Criticism, Personal Preference, and Enjoying Art

I think we all want to generalize our personal preferences into critical judgments.  When we mean, “I don’t like that,” we say, “That’s bad.”  For instance,mMy own personal feeling is that I don’t like heavy metal music.  So, naturally, I say that heavy metal music is bad music.  But the truth is, I don’t know enough about heavy metal music to make sound critical judgments about it.  I don’t know how to differentiate between good heavy metal music and bad heavy metal music.  Likewise, when we like something, we want to generalize our feelings into critical judgments.  When we really like something, we say, “That’s great!”  When I was young, I loved the music of Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and I still do.  So I claimed that those bands were great.  And I had the supporting argument that the music was technically sophisticated–in fact, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer played classical music in a rock idiom.  But to other people, their music was too analytical and intellectual.

I am a big fan of Andrew Wyeth’s art.  But during Wyeth’s life, critics didn’t know whether he was “great.”  When the elite in the art world were painting abstractions and pouring paint across canvasses–to great critical acclaim–Wyeth was painting amazingly realistic works of art.  I see abstraction contained in Wyeth’s realism, and Wyeth stated that he was uniting abstraction with realism.  But critics were suspicious of paintings that looked real in a world of abstraction.

The question comes down to what criteria a person uses in their critical judgments.  If a person begins with the assumption that all great art must be abstract, then they will not value realism.  But why would abstraction be the only measure of greatness?  Such critics would be able to distinguish between abstract works, and make judgments among greater or lesser abstractions.  But by their own criteria, they would not be in a place to make sound judgments between realistic artworks and abstract artworks.

I am a fan of jazz and blues music.  And I believe myself capable of making reasonably sound judgments regarding solos.  That is, I believe myself capable of identifying a good solo from a bad solo.  There is a current ideology that if one doesn’t like a work of art one doesn’t understand it.  One often hears art and literature students say, “I don’t understand it,” when they are confronted with a work of art that they don’t like.  This ideology promotes “appreciation” and considers judgment about art quality antiquated.  But there are qualitative differences among artworks.  And one can make judgments about better or lesser creations–provided one understands one’s own personal likes and dislikes.

But all this talk about critical judgment overlooks one important approach to art: do we enjoy it?  There are times when we let go of our critical minds, and decide to enjoy art rather than judge it.  These are times when we get authentic and say, “I like this;” or “I don’t like this.”  And we don’t generalize our feelings.  We simply enter into relationship with art and leave our experience as enjoyable or unpleasant.

I am not commending one or the other way to approach art.  We grow and learn when we stretch our likes and dislikes into new material.  We grow when we try to understand material we don’t like.  We may well decide that we still don’t like it despite our best efforts to understand.  But we will know more from the effort.  And we live a fulfilling life when enjoy and withhold judgment.  However we encounter art, art is an invaluable contribution to the human experience, and something I treasure, pursue, work at, and enjoy, and commend to others.

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Pygmalion and the Artist’s Love Affairs

When I first heard the myth of Pygmalion, I took it literally.  I thought it was about a sculptor who made a statue of a beautiful woman.  She was so beautiful that he fell in love with her.  Pygmalion (the sculptor) implored the gods to bring his statue to life, so that he could have a life with his creation.  I first thought that the sculpture being a beautiful woman was what caused Pygmalion to fall in love with her.  I read the story differently now.

An artist falls in love with each creation that comes out well.  Deeply in love.  I have some songs of my own which I love deeply.  I listen to them with enraptured delight.  I have certain poems that I feel the same about.  Now a poem or a song can’t come to life.  But that doesn’t change the love affair that the musician or poet enters into with these creations.

There is, of course the matter of public’s reaction to an artist’s creations.  That would be more like a parent’s feelings about her or his children.  And that would be a different myth.

The Measure

Catch anyone of us on a bad day

And you wouldn’t want

To make them your friend

Catch anyone on a good day

And you wouldn’t want

Ever to leave their side

If anyone of us were measured

By how big an ass we could be

We’d be jerks every one of us

If measured by how beautiful

We could ascent and shine

We would inevitably disappoint

Though there are some, very few

Who never seem to have a good day

Being good means more often shining

And less often having a bad day

Overdriven tones distort

And resonance can magnify, distort, even good tones

But silence isn’t the answer

It’s EQ, balance and refine–

It all comes down to the mix

Fame

Fame and success are not always meted out in a person’s lifetime.  Some great artist were relatively obscure in their own lives, and did not know that they would be important later, after their demise.  All they knew was that their work didn’t catch on.  And they were unknown–and that, for their whole lives.  They didn’t make it.

William Blake was known to some of the Romantic poets, but achieved no real fame.  Shelley wrote these verses about his own life,

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

Others I see whom these surround—

Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had fame and money, but failed to find critical acceptance as an artist.  His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell much and went out of print in a few years.  Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure.

Now we study Blake, Shelley, and Fitzgerald in literature classes, and all these writers are considered great.  Every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway and T.S. Eliot had fame all through their lives, and the respect of the artistic community.  Hemingway also had wealth.  Intellectual fashion is now debating whether they are still as great as they used to be, but I suspect the laurel wreath will not be taken away in the end.

But Shelley and Fitzgerald had respect among the community of artists in their day.  Coleridge and Wordsworth knew and respected Shelley.  And Hemingway was Fitzgerald’s close friend.  Even in Hemingway’s scathing stories about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald as a great artist.

Fame may not be the best measure of a person’s worth.  Respect from one’s peers, self-respect, believing in oneself, and the joy of creation alone are not fame, but are abiding satisfactions in lieu of fame.  While an artist wants recognition, it is satisfying to enjoy one’s own creations privately, while perhaps also enjoying favorable reception from a few who matter.

Late August

My melancholy mood loves

The late August, when

A few leaves are turning yellow

The still air is

Crisp, but sometimes sultry

The sun shines

Lower in the sky

The waning of the summer

But not Autumn, yet

It is the waning that affects me

Like early baroque music

Which is really the waning of the renaissance

I swear I love late August

Even more than summer

Real Class

A while ago the great literary critic Paul Fussell wrote a book about class.  It described elements of status and sophistication.  In short, the book itemized what makes for class and status.  Some of the things we think are classy are wealth, sophistication, knowledge of wines, appreciation for art, going to opera, dressing well, eloquent speech, good manners, sporty cars, certain political opinions, biting wit, and other things.

A while back, I bought into that definition.  I even tried in my own way to become classy.  The trouble with that understanding of class, is that it depends on external things to make one classy.  So you need a symphony, you need fine wines, you need cars, you need artworks, and all manner of things that are outside a person.

I view things differently, now.  My new view is largely influenced by my partner.  She showed me a different aesthetic.  In fact, a different ethic.  Now I see class as integrity.  In the view I now hold, there is nothing classier than someone being up-front, honest, and sincere.  A person who can enjoy simple pleasures, such as going on a walk, playing a board game with friends or family, talking on a porch while watching the sun set, such a person knows the things that matter in life.  Now I value plain speech, direct communication, simplicity, and that priceless quality so hard to define: innocence.

Classy people in the Fullell sense may have a hard time with children.  Children see through affectations, and airs.  And caring for children can be undignified according to the Fussell view on class.  There is that scene in “As Good as It Gets” when the preppy suitor of Carol the waitress spurns her with the line, “Too much reality for a Friday night.”  He is referring to Carol’s asthmatic son who has vomited.  Her mothering was too real for the classy world view of her upscale suitor.  Class that can be vulnerable to life is shallow.  But if a person is simple, unaffected, direct, and sincere, children will love her or him, their class can’t be undone, and they are possessed of a lovable character.  That, to me now, is real class.

What I Was and Am

Considering where I came from

Where

What it was

I’ve come a long way

The horror

The pain

The hurt

Hurt, hate, and anger

So, I developed

Developed coping mechanisms

Is this the naissance of evil?

Time heals only with deliberate application

Of religion

 

Religion is a work in progress

God!

The religion I came from

That developed in my nascent environment

Religion is a kind of feed-back loop

Developing along with me

As I apply religious principles and develop

So those principles develop

Without religion I would be lost

And I am so close to being lost

A person’s enemies are of one’s own household

Religion and regeneration

Rebirth–born again

Hope

Come a long way

What I came from

What I was

Hope

What I am now

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