Last night, my wife and I were watching episodes of Deadwood. We were watching disc 5, and disc 6 is still in the mail. As episode 12 came to an end, we talked about how much closure there was (with necessary tension and ambiguity still present), how that would have worked as a good final episode for the season. And then we realized: that was the final episode of the season. Disc 6 would just be special features.
We would have watched the episode with completely different expectations if we had known it was the season’s last episode. But those expectations altered how we experienced the episode.
This is what we sometimes ignore: our preconceived expectations of a work of art before the experience of the work of art. If you go to The Passion of the Christ expecting to see the life of Christ, you’ll probably be disappointed; if you go expecting only to see his suffering and nothing else, you might be surprised and pleased by what else you get out of it (putting aside religious affiliations, or at least attempting to, I would defend this film as a work of art any day). We all have the experience of hearing about a particular writer or book, and having ideas about that writer or book, and having those ideas change drastically when we experience the writer or book. Almost everything we experience we first get previewed: we see the commercials for the movies, see the commercials for the TV shows, read the backs of the books.
We’re fools if we think that we can objectively experience any work of art without preconceived perceptions affecting our experience. Even if you know who the writer of a book is, or who the director of a film is, you will go in with certain expectations. You might be willing to make apologies for a writer or director you respect, whereas experiencing the work without knowledge of the writer or director might lead you to disparage the work. You can’t escape it, and that’s why the New Critics are wrong. All works of art exist in a context, if only the context in which you experience it.