Friday, July 28, 2006

Against Aestheticism II (or, my utilitarianism)

Some further additions to the ideas in the post below, Against Aestheticism.

More and more, my evaluation of art and literature is based on what I'll call an "abstract utilitarianianism." When I read a book or see a movie, I have to ask myself a central question. This question can be worded many different ways, but it comes down to this: "What is new in this work that I can take with me?" How that question is answered goes a long way toward how I feel about the work (but it isn't the total answer).

Let me look at recent things I've read and seen that can illustrate and articulate my abstract utilitarianism. I finally got around to reading Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I did not pull much new out of this; HOWEVER, I also recognize why. This play is brilliant, and there are two reasons I didn't pull much new out of it. First, this play is representative of a worldview I am already familiar with--indeed, a worldview I have imbibed and felt and studied for years. Secondly, this play is so influential on the theater and literature that followed it, I feel like I've read several works that were similar in nature. So while on the one hand I don't pull much new from it (though there is a lot of comedy that is sharp and fun), I am at least able to recognize why not.

I recently read Gregory Maguire's Wicked, and besides being the most fun book I've read in quite some time, there were some themes that I can take with, to continue mulling over. No, this novel didn't give me a lot to think about in regard to the nature of evil. However, several things stand out to me. The tension and ambiguity regarding the nature of control and choice in our lives. The tension and cohesion of opposites. There's something for me to claw onto and keep thinking about. Many things, actually.

Earlier this summer I read two books by African-American writers examining the legacy of slavery in the U.S., Toni Morrison's Beloved and Earnest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men. These are important books for me to read. Why? Because I'm white. I do not know what it is like to experience racism against myself. I don't know the details, the emotions, the anxiety. I can only learn about this experience second-hand. Reading Toni Morrison teaches me about the internalizing nature of racism, about the deep impact of racism. That gives me something to take away. Books which show us another way of experiencing the world, that show us how somebody else might view human existence, are the most necessary books of all. There are two approaches to teaching literature. One approach is to find literature students can relate to. This is appealing for students and to the teacher, because it can spark student reactions. But another didactic purpose of literature exists: to show students perspectives other than their own. That, I think, is the more important. What do students get out of RELATING to a work of literature? Something, I'm sure, though perhaps not enough. What do students get by EXPOSING themselves to a work of literature, by having another perspective exposed to them? Immeasurable value, I hope.

Finally, a film I was disappointed with, The Lady in the Water. There were several things I didn't like about the movie, but what comes to mind right now is that there was nothing new for me. I didn't learn anything from seeing it, I didn't relate to it, I wasn't able to learn any new perspective. Certainly that wouldn't hold as a very strong criticism of a film (and I wouldn't use it as an objective analysis), but that it my personal reaction.

This abstract utilitarian view might seem useless for evaluating material that has little artistic value, but still entertains. I say: not so. Not so at all. This is particularly useful in evaluating comedy. The best comedy is that which brings something new to us. Some new way of examining a part of life, some new way of bringing the mundane to comic effect, some new way simply to be funny and make one laugh. The old jokes work--but the best comedies bring something new to the table, they MUST bring something new because they must make us laugh. Above all else, they, must make us laugh. Two anecdotes come to mind: on The Simpsons, when Bart became the "I Didn't Do it" kid, but that got old, and on Alf, when Alf became a famous comedian, but was only telling the same joke, and eventually nobody laughed. Standup comedians will tell you how hard they work, and they do it because they have to. They have to bring you something new if they expect you to laugh. So even for art not meant to inspire, but meant only to entertain us, I can ask myself, "What is new from this that I can take with me?"

Against Aestheticism (or, art for any sake other than its own)

There are many who believe in art for art's sake, who believe particularly that art can have no utilitarian value, and furthermore would be offended by the very notion that art could be utilitarian, as if such effort would be propaganda that tarnishes and blasphemes the holiness that is artistic endeavor.

I am not one of those people.

To believe art can have no utilitarian value is to believe that the way people think has no impact on the way they act or on the shape the world takes. And if you believe that, why would you read for anything other than entertainment value? To ignore art's utilitarian value is to demean art itself, to make it no more useful than cheap entertainments like soap operas, spy novels, and formulaic sitcoms.

But art can do more than entertain. Art can change the way we think. And the way we think affects how we act and how we shape the world (as individuals and as groups). Art for art's sake is its own form of ethical value, of course (within Aestheticism, a writer concerned with morality would be the "unethical" artist, the sellout, creating debased literature). And you can include me among those who would elevate the importance of art in the overall scheme of human existence and achievement. But that is partly because I recognize ways in which art alters our worldviews, our self-perceptions, our consciousnesses, our behaviors. Perhaps art can't be narrowly utilitarian; perhaps it is impossible to predict the actual "use' to which art will be brought. But that doesn't mean that it exists for itself; it is not only writers who should read.

Finally, the most important point.

In fact, Aestheticism is itself narrowly utilitarian. If art exists for art's sake, then the artist examines another work of art only to determine ways he can "use" that art in his own art. If art has no value outside itself, the only art meaningful is that which is useful to the artist, and to that artist all art will be viewed in a utilitarian manner. The artist will say, "How can I use this to shape my own art?" THAT is a debased utilitarianism. The "Aestheticist" artist CAN ONLY EXAMINE ART IN TERMS OF ITS UTILITY TO HIMSELF.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Stupid Thing I Believe (1)

In Arrested Development, when Michael tells Marta that family is the most important thing, and he says, "That's the stupid thing I believe." Well, welcome to a new feature at Costanza's Book Club: The Stupid Thing I Believe.

The first stupid thing I believe: I believe that a great work of literature should be FUN TO READ. I've read some classics this summer (a brief review of most of the things I've read will come at the end of the summer), but by far the most fun I've had reading has been Wicked. It's the first time in a long time I've stayed up way too late because what I was reading was so good I didn't want to go to sleep. If a book makes you stay up reading because it's so good and you want to keep reading to see what happens, is it inherently a "great book"? Some people use "page turner" with the same derisiveness they use the word "popular."

If you can't put down a book, well, isn't that the point of reading? To enjoy yourself? Not that it should be a diversion or distraction from the important things of human existence--that's not art. But that it should grab you and hold you and keep you, something like Stephen King says in his essay "I want to be Typhoid Stevie" (or some such similar title). It should be the sort of thing you carry around with you while you're NOT reading it. It should linger, but it should call you back, and when it has you, it should keep it's claws on you so you don't want to leave.

So there's the first Stupid Thing I Believe: I believe great literature should be fun to read.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Link must save Zelda

When it comes to literary and art theory, I often take a populist, anti-elitist, anti-snobbish, anti-pretentious stance (we'll talk later about how my populist ideas are their own form of snobbery, and how 90% of my life's decisions and attitudes are based on a healthy-sized inferiority complex).

You might find this interesting.

Avast, Me Critics! Ye Kill the Fun: Critics and the Masses Disagree About Film Choices by A.O. Scott

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Quotes, Culture, and Politics

In Gregory MaGuire's Wicked, Glinda is asking Elphaba about her childhood, and in the telling Elphaba starts talking about the oppression of the Wizard. Glinda says, "We're talking about your childhood," and Elphaba responds, "Well that's it, that's all part of it. You can't divorce your particulars from politics." Now, I would say that you CAN divorce particulars from politics; people do it all the time. However, if they do so, they are taking a flawed view that is not helping them get any closer to "truth." Because everything everything that I am, everything I think, everything I believe, has something to do with my nationality, with my color, with my gender, with my class, with my region, with my education, with my occupation and the occupations of my parents, etc. There may indeed be something called "the human condition," but how is such a thing approachable without considering all the social, economic, and political factors? Simply put: it's not. Whatever we think it means to be human is influenced by class, race, gender, and all that. This is why an honest approach considers these factors. This is why John Fowles says that Nicholas Urfe, the main character of The Magus, takes on "if not the true representative face of a modern Everyman, at least that of a partial Everyman of my own class and background." Because THERE IS NO EVERYMAN. For our first and primary worldview comes from our class and background--it is the worldview we learn before we learn it is a worldview. This is why Helga's question in M. Butterfly is so narrow and ridiculous: she asks, "Politics again? Why can't they just hear it as a piece of beautiful music." What assumptions do we carry with us, because of class and background and culture, that makes something an apolitical piece of beautiful music? And what assumptions could somebody else, of a different class, background, culture, and personal taste hold, that makes something a political statement, or a piece of ugly music?

I believe in deep human experiences. I believe great literature functions to examine deep human experiences. I believe literature should help us examine what it means to be human: what it is to believe and to doubt, to love and to hate, to be brave and to fear, to laugh and to grieve, to hope and despair, to be born and to die. But to divorce one's experience of what it means to be human from politics...that is to examine humanity in a solipsistic vacuum.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Larry David and Liberal Guilt

In Larry David's work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, he covers at least one topic better than I've seen anybody else do it: the anxiety of white liberals who are worried and confused about doing anything that could be perceived as racist. When George told his boss he looked like Sugar Ray Leonard, and the boss responded, "I suppose we all look alike to you," and George was trying to befriend every black person he knew to show to the boss. When Elaine thought she was dating a black man, and George kept saying, "Are we supposed to be talking about this? I don't think we're supposed to be talking about this." The legendary episode of Curb when Larry blurts out a joke about affirmative action and has a daylong nightmare as a result. Or when Larry doesn't want to fire his TV repairman because he is black, does anyway, and then keeps accidentally doing things in front of Wanda to make him look like a racist.

Who else is covering this topic? It's sort of an odd, strange, weird topic to even bring up. And yet for liberal whites, this is a part of our lives.

I go on frequent walks; it's my poor man's effort to stay fit. When walking alone, I keep a pretty good clip, and I always try to avoid bumping into people walking slower than me because of the awkwardness of going around. The other day on a walk, three guys were walking slow in front of me. Since I needed to cross the street soon anyway, and there was no traffic, I just crossed there. And suddenly, in the middle of the street, I realized this looked like the worst cliche one could think of: the people in front of me were black, and I appeared to be the white guy crossing the road to avoid them. Now, I would have crossed if there were three old white ladies walking slow in front of me and I was in Woodbury, but the perception was still bad.

They were three young black men, and I think they perceived that I was crossing to avoid them, and started jokingly trying to scare me because of that. One of them yelled "Biotch!" and another flashed an east-side hand signal at me. I thought briefly about returning it, but then just nodded a greeting.

I felt terrible guilt for the rest of my walk. I kept trying deliberately to walk past black people the rest of the walk, and attempted to make eye contact so that I could say hello. I think many of the people I passed thought I was a weirdo for staring at them. But I kept it up, walking by a whole bunch of black people and trying to make eye contact to say hello. Somehow I thought this would help make up for my "transgression." Now when I go for walks, I deliberately go to the neighborhood where I saw those guys, hoping they'll be there so I can walk by and say hello.

This is all really stupid. It's the sort of thing most people don't talk about, but that some people think about. So thanks to Larry David for actually addressing it. It's certainly not the only interesting issue David's work gets at with insight and precision.

Friday, July 07, 2006

First-Person Dialogic?

Philip Roth's Operation Shylock is an interesting accomplishment. I really want to call it a polyphonic novel. It is dialogic in that many character-ideas get voiced, and there is often a broad judgment of the character-ideas, but the ideas are not filtered to the end dialectically. They are mostly left standing for us to examine. And yet, it is written in the FIRST PERSON. Further yet, the first-person narrator is THE WRITER PHILIP ROTH. An intriguing example of where innovations of the novel can be taken.