thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Shall I compare thee…?

with 2 comments

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Third in a series beginning with Art in the family.

A bit of clarification perhaps. I didn’t mean by what I said last time that every aesthetic judgment anyone makes will have those three ‘levels’, ie:

(i) What (or who) is inside a particular artistic category (eg ‘poetry’) and what (or who) is outside.

(ii) Whether there are subcategories within (eg) ‘poetry’, and if so whether some subcategories are ‘higher’ than others. (If both the sonnet and nonsense verse are subcategories of ‘poetry’, is the sonnet ‘higher’ than nonsense verse?)

(iii) Personal taste: do you prefer the sonnets of Shelley, Keats or Wordsworth; or which of Shakespeare’s sonnets do you think is the greatest?

I mentioned these more to acknowledge that an individual aesthetic judgment will often contain within itself component judgments like these.

The third level (or question, or issue) – personal taste – will also very often spread across the other two. It could be a matter of taste why one person regards greetings card verse as poetry while another person doesn’t. Or (perhaps for very different reasons) the song lyrics of Leonard Cohen or Jacques Brel; or (for yet more different reasons) Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer. These are personal taste questions (iii) but they are also category or domain questions (i).

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Then as far as (ii) is concerned someone may be quite happy to admit Grand Opera, Wagnerian opera, Savoy Opera, Broadway musicals, and the works of the Really Useful Theatre Company into the category of ‘musical theatre’, but be at the same time quite convinced, again purely for reasons of personal taste, that a nice meaty Gesamtkunstwerk (whether by Wagner or anyone else) beats everything else into a cocked hat.

The subjective dimension seems unavoidable. This seems so whenever we want to apply the concept of ‘artistic category’ the way we need to when we call someone the ‘greatest poet’ or ‘one of the greatest composers’. We seem to lack purely objective criteria for the categories that really interest us, and the ones we can specify objectively do not quite do it for us.

For example, there is probably a way to specify objectively a set of English Renaissance playwrights which includes at least:

William Shakespeare
Robert Greene
Christopher Marlowe
Thomas Nashe
Ben Jonson
John Fletcher
Thomas Middleton
Francis Beaumont

To qualify for a list like this we could stipulate they must be English; they must have lived between date x and date y; and they must have written plays which were performed in the theatre. We shall assume for the moment that there is a purely ‘objective’ way of specifying the condition must written plays which were performed in the theatre.

We then get the list (the one above, or a longer one), and we ask ourselves: ‘Who is the best on this list?’ and (let’s say) we answer: ‘William Shakespeare!’

Christopher Marlowe - or someone very like him

Christopher Marlowe - or someone very like him

But is this all we’re saying when we say that William Shakespeare is one of the greatest playwrights, writers, poets, dramatists? With apologies to admirers of (say) Christopher Marlowe, I think we’re saying a lot more than this. The list should be much longer – not just England, not just the 16th-17th centuries. Maybe not just verse drama?

The point I’m trying to get at in this laboured way is that I think this approach falsifies what we mean when we talk of the greatness of Shakespeare. We’re not just saying we think he comes top of some finite, objectively determined list. We’re not saying he’s won a competition. And we’re not describing his greatness in a way that leaves it completely open as to whether there might be one or more film or TV script writers who could well be tons better, but unfortunately didn’t meet the criteria so were left off the list.

For practical, historical, psychological and biographical reasons it might be hard to imagine how Shakespeare could have been what he was and done what he did outside the context of his contemporaries and the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre he thrived in. But we would want to say that at least part of his greatness is regardless of his ‘competition’. It is not just that he is greater than Marlowe, greater than Beaumont, Middleton and Fletcher; not just that he’s greater than Ibsen, Shaw, Racine, Strindberg and Chekhov. We want to say he’s up there with Beethoven, Dante, Mozart, Homer, Rembrandt

And immediately we’re back at that ‘subjective’ puzzle. Not everyone would agree with that list. Some would add Goethe, some would add JS Bach. Some would take Dante off but add Wagner, or Virgil, or Picasso, or Michelangelo – and so it goes on.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

There seems to be a subtle paradox lurking around here which is to do with the ‘craft’ of art. On the one hand the craft – the practical mechanics of what an artist, writer, musician etc does, and the physical context within which he or she does it – is inextricably bound up with, is almost, in a really obvious way, identical to the content of what that individual does. But on the other hand, in the work as we apprehend it, as we appreciate, enjoy, experience and live it, there seems to be something which transcends the craft – which comes near to making the craft incidental.

I almost want to say that it is this transcendence which is what marks out the truly great artist, but I am aware this is hovering dangerously close to the clouds of metaphysics. I want to say this transcendence has got something to do with why the ‘top of the class’ paradigm (which the grammar of comparatives and superlatives pushes us towards) is so misleading, so That is not it at all in a Prufrock kind of way.

But I don’t think I want to say that it is only the ‘great artists’ who do this transcending. It’s probably more that they tend to do the transcending more supremely well.

I shall worry about the hole I seem to have dug myself into next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

25 February 2010 at 10:29 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. You are grappling with exactly the issue I’m trying to clarify for myself as well. To make the question even more complex, I would suggest that the question is not first “is X the best” but merely “is X great?”

    I have also discovered that I seem to need to broaden the question beyond the arts. I think the question has to address our evaluation of so many things which we evaluate without applying a scientific approach. What is it about this child’s smile, or sunset, the frown of confusion or distress, the undeserved act of kindness or loyalty, an ingenious solution, what is it about truth or beauty which elicits a spontaneous and sometimes absolutely unshakeable assessment of its intrinsic value? How do I assess my own assessment?

    I suspect there is not a single simple answer to these questions. But I am beginning to suspect that it is going to include some modicum of “we can’t be sure of our assessments – no matter how right they seem.”

    I know that’s true for all scientific conclusions as well. But there’s a difference, and I’m not satisfied yet with what I understand about those differences.

    I eagerly look forward to your continuing thoughts on this. Right now your hole looks quite surprisingly similar to the one I’m in. I would be surprised, though, if you find yourself taking the same path to get out of it.

    In any case, thank you for what I am experiencing as a fascinating and stimulating trip – even if it is half in the dark.


    Terry Sissons

    26 February 2010 at 11:32 pm

    • Thanks Terry,

      Agree about is X great? vs is X the best?. I think I’m taking a meandering route towards that point because certainly in aesthetic appreciation X is great often includes an implied X is (one of) the best – otherwise we could end up concluding that perhaps everything is great.

      It’s a bit of a conundrum – which I suspect could have something to do with the conundrum that with the arts & works of art we both want (and need) to apply categories and want (and need) to transcend those same categories.

      Thanks for helping the pondering along.


      Chris Lawrence

      27 February 2010 at 1:46 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: