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Good Writers–Or, Why I Am Not A Relativist

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I still don’t know how to say this.

Let me try to start here.

First, all art functions–all of it.  That doesn’t mant that art is its function in any particular society at any particular time.  Medieval church art functioned as catechism, as a teaching tool for a populace that could not read, but painting is not “about” providing catechetal lessons. 

But even though an art is not “about” its function in any particular society, any art that ceased to have any function for anybody in a society would cease to be practiced.   If it didn’t die out altogether, it would become a museum exhibit, the kind of thing that is taught at school and encountered nowhere else, or  almost nowhere else.

You don’t need huge masses of people, or anything like a majority, of a society to keep an art alive, although the more people who have the better the chances of an art’s survival.   And an art doesn’t have to serve the same function in the same society at all times.

For the great mass of history, poetry served the kind of function now taken up by the novel, or by film.  Now it seems to function as a specialty taste for a small and rarified group of people who all know each other, read each other’s books and come to each other’s readings.

Or maybe not.  Most people, after all, find themselves deeply involved with poetry in this society at this time.  It’s just that they don’t call it poetry.  They call it “lyrics.”

So painting might be a better example–the function of painting as it was understood in, say, the eighteenth century, is now the function of photography, and the “New York Art  Scene,” as Lymaree put it a while back, looks to the rest of us like a little collective delusion.

The second thing is that the health and general level of achievement in an art depends heavily on the knowledgability of the available audience.

Robert scoffs at writing that uses lots of references–it’s just a puzzle, he says.  But the simple fact is that no writer could write anything without using at least some references.  References are a kind of shorthand.  If the writer can use references and be confident that his audience will recognize them without effort, he can say a lot more in a lot fewer words, and say it more effectively.

To take a very low-level example:  there was a movie out last year called Knowing, in which aliens come to take one boy an one girl child off the earth before the earth explodes in a cosmic disaster (the sun goes nova?  something like that). 

The aliens take the children to another planet and put them down in a field.  At the far end of the field, there is a tree.  The children run towards it, and it’s obviously an apple tree.

Understanding the end of that movie requires understanding a reference–but trying to make that end without the reference would have been a mess.  It could have been done, of course, but it would have required a lot of set-up and explanation, and the impact of the ending would have been greatly decreased.

Shakespeare didn’t expect his audiences to get hold of copies of his plays and study them for hidden references.  He expected them to know, and his expectations were largely fulfilled.   The same is true of that Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.”  I understood what it meant the first time I read it because I knew the references before I saw them in the poem.  They weren’t strange or obscure to me.

And the poem says much more with the references than it could say without them, because the references imply entire narratives of connection.   That apple tree at the end of Knowing, and the children’s mad rush towards it, mean not only that the children are in paradise but that they’re about to lose that paradise.  It’s also at least possibly a conjecture about how the original of that story came to be.

An artist whose audience has little in the way of breadth and depth of cultural literacy, or one whose audience is composed of people from various cultural traditions who do not share such breadth and depth in any one tradition, is automatically restricted in the art he is able to create–or, at least, that he is able to create and present successfully.

George Steiner had half  a valid point in “Archives of  Eden.”  Democratic societies are not fertile soil for the greatest of art, for two reasons.   The first is the democratic assumption–that the standard of anything, art or food or make of car, should be how many people like and want it.  The second is that to present anything that cannot be enjoyed by “most” people is automatically to engage in “elitism,” and to be a snob and therefore morally as well as politically unacceptable as a human being.

But the fact is that the best of anything–automobiles, corned beef hash recipes, books, music–is unlikely to be appreciated by “everybody,” or even by a majority.   All human endeavors have internal logics against which various particular instances of them can be judged. 

And, interestingly enough, practitioners of the various arts often have a spookily similar take on them.   I wish  I could find the reference to the experiment that was done in Africa in, I think, the early  Seventies, where the mebers of various African tribes who were unfamiliar with Western music were presented with a sest of works (Beethoven, Bach and Mozart as well as rock and roll and jazz).  The ordinary members of the tribes basically thought verything they were hearing was n oise, and liked, if anything, some of the rock and roll.  The tribal musicians, however, were able to rate the music in an order much like classical music devotees in the West.   The internal logic of music is the same the world over, because it’s about something in the music, not something in individual “taste.” 

The knowledgable audience for an art doesn’t have to be vast, but it does have to exist, if an artist is to do the best work.   Without such an audience, an artist will only do the best work if he doesn’t care if anybody notices or not, and artists are notorious for wanting to communicate on an almost obsessive basis.

(A note, by the way–when I say “artist,” I mean any artist–poet, novelist, composer, painter, sculpter, choreographer.  Last time I got started on this, somebody, I  forget who, seemed to think I meant only painters, or maybe painters and sculptors.)

The democratic assumption has its drawbacks, and one of those drawbacks is a mass resentment of any proejct–arts or otherwise–that isn’t immediately accessible to everybody. 

But there isn’t a single field anywhere where the best of it can be understood and appreciated by everybody.   Recognizing the best always requires education and experience and a certain amount of work.  It is never effotless.

Written by janeh

July 28th, 2009 at 7:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Good Writers–Or, Why I Am Not A Relativist'

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  1. I’m fairly sure I’ve charged through this particular minefield before. I do not object to references. I object to the thinking which concludes more references are always better, and the allied belief that there is only one pile of references, so the better-educated person will always know more of them.

    Yes, it sounds faintly preposterous set forth in print like that, but a belief in objective excellence in art requires something like that. Once you concede that references not understood are not helpful, and the person who catches the reference to the “Space Invaders” game is usually not the person who catches the reference to “Das Almanach des Gotha” you either have to give one environment and set of references priority, or give up and concede that a good book for Johann is not the same as a good book for Suzy, and that it’s not just a matter of bringing everyone to the highest reading level. There is an inherent subjectivity in art.

    [Quickly before Jane explodes] which is not to say that everything is a matter of taste. Inconsistencies of fact, unclarity in narrative, sub-plots which do not support the main theme, or a muddled unconvincing theme are just bad. And I could go, and have gone, on from there.

    But the writer whose sentences average 25 words is not a better or worse writer than one whose sentences average 17. So too with vocabulary, and so too with references. If a writer has a point–and many of them do–the right sentence, the right word and the right reference–as opposed to “somewhere in the ballpark”–is just as Twain said: the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. But when you’re trading off audience for them, it would behoove the artist to be sure that the longer sentence, and harder word and the more obscure reference are in fact the right ones, and not just a pointless display of erudition.

    I would not discourage anyone from being the best artist possible. I am unconvinced that difficulty of access is the definition of great art. The best often require work, true. But it isn’t the work requirement which makes them the best.


    28 Jul 09 at 4:22 pm

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