Join 3,556 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


on literature and elitism
February 12, 2014 4:57 PM   Subscribe

These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood. We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product — this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” — and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicise and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of “who we are”.
posted by latkes (68 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Possibly tangential question: when did "literature" stop being produced? I'm a good critic so i put that endpoint very far back indeed.
posted by Colonel Panic at 5:05 PM on February 12


But what about my preference for cilantro?
posted by oceanjesse at 5:05 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


This article makes no sense. And that's a critique not a complaint. It's internally inconsistent.

Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.

Well this is utter nonsense. Can I not desire an encounter? And isn't an encounter in fact the most disposable thing of all? It doesn't persist beyond the moment, except in memory. A consumer product exists relationally in exactly the same manner as art. A phone has no value except that which we take from its use.

“Confusing”, “boring” and “bad” are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such “reviews” only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place.

Then what the hell is a criticism? If I can't criticize a book for failing to even be literature in the first place (according to the author's definition), then what can I criticize it for?

The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another.

Isn't a star essentially an expression of how much the book was loved?
posted by NapAdvocacy at 5:17 PM on February 12 [15 favorites]


All of this is because somebody tweeted a complaint that they didn't like somebody writing big words?

I wish the author had just let the tweet go. This overwrought false dilemma of "elitism" vs "consumerism" isn't justified by such.

BTW, as far as "criticism" goes... This did remind me of one thing I"d forgotten... One of C.S. Lewis's most interesting books, _An Experiment In Criticism,_ ended with the conclusion that "literary criticism" in general was useless because one can never ultimately be sure whether a piece of literature is bad or if one is just unprepared or ill-suited to enjoy it.

He made a pretty good case, as I remember.
posted by edheil at 5:19 PM on February 12 [9 favorites]


I was super confused by this essay which I've now read a few times. Aside from the fact that she seems to have an axe to grind with people who dislike having to look up the word crepuscular, or even the implication that maybe using that word is a problem, she seems to be simultaneously being elite and claiming that you just can't be elitist about literature.

I get the book-as-product aspect of this a lot more than I understand the rest of it. This writer seems to be mad at people online who dislike things. And while I certainly get her point about that (saying "It's bad" isn't very useful as a critique in many cases, but sometimes it is. Who is allowed to draw those distinctions. Who can give a book a single star? Is she arguing against stars? I would give a cat two stars if it deserved them....) but I'm not sure what exactly she is arguing against, or for, for that matter.
posted by jessamyn at 5:21 PM on February 12 [7 favorites]


Da Vinci Code is bad. I figured that it out in a page and a half.
posted by philip-random at 5:21 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


Da Vinci Code is bad. I figured that it out in a page and a half.

I believe you mean, the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such a “review” only made it clear that a literary encounter never took place.

LEAVE THE DA VINCI CODE TO THOSE WHO UNDERSTAND IT, PLEBEIAN

ALLOW THOSE OF US WHO HUNGER FOR ART TO LEARN AT THE FEET OF DIGITAL FORTRESS

IF YOU PLEASE, PERMIT ONLY THOSE WITH HIDEOUSLY SWOLLEN THINKING-BRAINS (SUCH AS MINE) TO SUCKLE AT THE LITERAL, PHYSICAL, WISDOM-ENGORGED TEATS OF ANGELS & DEMONS
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:33 PM on February 12 [19 favorites]


The Da Vinci code is secretly the greatest piece of pro-Catholic propaganda produced since Augustine's City of God.
posted by NapAdvocacy at 5:37 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Da Vinci Code is bad. I figured that it out in a page and a half.
Quiet, you, plebeian... Dan Brown is reinventing how we employ the ellipsis... For pacing...
posted by deathpanels at 5:51 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


As others have noted, this essay seems best summed up with the following quote:

What sparked these con­versations was a comment made on Twitter...

Also, yes: An Experiment In Criticism by Lewis - nice rejoinder/reminder.
posted by jammy at 5:54 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Also I liked the Da Vinci Code just fine for what it was. Not every book needs to be The Catcher in the Rye (which was only sort of "eh" for me anyhow).
posted by jessamyn at 6:02 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Yeesh. The false populism that frames knowledge or taste, or judgment of any kind, as "elitism" is one of the greatest discursive tricks the right has ever come up with. This essay's total incoherence is just a symptom of that broader cultural problem — that Catton feels she needs to apologize for thinking that literary or intellectual merit even exist is much of a piece with the way she talks about "consumerism" rather than commodification. She is trying to do cultural critique in a language that just doesn't support it, using a vocabulary that makes nonsense out of her argument because it is preconditioned specifically in order to do so, because it is ideology.
posted by RogerB at 6:10 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


I'm more sympathetic and/or familiar with Catten's point of view that most of you. Essentially it's that merely saying a book is "bad" or giving it a star review or disengaging because of a long word is such a reductive form of criticism that it's not worth the name. That worthwhile criticism consists of exploring one's relationship to a work or author in a complex way.

At my college graduation, one of the commencement speakers advocated to us that we settle in with a lifelong relationship with an author, that in this we would find, in a way, the most fulfilling relationships of our lives. (This was not actually the most depressing speech given that day.) But that's the sort of place Catten is coming from here.

I said that I sympathize with her point of view, but I don't share it. The reason is that time is not forever and there are many books and at some point you want to move on to the next one and that point is probably soon! So criticism ought to be somewhat reductive unless you just want to... read a lot of criticism. Show of hands, who thinks that sounds like a good time?

The comments to the article, some of which are rebuttals, are worth reading. (Of course then you are reading more criticism. Conundrums!)
posted by furiousthought at 6:11 PM on February 12


"I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films - these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth."
posted by gucci mane at 6:16 PM on February 12


**

essay starts well then veers into mistaken defensiveness and cod spiritualist affectations of literature
posted by klangklangston at 6:34 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"Also I liked the Da Vinci Code just fine for what it was. Not every book needs to be The Catcher in the Rye (which was only sort of "eh" for me anyhow)."

Really? I didn't dig Catcher much either, but Da Vinci Code is full of resolutely, willfully terrible writing, where descriptions are shoehorned in like eggs in a metaphor mixer and the narration could only be described as third-person idiot.

I would rather read Tyra Banks's book.
posted by klangklangston at 6:36 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Earlier today I was reading this: "Is the literary world elitist?", via io9 with a better title: "The real reason you pass judgement on other people's taste in books".

It would be a good moment to reread High Fidelity (Spoiler: it's about a man who, among other traits, makes top five lists all the time and judges people by their taste in music. It's also about how he finally grows up).
posted by kandinski at 6:37 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Literary criticism was once a serious literary genre in its own right (and there are still university majors in it, unless things have changed a lot in the last two decades). I think the author may be trying to see we need more of that old school criticism--which doesn't necessarily mean only judging the quality of a work, but trying to make sense of it in a more rigorous way, engaging with how it addresses certain themes, etc. That's the most charitable reading I can give this: it's an appeal for a reconsideration of literary criticism as a literary form in its own right. More realistically, she's trying to push back against some random Twitterer's anti-intellectualism dressed up as populism and it's got the author so flummoxed she can't argue straight.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:40 PM on February 12


For several weeks now, the dinnertime conversation in my house has centred on notions of elitism and populism. If a reader doesn’t understand a poem, who is at fault — the poem, the poet or the reader?


This Is Just To Say

I have deciphered
the poem
that was in
the nice box

and which
you were probably
saving
for misinterpretation

Forgive me
it was crepuscular
so light
and so dark
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:41 PM on February 12 [20 favorites]


Just chiming in to note that Eleanor Catton won last year's Man-Booker prize for her excellent, 900 page novel The Luminaries. Not exactly an easily accessible work, despite its high accolades, and definitely likely to get the dismissal "too long."
posted by munyeca at 6:43 PM on February 12


I'm glad to see others are confused by the article. The point where I tripped was this paragraph on Amazon ratings:

King Lear is valued at 3.87; Paradise Lost at 3.74; The Divine Comedy at 4.0. Although there is a great deal of variation in the five-star reviews, the one-star reviews are overwhelmingly alike, even across genres and styles of literature. I noticed the recurrence of three principal objections: (1) this book was confusing; (2) this book was boring; and (3) this book was badly written.

Most of those one-star reviews of major works seem to come from students who were forced to read the book in school, and then asked to write a review as part of their assignment. A quick look at the number of "my teacher made us read this stupid book and now I'll never have that hour of my life back" comments reveals this.

It's not evidence that consumerism is destroying literature, any more than a single random twitter in the Paris Review is.
posted by kanewai at 6:48 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Can anyone here recommend it?
posted by bird internet at 6:48 PM on February 12


What a humorless, etiolated, sententious essay.

a Kiwi reader of the Paris Review objected to the use of the word “crepuscular” — a bookish adjective that derives from the Latin crepusculum, twilight — citing the word as evidence of the writer’s self-indulgence, and claiming that the creative essay in which the word appeared was an example of elitist writing.

This suggestion, it seems, incensed her so much that she not only talked about it at dinner "for weeks now," but wrote this whole essay on that topic. Here's a pertinent question: why does the mere mention of elitism send her into such an interminable dyspeptic tizzy? Could it be because the idea of acknowledging the necessity of elitism to Literature's survival is an uncomfortable fact for a bourgeois writer of fiction to countenance?
posted by clockzero at 6:55 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


What's funny is that she's completely wrong about the word "crepuscular." It is a stuffy, elitist, pretentious word, and that's what's fantastic about it.Does anyone who knows what they're doing in this day and age use the word crepuscular for any reason other than to signify a poetic sensibility that's disappeared up its own ass? It's clunky and ugly and has the word "pus" hanging out in the middle of it, and if you want to signal that your main character needs to get his head out of the clouds and pay attention to reality, just have him sling his arm around his love interest's shoulder and proclaim the loveliness of the "crepuscular rays." The frisson of contrast between the beauty of a sunset and the ugliness of the word makes me grateful that "crepuscular" exists....but that absolutely does not mean we should excuse someone for using it in a sentence where "dim" would do.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:05 PM on February 12 [21 favorites]


but that absolutely does not mean we should excuse someone for using it in a sentence where "dim" would do.

I take it you've never seen an ocelot.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:15 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Did anyone else learn "crepuscular" at a very young age from EB White's "The Trumpet of the Swan?" The main character doesn't know what it means at first, wonders about it as he's falling asleep, and later learns the meaning! IIRC he actually says at one point "What does crupuscular mean?"

What a lovely word. Crepuscular.
posted by Earthtopus at 7:16 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


What's funny is that she's completely wrong about the word "crepuscular." It is a stuffy, elitist, pretentious word, and that's what's fantastic about it.Does anyone who knows what they're doing in this day and age use the word crepuscular for any reason other than to signify a poetic sensibility that's disappeared up its own ass?

I think words like crepuscular can be used precisely as well as pretentiously. It depends entirely on the manner of its deployment.
posted by clockzero at 7:35 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


What a lovely word. Crepuscular.

Autumnal.
posted by Leon at 7:37 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I prefer pusillanimous to crepuscular, having learned the former at a young age in a book about a young man who put his baby brother on TV and discovered the world was flat. As far as I'm concerned, all juviniles should have one sesquipedalian word dirt the benefit of youthful vocabularies. I found Doc Savage and Lensmen books were excellent for this purpose.
posted by happyroach at 7:40 PM on February 12


Autumnal and Crepuscular are both word I might use spontaneously, because they have common cognates in my first language (French).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:40 PM on February 12


That an essay published online, with no restrictions of access or requirements of subscription, might be accused of having a selective or exclusionary attitude towards its readership is patently absurd.

How on earth is that patently absurd?

The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Some people say, "The chicken came first, because you need a chicken to lay an egg." I am always tempted to reply: "The egg came first, because where else would the chicken come from?"

The more versions of elitism our critical community can countenance, the healthier our literature will be.

In conclusion, America is a land of contrasts.

Catton is an award-winning novelist? I suppose this is proof that creating and critiquing are two different skill sets.
posted by leopard at 7:43 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Crepuscular makes me think of the world nacreous. They both describe beautiful things with terrible words.
posted by Justinian at 7:45 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


The birders and other assorted scruffy biologist folk I know use crepuscular! It's a very useful word for us!
posted by rtha at 7:49 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Here's some sophisticated yet whimsical music to accompany the thread, though it may not be for the pusillanimous listener.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:51 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


On preview: The song in Devils Rancher's link is why crepuscular is in my vocabulary. It's a sweet, sentimental ballad with jarring notes, halting rhythms, and a melancholy context - so it's fitting whether you think the word "crepuscule" is beautiful, discordant, or both.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 7:55 PM on February 12


"Crepuscular makes me think of the world nacreous. They both describe beautiful things with terrible words."

I always confuse it with corpuscular.
posted by klangklangston at 8:02 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


If you want a single word that means "of or related to the twilight hour," and "twilit" doesn't quite answer, your options are pretty limited. "Twilighty?" "Gloamish?" Your only real option is the Latinate-

Wait. Actually, let's go with "gloamish."
posted by Iridic at 8:07 PM on February 12


isn't Gloamish a pokemon?
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:09 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


Crepuscular is a perfectly cromulent word that embiggens the reader. It is known.
posted by Ber at 8:12 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


It is known.
posted by Justinian at 8:20 PM on February 12


Dusky?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:27 PM on February 12


In the words of George Saunders, you're sacrificing a terrific opportunity to Celebrate Your Preferences(tm)!
posted by Miko at 8:27 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


The section about her relationship with Levin in Anna Karenina is dead on.

Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right. The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent, in a consumer context, to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function.

::fistpump::
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:28 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


0 of 2 people found the following review helpful

★☆☆☆☆ Stop disliking what she likes!, February 12, 2014
By clorox

Metafilter Verified Purchase (What's this?)
This review is from: Eleanor Catton on literature and elitism (Metro online edition)


The author clearly likes books a whole lot. I like books a whole lot, too! But I don't like some books, sometimes for reasons I can't describe. The author thinks that I must not be forming a connection with those books. I don't want a connection with those books. I don't think the author likes that attitude. I'm okay with it. Also, I'm surprised the author didn't specify which translation of The Divine Comedy is "valued" at 4.0 -- that's pretty darn high!

Help other customers find the most helpful reviews Report Abuse | Permalink
Was this review helpful to you? [Yes] [No]  ┃
posted by clorox at 8:43 PM on February 12 [7 favorites]


I realize I could just google it (and I probably will after completing this comment) but I'm 54 and have yet to feel the need to use crepuscular ... or even know what it means.
posted by philip-random at 8:50 PM on February 12


Except that advertising isn't all predicated on the idea that the customer is right. Lots of advertising is predicated on the idea that you're doing X all wrong, and need the new product to help.

If it was all predicated on the viewer being right, no infomercial would ask, "Has this ever happened to you?"
posted by klangklangston at 8:52 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


1 : resembling twilight
2 : occurring or active during twilight


... and now, infinitesimally more worldly than I was five minutes, I shall return to my examination of the neighbors' new stereobate.
posted by philip-random at 8:55 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I’ll respond to some of this well-favorited comment above-original piece small, quoted comments italicized, my comments not.

Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.

Well this is utter nonsense. Can I not desire an encounter? And isn't an encounter in fact the most disposable thing of all? It doesn't persist beyond the moment, except in memory. A consumer product exists relationally in exactly the same manner as art. A phone has no value except that which we take from its use.

This was the beginning of the argument, not the conclusion. It is developed over the ensuing two paragraphs. The ‘literary encounter’ here is a technical term. A product is a thing that might be desirable or it might not-a brand name product might be desirable, a store brand product might not, let’s say. It’s important that one tries to make one’s product’s desirable-endlessly desirable, if possible. A literary encounter is different-it is desirable in and of itself, analytically, in the way that a bachelor is unmarried. It is constitutively desirable.

A literary encounter cannot be used up and cannot expire. The author’s relation to Levin in Anna Karenina is an example of such an encounter-the same relation persists over time, and required her to put in effort and to make changes to be fully realized. One’s relation to a product is disposable-the author uses the example of a particular salad dressing. There is a limited relationship between you and your salad dressing-a limit to the personal growth, and enjoyment that you can realize via a relation to it. A ceiling exists on the strength of the bond that can exist between a person and her salad dressing. I’m not totally sure that I agree with her about this part, but it’s far from incoherent or inconsistent.

“Confusing”, “boring” and “bad” are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such “reviews” only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place.

Then what the hell is a criticism? If I can't criticize a book for failing to even be literature in the first place (according to the author's definition), then what can I criticize it for?

The author’s position is that it is necessary that a literary encounter be established before a genuine criticism can take place. Note that this means that this:

This article makes no sense. And that's a critique not a complaint. It's internally inconsistent.

…is evidence that you did not achieve a literary encounter with the piece-and therefore that per the author that your writing in this thread is a complaint, not a criticism. It’s not totally clear to me that this linguistic point carries a lot of water with regard to what kind of engagement we should have , especially given your last point:

The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another.

Isn't a star essentially an expression of how much the book was loved?

I think this part is a misstep by the author. Starred Amazon reviews usually don’t express a genuine literary encounter. The author seems to want to say that a feeling of love or hate for a book can only come along with a literary encounter, so starred amazon reviews cannot express love or hate. But I think that what the existence of the reviews help to show is that feelings about books can separate from literary encounters. I think that kind of feeling is a legitimate human reaction. So a literary encounter might not be all that there is worth having or talking about, when it comes to literature. Your question seems to be reaching this point.

———————

I can identify a sweet spot of difficulty that I like to live in when I read. It varies with the amount of time and energy that I have, and I’m also already at 31 a little dumber than I was five years ago-I like to think that I make up for it with life experience, but not totally, not in areas like this. In the past week or so, Umberto Eco was too hard, Adam Johnson was too easy, Dorothy Dunnett was just right. I have to work some to understand everything that’s going on, but not so hard that I feel overwhelmed. And I require some work to feel satisfied, like I am putting a piece of myself into the words and coming away changed and with something to ponder and return to, at times that I couldn't even predict. That’s what the author is talking about, that kind of state. It might not be the only literary state but it’s an important one, probably the most important.

Going through this exercise helped me to have a sort of literary encounter with the essay as well (I don’t know if you’re allowed to have a literary encounter with nonfiction, so it might be whatever the equivalent is). It wasn’t easy to read the essay over and over and try to understand it, but it was satisfyingly hard, once I got moving. And it wasn’t easy to write this comment either-as hard as I’ve worked on a Metafilter comment in some time. This essay will stick with me now, though. I’m better off for having put in the work.
posted by Kwine at 9:03 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right. The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent, in a consumer context, to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function.

::fistpump::


Too bad she has to sell her books like some common copywriter.
posted by clockzero at 9:05 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Except that advertising isn't all predicated on the idea that the customer is right.

Not that you're doing everything right; obviously that's the opposite of how advertising works, and irrelevant to the article. Advertising is predicated on the idea that your wants are capital-R Right, and should be satisfied. You deserve a break today. This product let you do what you want better than ever.

Art, if honestly encountered, is blissfully indifferent to your wants. It offers an opportunity to obliterate your desires– which the foolish person always confuses with their self– and return with those desires examined and changed. Tolstoy does not seek to make my life easier, he creates demands that make my life harder.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:05 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


In the words of George Saunders, you're sacrificing a terrific opportunity to Celebrate Your Preferences(tm)!

Ah shit, by Favouriting that I Celebrated My Preference(tm), didn't I?!?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:16 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


We often use crepuscular around here, to refer to our cat. I imagine there is a proper scientific term for an animal that's neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but only awake for (an increasingly) few minutes right at the transition between the two, but it seems to suit him. "Crepuscular creature" we'll say, shaking our heads, when he wants outside for exactly two minutes right now, and not the two before or after. It's a word both ungainly and beautiful, much like him. Like most words (and cats!), it can mean many different things.

Which I guess is to say that rejecting something because you think it is simplistic, and rejecting something because you think it is pretentious, are no more mirror images than are the left and right each calling the other wrong. The Salon writer has taken one straw man -- the novelist's objection to her one-star-reviewers -- and solved the problem by adding a second straw man -- the high-brow critics of the low, both of whom (she conjectures) were probably traumatized as children. This essay is a good example of why some things aren't a matter of taste, and are not just "you failing the book" (as she puts it); some writing is beyond unhelpful, and actively bad.

(Meanwhile, the cat wants out -- in the middle of the night! -- destroying my entire metaphor... )
posted by chortly at 9:18 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"Not that you're doing everything right; obviously that's the opposite of how advertising works, and irrelevant to the article. Advertising is predicated on the idea that your wants are capital-R Right, and should be satisfied. You deserve a break today. This product let you do what you want better than ever. "

I understand more of what you mean; thanks for clarifying. I still don't entirely agree — I do think there's advertising grounded in the idea that your desires are wrong and that the purported desires of the advertisement should supplant the desires you feel, and that this can be pursued intentionally by advertisers or happen accidentally. This is something that's felt acutely by a lot of queer folks when they see ads that assume heteronormativity. But I'd agree that a majority of advertising is based on the idea that what you want is right and you are right to be satisfied with this product.

"Art, if honestly encountered, is blissfully indifferent to your wants. It offers an opportunity to obliterate your desires– which the foolish person always confuses with their self– and return with those desires examined and changed. Tolstoy does not seek to make my life easier, he creates demands that make my life harder."

I'm not that much a prescriptivist in how art must be encountered, and I think that makes a few unsupportable assumptions about art and artistic intent. There's a lot of art that's very concerned with giving audiences what they want and validating desire, especially if you don't separate out "desire" to that extent — wanting to be challenged by art (or edified or to have an encounter) is still a want. I'd even say that art for a majority of history has very much not been indifferent to the desires of the audience — the difference between Greek and Roman busts is a decent example.
posted by klangklangston at 9:35 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Advertising is predicated on the idea that your wants are capital-R Right, and should be satisfied.

Advertising is predicated on the idea that you should buy my shit. Maybe you should buy my shit because you're a special snowflake, maybe you should buy it because you're a loser doing everything wrong, who cares, advertising is just about telling the story that gets you to buy my shit.

I'm going to have a harder time summarizing art in a little comment box. But art is about a relationship between the work of art and the person experiencing the art. If the relationship fails to get established, it may be the artist's fault or it may be the fault of the reader (or the viewer or audience member or whatever). There's really no way to figure it out from the outside. You can't go just by raw popularity. At the same time, can something really be called a work of genius if no one appreciates it? You can rely on experts with more sophisticated tastes but expert status is not objective either.

This seems like an interesting topic for an essay but it looks like the writer essentially wanted to balance out people giving 1-star reviews to Tolstoy, so the piece is not very well thought out. The author does not like commercialism because she doesn't think the customer is always right. I mean, fine, sure, Dan Brown is not in fact the greatest writer of all time, I will concede that, although I don't see how that implies that Amazon ratings are ruining society. But putting art on a pedestal as something that is "indifferent" to our wants seems about as correct to me as saying that art can be reduced to a popularity ranking. You can't be a great writer if nobody reads you.
posted by leopard at 9:39 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


speak for yourself
posted by philip-random at 9:50 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Well this is utter nonsense. Can I not desire an encounter? And isn't an encounter in fact the most disposable thing of all? It doesn't persist beyond the moment, except in memory. A consumer product exists relationally in exactly the same manner as art. A phone has no value except that which we take from its use.

You're not doing Catton's claim here justice. To be sure, she could've elaborated on the distinctions she's drawing here further. But they are hardly internally inconsistent. There is an ontological difference between a work of art and a market commodity, which Catton is pointing to and which you have collapsed (and indeed, which the common sense of the present has also collapsed). This difference in the essence of the commodity and the artwork is complex and contested, but at the risk of oversimplification, I'll take a stab at showing how I see it.

One peculiarity of the commodity is that it, by definition, attains whatever value it has in a way essentially independent of the thing itself, namely, through the confluence of arbitrary and fickle preferences as they are mediated by the market, the money supply, advertising, and other external social factors. The intrinsic properties of the commodity-thing are not, of course, entirely irrelevant: if an apple is rotten, it cannot be sold. If a smartphone can't run the hottest apps and continually drops calls, it won't fetch an iPhone price. (and if it's being sold at an iPhone price, it'll get one star on amazon).

But think about the relationship between our desires and the thing's properties in these instances. First, we have our desires: to eat a healthy and tasty apple, to have the latest gadget. These desires in hand, we make an evaluation of the thing. If it satisfies these desires (and does so at the right price point) the commodity gets the thumbs up, if it falls short, it gets the thumbs down. And so the advertising consultant tells his clients: "give the people what they want!" (and so some can put forth the absurd claim that consumer society is the purest form of democracy). That is, desirability is, in the first place, something we project upon the commodity, not something brought forth out of the commodity itself. No commodity, insofar as it is a commodity, is desirable in itself.

The value of a work of art, on the other hand, is not determined by the degree to which it satisfies the desires we bring to it and project upon it in advance. Rather, the relation between us and the artwork is an inversion of the one between us and the commodity. While we are the measure of the commodity, the work of art, if it is a work of art, is the measure of us. Art does not delight. It challenges. It makes demands. To meet these demands we must exert ourselves, and this exertion, this striving to make ourselves worthy of the artwork, is what is truly delightful about our encounter with it.

Our experience of this striving, if it is in any degree successful, is what we call beauty.

Prior to this encounter, we cannot desire it, except in the abstract. For we cannot desire something that has not already been made desirable to us. (But, you will say, we might desire "change", or "the new", "the unknown", but stricto sensu this really only means that what we have now has become undesirable to us. Or perhaps we desire the rush of change and novelty itself, and not the new thing or changed circumstances on their own. But we can only desire this latter experience once we have already undergone it.). A necessary condition for a work of art, which distinguishes it from the commodity in an essential way, is that the work of art must be something which is capable of producing a desire in us which we did not have prior to our encounter with it.

To be sure, beauty, like everything else, exists on a spectrum. I did not have a desire for bourbon or hamburgers before I first had them. Anything that has an "acquired taste" is capable of being in some way beautiful. Mere style and craftsman ship have their beauty, however limited. And often this is the only kind of beauty we are able to experience or create. But what makes a work of art truly beautiful is the depth of the challenge it makes upon us. Great works of art do not merely foster within us new and more sophisticated desires. They also improve us. They edify. The sustained and genuine encounter with a work of art should lead us to transform ourselves, to reflect upon our life, and our values, so that we might transform them.

The work of art has the power to forge new possibilities. It is a cosmic act of creation, not just because, like an airplane novel or Skyrim, it is sometimes a whole world unto itself, but because it poses problems which were not problems for us until our encounter with it and which cannot be solved by remaining trapped in the world of the work, but only by stepping outside it and transforming the world in which we live.

There is much more to be said here. Rilke's poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo might work to support some of this utter nonsense.
posted by dis_integration at 10:35 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


I think literature speaks to us on a slightly deeper level than a preference for Pepsi over Coke (which is the correct preference).
posted by turbid dahlia at 12:49 AM on February 13


I think I first came accross "crepuscular" in Burroughs - I vaguely remember a prototypical Kid complaining about some character wanting to suck his crepuscules. If you use it in your poem or novel to evoke a higher ideal of twilight it's kind of ruined for me now, but that's old Bill for you.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:45 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Does anyone who knows what they're doing in this day and age use the word crepuscular for any reason other than to signify a poetic sensibility that's disappeared up its own ass?

We often use crepuscular around here, to refer to our cat. I imagine there is a proper scientific term for an animal that's neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but only awake for (an increasingly) few minutes right at the transition between the two, but it seems to suit him.

Metafilter has a long tradition of using crepuscular in context
posted by talitha_kumi at 5:55 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Does anyone who knows what they're doing in this day and age use the word crepuscular for any reason other than to signify a poetic sensibility that's disappeared up its own ass?

I used to use it a lot when teaching environmental education programs, especially on night hikes. Today I use it when driving at dusk to remind myself and others to be alert for deer and things like that.
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on February 13


from the comments on the article: good readers retain their wariness, prejudice, and even cynicism when they begin most books; the process of erasure of those initial stances is the encounter. There are books that do not immediately enter into a process of erasure: they take a stance of hermetic self-sufficiency or frigid opacity, leaving it to the reader to do all the courting. A few readers may persist, and end up loving and in some sense therefore winning the love of Gertrude Stein or Hermann Broch. But some great books refuse readers willing to offer love and empathy, and reward only the rare literary athletes like themselves, who climb a hard book like a mountain.

That's well-put, right there.
posted by GrapeApiary at 6:50 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]


Does anyone who knows what they're doing in this day and age use the word crepuscular for any reason other than to signify a poetic sensibility that's disappeared up its own ass?

I don't think I'd say it out loud because it sounds like a five dollar word, but it's part of my lexicon. If I'm talking to people I'll often use the word gloaming because it reminds me of a poem (and a short story) that I really like.
posted by jessamyn at 6:57 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


"The value of a work of art, on the other hand, is not determined by the degree to which it satisfies the desires we bring to it and project upon it in advance. Rather, the relation between us and the artwork is an inversion of the one between us and the commodity. While we are the measure of the commodity, the work of art, if it is a work of art, is the measure of us. Art does not delight. It challenges. It makes demands. To meet these demands we must exert ourselves, and this exertion, this striving to make ourselves worthy of the artwork, is what is truly delightful about our encounter with it. "

Except that's not really true at all in terms of how either the actual market for art or theory of art functions. I mean, that's a huge part of the career of Jeff Koons.

A lot of this is predicated on an outdated, Romantic theory of art — something that implicitly plays into the desiccated notions of high and low, where low comes with commerce.

Further, plenty of art does delight. Lisa Walcott's Vice Versa was eminently delightful, filling two stories with rhythmic bouncing balls; likewise, a ton of Fluxus art is playful games, and I can't imagine hearing the Pastoral Symphony without feeling delight — even more explicit when paired with the animation in Fantasia. I don't feel much striving to make myself worthy there, but deciding on that basis that it's not art would seem needlessly petulant.
posted by klangklangston at 8:32 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


"if you don't call it art, you're likely to get a better result"
(Brian Eno)
posted by philip-random at 9:46 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


A lot of this is predicated on an outdated, Romantic theory of art — something that implicitly plays into the desiccated notions of high and low, where low comes with commerce.

I confess my debt to Lessing, Herder, Kant and Hegel. I am not sure what you could possibly mean, however, by "outdated". Aesthetic theory (and philosophy in general) does not make progress in the way that the natural sciences do.

There are a multiplicity of contemporary theories of art. If by the "theory of art" you mean something like the museum theory, then I reserve the right to object. In most respects, the museum is a graveyard. The art in it has been torn from the context in which it was able to stand among us like a living presence. This is why the best contemporary museum-art, like Koons' work, functions to expose the museum for what it is. Of course, Duchamp already did this, and we have not really moved beyond him, in terms of museum art.

(The actual market for artworks is itself a confirmation of what I said above: the recent absurd price paid for the Bacon triptych alone is proof that the commodity form exists on another metaphysical axis than the work of art itself. Not that Bacon's work was "overvalued", but that it is impossible to put a price upon it. Perhaps this kind of thinking strikes us today as old fashioned or petulant, but I see the standpoint from which everything has its price terrifying and catastrophic. These words are not hyperbolic in my mind).

We should ask ourselves: why is it so difficult to occupy the stance of the German Romantics towards the work of art today? Why is that attitude "outdated"? Why do we find it so difficult today to see art as something that can serve a moral and cognitive function? Perhaps because the whole world has been turned into a mausoleum just like the museum, and that beauty, in the fullest sense, is no longer possible. Adorno's dictum, "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" has yet to be understood. Art must be seen within the context of its history. In that context, the loss of the romantic outlook on art should be experienced as a wound. Our failure to feel this wound ought to worry us.

In any case, you underestimate the amount of effort required to appreciate the works of art you've mentioned. Much is required before we can bask in the warmth of Beethoven. And much more is required before we can appreciate the kind of art coming out of contemporary MFA programs. If a work does not challenge us, it may be because we are already at its level. And, for that reason, while it may be art, it is not great art.

I reserve the right to draw distinctions between great art, mere art and non-art, and reject the notion that doing so is a kind of petulance. It is petulant to insist that whatever cultural productions we find agreeable are for that reason art. The agreeable is not the beautiful, and to collapse the two is to destroy the beautiful. Making this distinction in practice is no simple task, since there is always the question whether it is we who have failed to see the artistic character of the work or whether it lacks this character entirely. It is impossible to decide this question once and for all. But if we pose that question to ourselves, and pursue it seriously in relation to the work, then we are already on our way.
posted by dis_integration at 10:22 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


by the "theory of art" you mean something like the museum theory, then I reserve the right to object. In most respects, the museum is a graveyard.

There's no such thing as "the museum theory." There is not really such a thing as "museum art." Museums reflect different theories of art and experience just as art criticism, practice, and teaching do. There are certainly criticisms of specific types of museum presentation, but I think your thinking is pretty mushy there - and perhaps narrow in terms of your awareness of contemporary museum experience.
posted by Miko at 11:08 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


"I confess my debt to Lessing, Herder, Kant and Hegel. I am not sure what you could possibly mean, however, by "outdated". Aesthetic theory (and philosophy in general) does not make progress in the way that the natural sciences do. "

"Theory of art" in this context comprises the general philosophy of defining what is and is not art and how that art functions. And you're off for two reasons there: While philosophy in general does not make progress in the way that natural sciences do, it does make progress; further, art itself does advance — there are many things considered art now that would not have been 100, 50 or even 20 years ago. In fact, the 20th Century was marked by a radical broadening of how we conceive of art in general, e.g. photography, then color photography, then digital photography, now gifs etc.

"There are a multiplicity of contemporary theories of art."

Right, but in order to be a coherent theory of art, that theory has to either encompass what artists and art audiences hold to be art by consensus, or lay out a strict definition and argument about why some otherwise-art isn't included.

"If by the "theory of art" you mean something like the museum theory, then I reserve the right to object."

As Miko pointed out, there is no "museum theory." You may reserve the right to object, but your objection may not hold much weight.

"In most respects, the museum is a graveyard. The art in it has been torn from the context in which it was able to stand among us like a living presence."

This is nonsense that comes from begging the question of disdain for museums as arbiters of taste. In most respects, a museum is a place that preserves objects and presents them for view.

"This is why the best contemporary museum-art, like Koons' work, functions to expose the museum for what it is."

I do not think that you know very much about contemporary art in general, or Koons' work in specific. Koons is explicitly challenging many of the assumptions that undergird your argument.

"We should ask ourselves: why is it so difficult to occupy the stance of the German Romantics towards the work of art today?"

Why is it so hard to occupy the position of Hegelian dialectics, or Heideggerian phenomenology? Because those philosophies were of their time, and as we've broadened our understanding of the world around us, the limitations and flaws of those philosophies are more and more apparent.

"Why is that attitude "outdated"? Why do we find it so difficult today to see art as something that can serve a moral and cognitive function?"

Because we have less tolerance for sloppy definitions? Because the moral imperatives of art have become, at best, muddled and insufficient for a majority of what we'd call art?

"Perhaps because the whole world has been turned into a mausoleum just like the museum, and that beauty, in the fullest sense, is no longer possible."

I find that "perhaps" is a word that suggest an argument but does not commit to providing one. If the argument is that the whole world is a mausoleum similar to your contention of the museum, and that beauty, in the fullest sense, is no longer possible, I'd say that's flat nonsense. There's still a vast realm of art that hews to the primacy of transcendent beauty; it's just not the whole of art, nor even the dominant expression of art.

"Adorno's dictum, "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" has yet to be understood."

I like Adorno, but he's talking out his ass on the regular. For a facile counterpoint, anyone calling Maya Angelou's work barbaric is abusing their terms.

"Art must be seen within the context of its history.

Sure. I dunno about must, but I'm willing to grant it as a general strategy.

In that context, the loss of the romantic outlook on art should be experienced as a wound. Our failure to feel this wound ought to worry us."

That doesn't follow — the "should" especially. It's weird revanchism that ignores the context of Romanticism itself and fails to account for how Romanticism actually ended — Realism did as much or more than the follies of nationalism that sprang from Romanticism.

"In any case, you underestimate the amount of effort required to appreciate the works of art you've mentioned."

Not really. And it's weird that Tolstoy, cited above as an example of the work required for appreciating art, would explicitly reject many of these arguments as decadent and corrupt, especially the over-estimation of "beauty."

"Much is required before we can bask in the warmth of Beethoven."

That's nonsense, unless you define "much" as including so many shared experiences that it's rare to find someone without them — and it wasn't all of Beethoven, it was specifically the Pastoral Symphony. Aside from Vivaldi, it's probably the most accessible "classical" work, and Fantasia is a mainstream classic aimed at families including children.

"And much more is required before we can appreciate the kind of art coming out of contemporary MFA programs."

Nope. Some of the art coming out of MFA programs is hermeneutic and obscure; other work — especially within pop idioms — is explicitly populist and accessible.

"If a work does not challenge us, it may be because we are already at its level. And, for that reason, while it may be art, it is not great art. "

Again, that's bullshit question-begging. There are very few who would be legitimately challenged by Starry Night by Van Gogh, and yet it's great art. (And that's ignoring that "great art" is a whole bunch of unsupportable assumptions within itself.)

"I reserve the right to draw distinctions between great art, mere art and non-art, and reject the notion that doing so is a kind of petulance."

Well, your reasoning is incoherent, your definitions don't reflect the current understanding of art, and you'd exclude works from being "great art" on conditions that have nothing to do with how the vast majority of people experience art. It's like saying that you reserve the right to declare Woody Woodpecker the highest achievement of Western culture — sure, you have that right, but it's silly to assert it. As for petulance, declaring that other people's definitions of "great art" are wrong because they don't rise to your level of required effort despite the fact that your definitions are idiosyncratic and muddled does seem pretty petulant.

"It is petulant to insist that whatever cultural productions we find agreeable are for that reason art."

Meh. It's not really, and no one has argued that, so whatevs.

"The agreeable is not the beautiful, and to collapse the two is to destroy the beautiful."

The agreeable can be the beautiful, and that only destroys the beautiful if you have a reductive view of "beautiful," something destined to cause you more angst than illumination.

"Making this distinction in practice is no simple task, since there is always the question whether it is we who have failed to see the artistic character of the work or whether it lacks this character entirely."

Or if that character is illusory and a dead end of criticism. "Beautiful" is so culturally loaded, so heaped with pig iron, that the etherial strivings of appeals to beauty can't be taken as an end-point, but rather a place to start the real criticism.

"It is impossible to decide this question once and for all. But if we pose that question to ourselves, and pursue it seriously in relation to the work, then we are already on our way."

Again, not really. "Beauty" is too fraught and too diffuse, and art itself has largely moved on from these questions and pretensions. So while you may be on your way, you are moving away from the goal of most art criticism, and even moving away from actual engagement with a large portion of what art is now.
posted by klangklangston at 12:41 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Except that's not really true at all in terms of how either the actual market for art or theory of art functions. I mean, that's a huge part of the career of Jeff Koons.

I am totally okay with a definition of art that dumps both Dan Brown and Jeff Koons by the side of the road.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:21 AM on February 14


« Older "33" is a video made by the students of color at U...  |  Worm study suggests that activ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments