Whither the Arts

Art, shmart. Oh dear, I’ve gone all philistine – but people do talk such nonsense about ‘art’ sometimes. Here’s some nonsense on stilts – a lecture by Helen Vendler.

I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph.

And – ? Because ten people have seen a photograph of a Greek marble for every one who has read some Plato, therefore the humanities should center on art rather than philosophy or history? Er – why? The reductio is certainly all too obvious. By the same token, for every person who has read a Shakespeare sonnet, a thousand (ten thousand? a hundred thousand?) have watched ‘Survivor’. So what?

But it gets worse – it gets into territory that always sets my teeth on edge.

The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived–as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.

Oh, bollocks. That only makes even a little sense if you substitute the word ‘novel’ for ‘the arts’ in that passage, and even then it doesn’t make much sense. There are plenty of novels that don’t do any such thing, and most of the rest of ‘the arts’ don’t either. It’s all just sentimental bilge.

There’s a lot of sentimental bilge about ‘art’ and ‘the arts’ out there. I probably used to believe a little of it myself – at least about literature, if not about all the arts. I don’t any more. I gave it up. For one thing I’ve read or started too many vacuous pretentious ‘literary’ novels, and I’ve talked to too many people who think all ‘serious’ novelists, no matter how ignorant and unthinking, are ‘creative’ and somehow important and significant in a way that no writer of ‘non-fiction’ can possibly be. Oh I see – so one kind of writer knows a lot and writes about it well, and the other kind just writes well, and the second one is better? Hmm.

Brian Leiter quotes from an anonymous (to us) poet who puts it this way:

As to poets giving insight into life (or whatever the words are), I have been struck time and again at how plain dumb sentimental religious (‘spiritual’) so many well-regarded poets are. Do they understand life, humanity? Through a glass barely. People like Vendler live in a political vacuum and worship purity and refinement of sensibility which is fine if joined with social responsibility and authentic concern for the victims of injustice.

Just so. I’ve talked to a good many plain dumb novelists, too. I don’t think they suddenly become less dumb just because they write stories, and I don’t believe they have more insight or wisdom or ability to be ‘true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived’ than philosophers or historians, or psychologists or sociologists, either.

This is relevant to what we’ve been talking about lately because of the ‘Freud was a novelist’ line of defense. Of course the main problem with that is that he wasn’t, that he was in a completely different kind of work, and that calling him a novelist is basically just a face-saving ploy. But even apart from that, I think there is a further problem in the sentimentality about novels and novelists in that defense which is related to the sentimentality about Freud himself. There is some underlying idea about the power and insight of novelists-and-Freud – about profundity and depth and complexity that are considered unique to fiction-writers. I don’t buy it. I like and admire really brilliant novelists as much as anyone, but I don’t think they’re magic. I don’t think they necessarily do tell us more than really brilliant writers and thinkers in other fields do. And in fact I think it’s a form of anti-intellectualism to claim that they do. So I may be a philistine but I’m not an anti-intellectual.

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