I read academic journals on the subject.

A confession: I'm not actually fond of much academic writing.


gregvw said...

Reading your posts has gotten me to thinking about postmodernism, which is not something I would ordinarily think about. Ordinarily, I would be thinking about math and programming.

I have been wondering for much of my life why so much "culture" around me was crap. Why is so much modern art crap? Why is so much of modern music crap? Why are so few movies good? Why is there so little recent literature that I want to read? These are questions I that have been unable to answer since early adolescence.

When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with classical music, especially the forms. I learned Palestrina style of counterpoint, and sonata form, and rules of harmony, and so on to great lengths. In my senior year of high school, I took an independent study course with the school band's conductor in composition. Everything I wrote used 200 year old ideas in some way (a movement of a string quartet, the first half of a mass, etc), which irritated my teacher. She played me some of her compositions, which sounded like someone farting aimlessly trough a euphonium. When I realized that was what I was supposed to aspire to, I dropped the class and gave up composition entirely. As a side note, most of my non-classical taste at the time was progressive rock which, I did not know then, is some of the most anti-postmodern music in the last 50 years. It was eventually decried for being excessive, pretentious, and inaccessible.

It has become clear to me that a lot of the things I've been griping about fall into the postmodern category. This is not to say I'm against all things postmodern as I am a bit of an iconoclast myself. I like dada (well, some dada) for example. Which is in many ways deserving the of principal blame for postmodernism. I do like some postmodern TV shows too: Red Dwarf comes to mind as do most of the rude cartoons that crack me up.

For a movement which is so reactionary that can really only concisely be defined in terms of what it opposes, it has been with us for a rather long time... say as many as 90 years? Surely the backlash must be on its way...

Rufus said...

I never really could figure out what the difference was between postmodernism and modernism. But, I would say that there are times when I wish I lived in the mid-1800s, or perhaps the 1770s. Also, I find that my aestheticism tends to be at odds with a lot of contemporary thinking on art.

For a surprisingly long time now the emphasis in the art world has been on various forms of 'transgression'. At some point, you have to wonder how it's possible to actually transgress anything if you don't initially recognize any forms of authority or structure that could be seen as inhibiting.

A real lightbulb moment for me was seeing the Turner, Whistler & Monet show in Toronto. The text of the exhibit explained in great detail that the value of Monet's work was that he was trying to alert us to the dangers of air pollution! Of course, that's horseshit. But, it was amazing to me that this was how art experts would explain the value of Monet's paintings.

What I think is missing in most contemporary art is just sincerity about art as such. This comes across in postmodern writing, but quite often the real culprit is capitalism, which tends to encourage values other than aesthetic ones. Often what I see is filthy lucre passed off as 'transgression'.

gregvw said...

So are you siding with John Stuart Mill on this one?

Rufus said...

To be honest, I've yet to really find fault with anything Mill wrote.

gregvw said...

Yeah, I find utilitarianism at least as reasonable as anything else out there. The schadenfreude counterargument is not very convincing.