Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Salon: Art for Art's Sake?

Hello all and welcome back to our week salon. Each week I'll post query. I'll do my best to present interesting topics and if I fail, send me a topic. Last week's participation was surprising high. The questions and comments were thoughtful, critical and made for a very interesting discussion.

Mel made some interesting points, arguments which stayed with me all week. I'd like to continue with some of his points today.Today's query is:

What is your view on art for art's sake? Is art political? How much weight should we give to an author's background such as gender and race? Should literature be examined purely on the content and literary elements? What does that mean? Are there limits and value to the formalist strategy?

I remember studying critical strategies for reading in college. We looked at several and the one I believe Mel was referring to is the New Critics or Formalist Critics. These critics "focus on the formal elements of a work- its language, structure, and tone. A formalist reads literature as an independent work of art rather than as reflection of the author's state of mind or as a representation of a moment in history." New Critics give special attention to intrinsic matters in literature such as diction, irony, paradox, metaphor and symbol. Information such as biography, history, politics, economics are considered extrinsic matters to formalists.

Other strategies include biographical, psychological, historical literary, cultural, gender and feminist criticism to name a few. Have you studied any of these approaches? Regardless of an understanding of formal approaches, as a reader what is relevant to you?

I believe literature reflects who we are and what a society values at a moment in time. It is a mirror and lens. I do not believe a formalist approach alone adequately reveals the value of a work. I do not subscribe to the notion of art for art's sake. Art is more than an expression of aesthetic worth. It is to quote Elma Lewis, "I don't understand art for art's sake. Art is the guts of the people."

What's your opinion?


Nymeth said...

I did study most of those critical approaches in college, and my answer is that they're all useful, but never in isolation. On the one hand, I'm a big believer in "the personal is political", and that goes for books too. On the other hand, I think literature does many things, and so it can be analysed from many different angles. Aestheticism is one among many. We all pick approaches that speak to us personally - I'm interested in what literature has to say about gender, identity, and the world we live in, and that determines how I read. But the beauty of there being so many different voices in this conversation is that there will always be someone else who'll pick a different approach and reveal a whole other side of the same book I read.

susan said...

"the beauty of there being so many different voices in this conversation is that there will always be someone else who'll pick a different approach and reveal a whole other side of the same book I read."

I agree.

Wendy said...

I studied these approaches in reference to art history (my major). I was sort of educated to think that "authorship", looking at a work solely as a creation of its artist/author, is one of the lower forms of critique, and so I kind of feel guilty about my interest in looking at both art and books in that way; I am fascinated by it. But that background also makes me frustrated when I get in discussions where it seems like "authorial intent" is the most important thing. I admire those authors who let go of their own "authorial intent" and show interest in the interpretations of others, as long as those interpretations are well-founded; I don't know if I could be so open-minded.

Gavin said...

I agree with Nymeth. The personal is political, even if we are not conscious of it. I have not studied any of these critical approaches and feel a sense of relief because I do not feel obligated to analysis what I read.

I read to stay informed and I read for pleasure. I am interested in what literature has to say about the past, the present and our many possible futures. I hope to stay open to different voices, to different points of view, but it is the words, the language and the author's intellect that speaks to me. If a book brings me to a new place, introduces me to new people and new ideas, that makes me happy. I do not have to analysis it but I do want to share it.

Michelle (su[shu]) said...

Like Gavin, I haven't studied any of those critical approaches. And to some extent, it does free me up a bit to interpret the books I read based on my own experiences with them.

I think aestheticism in books forms quite an important part. Literature is a form of art, and in most art forms, aesthetics is almost always part of the argument. But I also think that in literature (like in architecture), there's got to be a concept behind, a driving force that's leading the design, if you please, somewhere.

Some books are just pleasurable reads, with hardly any hidden/obvious messages to pass on to us readers. But I don't think it takes away from the fact that the book is still a form of literary art, especially if the prose is especially good.

Personally though, I have to say that I've hardly paid any attention to the background of the authors I read. But I'm starting to appreciate that sometimes knowing where the author is coming from does help with understanding why the book was written the way it was.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Whether we have studied literary criticism or know about different approaches to looking at books, we STILL bring with us the "teachings" of our cultures, which today is patriarchal and centered on men and their wants and needs. The reader and the writer both have biases. (Can you tell that yesterday I finished reading The War Against Women by Marilyn French? I read it for the Women Unbound reading challenge.)

Eva said...

I'm not sure that I understand the distinction the post is making. What does 'literature for art's sake' mean? That said, I'll try my best to give my two cents.

I never took a literature class in college, because I wanted to avoid all the 'analysis' stuff that really comes between me and my experience of a book. When I read, I always bring myself, a feminist, a multiculturalist, to to the table. And of course I'm aware of the author's gender and race...I think this awareness mainly manifests itself in my trust/skpeticism continuum...if a male author is portraying female characters oddly, I'm much less likely to go along with it than I would a female author. The same with white authors portraying non-white characters. At the same time, though, for me to love a book, I have to be entertained. And the writing has to be good (according to my tastes, at least). Is that 'art for art's sake'?

penryn said...

So many smart things being said!

Like others, I think you get the greatest value out of a variety of approaches. I like to (try to) experience a book as aesthetically and emotionally as possible on the first run, and then to return to it and start a sort of back and forth between authorial intent and authorial bias.

I am a visual artist, so when I read the prompt that's where I immediately went. I actually think it's a much hairier issue with visual art, because the dichotomy between idea and form has swung so far over to the idea side, to the point where mastery of form just isn't necessary at all. I think literature has a much better balance between idea and form, and also a much better balance between authorial intent and readers' interpretations.

As with all things, balance and moderation are key. Of course, I personally find it harder and harder to turn off my analyzer, my skeptic, when I'm reading. Damned college!