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And A 1, And A 2…

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So, Robert thinks I’m going to yell at him–but I’m not.  I’m much more fascinated by the fact that a) we have been defining “deference” differently all this time, and b) we’ve been talking past each other on the subject of the Canon and objective standards for art.

Let me start with deference.

I do, of course, sometimes “defer” to the judgment of other people in particular cases, if by “defer” you mean deciding to go with “if you say so.”

But there is no subject–not cancer treatments, not quantum mechanics, not even the weight a bridge would carry–on which I automatically assume somebody else to be “right” just because they have a credential (or even a lot of experience) that’s supposed to make them an expert.

In my experience, experts are wrong a lot.  If I trust the person, I’ll trust his judgment.  If not–and you’d be amazed at what I’m willing to challenge–I’m going to go research the subject before I allow your “expertise” to rule the day.

To me, “deference” is not a question of whether or not you do or do not accept a person’s judgment in a particular area.  It’s a question of acknowledging that the other person is intrinsically better than you are, AS A PERSON. 

“Oh, yes.  You’re MUCH better than I am.  I should look up to you and follow you.”

That’s deference.

And I give it to nobody, and do not expect it for myself.  And, as I’ve said, I’ve known very few people in my life who have been interested in that kinds of things–and the most obvious example was not an English professor, but a school nurse. 

I think people who want “deference” in that sense are intrinsically bad people–and dangerous people, too.   But although I have known a professor or two with that problem, my acquaintance with them has been overwhelmingly with people in the “helping professions.”  My guess is that there are going to be a few in every profession, but that some professions are more congenial to this kind of personality than others.

On the other hand, I’ve known one of these people in private life.  You can demand this sort of thing of a family as well as of a client, or a colleague.

That said, however, it’s got to be obvious that most of what’s been said here about objective standards for the arts and about the Canon has been to a large extent a matter of assumptions not fitting the context.

For one thing, I would NEVER suggest that ANYBODY should simply accept that X or Y is a great work of are, or that W or F is a bad one, simply on somebody’s say-so.  Hell, if I won’t automatically accept a doctor’s cancer diagnosis on the basis of his say so, I’ve got no idea why I would want to accept Professor X’s decision that Don Quixote is a great novel on the basis of his say so.

A lot of the confusion comes, I think, because, when we get into discussions of this sort of thing on this blog, we are never talking about just one thing.  We keep jumbling things together–objective standards for art, what belongs on the Canon, somebody or the other’s required reading list–that seem to be the same subject, but are not.

On the subject of objective standards for art, the claim of the necessity of absolute relativity is untrue on its face.  At the very least, it’s simple enough to design an interior system–that is, a system where judgments of “good” and “bad” are made by referring to an a-priori set of rules.

We do this all the time in sports.  We say that Serena Williams played “a good game of tennis” or Lebron James played “a good game of basketball,” and this isn’t about the score.  It’s possible for somebody to win playing a bad game and lose playing a good game.  There are rules internal to the game that determine the “goodness” or “badness,” the relative worth of the played game, that people who actually understand the internal system can determine with a great degree of consensus. 

The rules for judging relative worth, then, are arbitrary but perfectly objective.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was looking through the book on Italian Renaissance art I’ve been talking about.  Renaissance artists and philosophers wrote a lot about the internal rules of the game, so to speak–they developed elaborate rules for painting, for sculpture and for architecture–many of them mathematically based–and applied this to their own practice and to judging the practice of others. 

Art understood in this way would fit Robert’s requirements that he be able to check it, and that the results of such checks be at least reasonably reliable.  There would, of course, be grey areas on the edges and points of contention–but outside pure mathematics, there always are.

Which brings me to my second problem in these discussions:  the insistance of applying ruled and standards to the attempt to define objective criteria for art that would not be applied elsewhere.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again–the mere fact that there is controversy about X does NOT mean that there is no objective truth about X.  It may just mean that some people are wrong. 

There’s a lot of controversy about the theory of evolution–that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing but opinion and all opinions are equal.  It just means that some people are wrong.  There once was a lot of controversy about the shape of the earth.  That doesn’t mean the roundness of the earth was just a matter of opinion, no more or less connected to reality than the flatness of it.  It just means that some people were wrong.

The fact that there are lots of different opinions about  X doesn’t mean that there is no true, objectively, about X.  It just means that people can and do believe what they want to, for lots of reasons, and often with facts be damned.

We would not declare all of biology to be “just a matter of opinion” because lots of people don’t accept evolution, or even because there are differing views on the nature and existence of the Cambrian explosion among biologists themselves. 

There’s no reason to declare the arts entirely subjective matters of opinion because people do have different opinions about them.   People have different opinions about everything.

The second thing here is the assumption, never stated by always running around underneath, that English teachers and literary critics are the “experts” on what makes a great work of literature, that art history teachers and art critics are the “experts” on what makes a great work of art.

But this is like saying that philosophers of science are the “experts” on what makes good biology, say, or that architectural critics are the “experts” are what makes a great building.

In most fields, experts are not usually outside critics or chroniclers of the field.  They’re the actual practitioners in it.

The Renaissance had no English teachers, but it did have writers who both produced work (Orlando Furioso, for instance) and judged other work (Dante’s Divinia Comedia, for instance). 

The third problem is that the judgment of what is or is not a great work of art is separate from the judgment of what belongs on a Canon, or what should be required in the classroom.

Neither the Canon nor anybody’s required reading list is compiled as a list of what constitutes great art.  Great art may indeed be on it, but only because great art tends to be influential in a lot of different ways.

The Canon is first and foremost a list of works necessary to understanding the intellectual history of a civilization.  These include literature, philosophy, history, painting, sculpture, music, theoretical works of all kinds, religion–some of these works will be great by internal objective standards and some of them (Mein Kampf, for instace) only necessary to understanding the whole.

As for the Required Reading List–well, that’s another thing altogether.  Required reading lists for high school and college courses are not usually compiled on the basis of what is or is not great literature.

For high school, the issue is teaching certain advanced reading skills.  Sometimes this is done by trying to “expose” students to great literature, but more often it is done by picking things the teachers think the students can ‘relate” to in the hope that they’ll bother to read anything at all. 

And this is as true of the old freshman English course that included “readings” in fiction and poetry as it is of high school courses. 

These days, most Freshman English courses require no reading in poetry or fiction AT ALL–they stick to essays about topical subjects like abortion or gay rights or gun rights or war. 

Once you get beyond Freshman English, a decent English major is looking to make sure students know a long range of works across the centuries–it is, essentially, a study of the works that have lasted as a way to understand the internal workings of imaginative forms in English.

So, yes, I wouldn’t bother to assign Trollope to students in Frenshman English–but I would expect he’d be represented as part of the Nineteenth Century Novel course requirement for majors. 

Even so, however, that would say nothing about whether Trollope wrote great novels. The choice of what novels to include in a Nineteenth Century Novel course is not made on the basis of what works are “great,” but of what works it is necessary to read to understand the history and evolution of the form as it has come down to us.

Henry in his book sides with the “we should teach people about  X because X represents one of the highest human achievements” line–and it’s one that’s interesting enough on several levels.

But it has nothing to do with according anybody deference, in my definition of the world.

I’m actually cold.

Written by janeh

June 9th, 2010 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'And A 1, And A 2…'

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  1. No wonder people talk past each other so much – I had no idea other people’s idea of deference varied so much from mine! I think I still tend to stick to my ‘courtesy’ definition. I defer to your desire to go through the door first; Dr. So-and-so’s statements on my heath and so on. I am under absolutely no obligation to accept unquestioningly or even merely let pass unremarked your desire to get through the door first or Dr. S’s opinions, so I may pay deference to someone without ever for a minute thinking that they are better than me in any sense (or more important, and therefore more deserving of getting through the door first). When I encounter someone who comes across as ‘I’m the expert and better than you as a person and you, peon, must follow my advice’, I don’t think of them as demanding deference, but obedience. I don’t owe very many people obedience, and those I do owe it to tend to be able to demand it in very limited areas of my life – eg, if I agree to do a job for pay, I owe obedience to the person paying me – limited to the amount needed to get what I promised to do, done. And unless you consider a kind of slightly formal courtesy deference, I don’t owe the employer deference.


    9 Jun 10 at 9:43 am

  2. Hmmm. We all seem to be within the range of my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate, but it IS rather a broad range.
    As regards the Canon, I thought Jane’s THE CANON ACCORDING TO ME was pretty well there. I might have about doubled it to get contrary views, but there were few cases in which I felt the subject wasn’t worthy or the choice of reading poor. I tend to associate readings involving the history of ideas more with my History classes, but that’s probably at least partly my choice of major. It’s also worth noting that there was very little fiction on Jane’s list, and a lot of it lacked something as prose. The junior high and high school English departments would need something else.

    My impression of the high school RRL in my day (late 1960’s) was that the books were chosen for their perceived literary prestige, not our ability to “relate.” Everyone fails now and then. When the English Department consistently fails to engage the students’ attention over six years, one has to assume that enaging our attention was not an objective.

    Purely as a matter of advancing reading skills, what you want is something the class would have to stretch a little for–but a story with enough narrative drive that they’d willingly make the effort. “Narrative drive” is not something I associate with the RRL as I experienced it.

    Greatness and objectivity. Let me make a quick tour through military history, and I’ll be back. If you study WWII, you run across scores of different tanks, from the Italian L3/33 “tankette” to behemoths like the King Tiger. Ask a student of the war which tank was best, and you’ll get a btter argument between three or four models. Mind, you all the facts are known–weapons, armor, mobility, reliability and ease of manufacture and maintenance. None of these is remotely subjective. The experts disagree because they assess the importance of these factors differently. But the experts know the factors, and have no trouble winnowing the list down to that top three or four.

    Artistic judgment is not Olympic figure-skating with a published and accepted scoring system. There are, no question, great artists, competent craftsmen, and people who really never should have picked up a chisel–but what we’ve got are ranges or bands, not an absolute scale. That does not mean, I think, that there are not indisputable facts about art. It’s not a matter of opinion that Edgar Rice Burroughs relies heavily on coincidence, and that Conan Doyle is sometimes careless about details. But how much those things should count against them is an individual matter.

    Some element of taste is also inescapable. I can’t abide Dickens’ dialogue. Jane objects of Lovecraft’s prose–but “bad” prose or “clumsy” dialogue are not matters beyond dispute. Critics can winnow, but they can’t definitively rank. It is a great thing to know any subject really well. But it is a necessary thing not to take the expertise for more than it’s worth.

    Shucks. I’ve reworked this three times. I guess what it comes down to is that I’ll happily listen to or read someone who has seriously studied a branch of art that interests me, because I don’t think it’s altogether taste. I think there are things to be learned and which one can appreciate once one comes to notice them. But when that critic dismisses another artist or author out of hand, I pay less attention. He’s not saying anything which will help me understand or appreciate, and I think it’s worth asking whether he studied the one he dismissed with the same attention he gave the one he praised.


    9 Jun 10 at 5:56 pm

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