11 March 2008

The problem with "high art"

Over the weekend, I tried to pinpoint what it was about Stephen Marche's essay on Robbe-Grillet that bothered me. (I really liked Raymond + Hannah--there's no axe to grind here, just some honest questioning.) I couldn't get to a computer and wound up scribbling my thoughts in a notebook. Such a strong statement was bound to get a reaction: Daniel Green and Scott Esposito have already posted their well-substantiated views, but here are my purely subjective thoughts (for good measure).

For all I know, Marche may be right. I don't have the qualifications or the knowledge to dismantle his arguments. But there's something about this that doesn't sit well with me. As a "common reader" (whatever that really means), armed with only a BA and without any writerly pretentions, I actually enjoyed reading Jealousy...perhaps because of the challenge it presented. Doesn't any disparagement of this style of writing, this quibble with form, go against the exploration he's discussing? Granted, I have not read any of Robbe-Grillet's criticism and only a couple of interviews (and only one novel). Strict dictums such as Marche describes cannot be religiously adhered to any more than plan traditionalism should be (as he states in the essay).

But I can't help but think that the whole idea of "high art" comes with the unnecessary labels of difficulty-for-its-own-sake, sterility, and elitism only because that's what the "experts" say and so that's what people come to accept--without having read any of the actual work itself. The repuation becomes a barrier to engagement for the reader. Unfortuantely, too many people unthinkingly tend to accept these qualifiers and so deprive themselves of the pleasure of reading the work for its own sake (and even of discovering that it isn't so "difficult" after all).

I've posted about the problem of the academy's intervention between the reader and the text before. I'll also add that terms such as "difficult" and "pleasurable" create false dichotomies in that they are entirely subjective words that only serve to make judgments for others, denying individuals the right to think for themselves.

I was very interested to read about Miriam Burstein's current adventure in teaching The Erasers to a group of freshmen. I hope she posts more about the class as time goes on. This is what higher education should be about--introducing students to something different (and maybe even a little strange) and seeing what they make of it.

If only attitudes about art could be those of exploration--even adventure!--and not of holier-than-thou, too-serious boredom (regardless of whether this be the fault of critics or even of the authors themselves). Let the readers decide.

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