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Monday, November 26, 2007

Enough with the Classics

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/26/07 at 04:33 PM

Those Golden Ages were base metal in their own time.

On 6 November 1989 The New Republic published a special 75th anniversary issue, reprinting selected articles from back in the day and current articles of a reflective sort. Their long-term film critic, Stanley Kauffmann, published a column that reflected, however briefly, on film’s history and accomplishments. Toward the middle he had a Big Paragraph:

After we have at the beginnings [of film], what can we say today about the results? What has film accomplished since then? Once, after a meeting in which films were glowingly discussed, a well-known poet challenged me to name one film that was the equal of the greatest work in other arts, the work of Sophocles or Dante or Michelangelo or Bach or Tolstoy. The answer was, is, double. First, there is no such film. There may never be such a film. Second, who is the Sophocles or Bach of the 20th century? Great artists there have certainly been in our time, and I would not blithely equate even the best films I know with the work of Joyce or Picasso. But few would rank Joyce or Picasso or the other masters of our time with the greatest artists in history; and the overwhelming fact is that, arriving in this century that has been stormy even for the oldest arts, film has created hundreds of works that are now part of the cultural legacy of every civilized human being.

I agree with that last complex clause – “and the overwhelming . . . human being” – but believe that that his central point is ill-conceived. In fact, I fear that even to attempt to argue the matter is to loose; for now you are committed to showing that this or that film – take your pick, The Godfather, Persona, Rashomon, La Dolce Vita, La Grande Illusion, whatever – is the equal of work by the Parade of Grand Masters Stretching into the Distant Past. It’s an argument you can’t win.

But what argument should be made? And how?


How about that such things are for history to judge? One can easily imagine beings 500 years from now lamenting that their art suffers in comparison with that of Homer, Shakespeare, dino De Laurentiis, and other Great Masters.

By on 11/26/07 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How about arguing that cinema, and we should include television as well, is more than a cultural legacy--it is, understandably, our dominating medium for both representing and understanding our world. With sight and sound, cinema umbrellas most every previous form. We may not see many movies that only show pages turning in a book, but the potential always exists, and we know it. With technological advances (I’m thinking mainly of DVDs and the like), now gone is that characteristic passivity we usually associate with movie watching, i.e. not having control of our personal duration of the narrative experience (as we do with books, paintings, etc.).

Kauffman’s passage is very much about canonicity. That he cites Dante at all speaks volumes about our inscribed values. Of course movies like The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, and Pulp Fiction will find there way into that canon. But Kauffman is also correct, cinema is still a baby, it probably hasn’t produced a bona-fide Bach yet (though I’d say it’s had its share of Fitzgeralds and Faulkners). It’s only a matter of time. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be making movies. Further, the JFK-Nixon debates, Armstrong on the moon, the towers falling--these are historical records for the ages, powerful precisely because of their medium.

I think an important question is, for how long? The internet/personal computer is an even wider platform than cinema. At this point, its aesthetics and narrative structures are undeniably sketchy. We have no idea yet how to canonize the Web. Google can’t really sit next to Bach. Microsoft is closer in kind to Technicolor than it is to Virgil. Once a clearer model gets going, I imagine that artists’ pages (or collectives’ pages) will be among our primary destinations.

By theavantridiculous on 11/26/07 at 08:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A work of art is either great or it is not.  I don’t think there are varying degrees of artistic greatness once one reaches a certain level of perfection.  At that point, I wonder if we add anything to the equation by saying “X is great, but less great than Y.” Instead, we must demand accurate description at that stage: “X is emotionally turbulent, while Y is meditative.” Otherwise, we risk simply valuing one form of perfection over another for no other reason than personal taste.

So that Satie’s “Gymnopedies” are as great as Bach’s *St. Matthew’s Passion*.  And Springsteen’s “Thunderroad” is as perfect as Shakespeare’s *The Tempest*.  Each provides different pleasures, but I don’t want the discussion to become a matter of “more pleasure.” Nor do I think the pleasures are somehow more sophisticated in one instance than another.

For film, I find that a great work, such as *The Big Lebowsky* or *Kiss Me Deadly* or *The Philadelphia Story* or *Barry Lyndon*, is simply great and can stand beside other great human achievements, other things humans have done with excellence and grace: an amazing sonata, an amazing sonnet, an amazing sorbet, an amazing touchdown.

By on 11/27/07 at 08:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I disagree, Luther.  Isn’t it one of the great human joys to argue about what is more great than what, and why?  Not that this activity is enjoyed by everyone, and there are a whole range of moral / esthetic condemnations of it, but observationally, it exists.  If you condemn comparisons of personal taste, there goes a whole range of human activity.

Of course I can understand your statement as an expression of your own personal preferences, as instead of “I don’t think there are varying degrees of artistic greatness once one reaches a certain level of perfection”, something like “I don’t care to have the kind of argument that presupposes that there are varying degrees of artistic greatness once one reaches a certain level of perfection.” But someone else could equally forcefully write that “I don’t like the flattening of degrees of greatness of art into the generic ‘great’, as if esthetic judgement fails above a certain point,” and I don’t see how the argument between the two really could be settled.

By on 11/27/07 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of going somewhat off topic, the ‘Shakespeare would be making movies’ claim is glib (though I confess to claiming he would still be a man of the stage, with similar glibness). The infancy of film isn’t far removed from the infancy of theatre as the Elizabethans knew it, so distinct was it from Greek drama, even the mystery cycles. Indeed, film has a good century under its belt, which seems sufficient time to stop thinking of it as a youthful medium, all the more so given the speed of the technological advances upon which it has been reliant over the last hundred years. Unless the argument made above is for film being especially demotic and Shakespeare a populist. Dickens, maybe (well, definitely), but Shakespeare, ‘Man of the People’, is a truism that doesn’t bear scrutiny. Not that I’m suggesting the opposite is the case; he was no Jonson, but the raffish, populist character of Elizabethan theatre is a modern, and understandably attractive, myth (see Shakespeare In love, Dominic Dromgoole). As much as it may have been the case, it’s to be remembered that Renaissance players acted before, and Shapespeare wrote for, monarchs. Harold Bloom is convincing on Shakespeare’s language being at times formidable for even literate 16th & 17th century theatregoers (and a truly populist Elizabethan entertainer would have avoided The Globe altogether and run bear-baiting and cockfighting pits down the road).

This said, as a collaborative medium (the collaborative medium par excellence given that it encompasses visual art, narrative, music, drama), film simply doesn’t compare with any medium bar theatre (with Will on the brain, I’m thinking of The Tempest’s musical score and sound effects, large cast with scant chance for doubling, the mechanics of staging ‘spirits of t’air’, monstrous Caliban, a shipwreck). The Parade of Grand Masters is a list of individuals and where they diverge from being the singular artist (e.g. Renaissance painters getting their students to do the colouring-in, Middleton’s revisions to Measure for Measure, etc.), it is never to the extent that a film director needs a scriptwriter, cinematographer and so on. Even Citizen Kane was co-scripted.

By on 11/27/07 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich makes a good point. Luther, the concept of a threshold of greatness is problematic. Canon-war debates speak to this endlessly, so I won’t really get into it other than to remind you of L.A. circa 2032, as seen in Demolition Man, where the only music these really advanced people listen to is commercial jingles from the late 20th. It’s comedy, but it’s not far from truth: we’ve no idea how these thresholds might change. Shakespeare sat side-by-side with his contemporaries, now he’s in a stratosphere of his own. It would not surprise me if 100 years from now Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson have far more fans than Springsteen and Dylan, where people might say Springsteen was good, but Waits was great.

By theavantridiculous on 11/27/07 at 01:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, Is it safe to assume that Shakespeare was consciously not writing mystery cycles or morality plays? His theater didn’t just exercise language; it took dramaturgy to places unknown (think of the soliloquies, the spying, the sequels, the plays-within-plays, the excessive and multiplying dramatic ironies, etc.)

We can look to the soliloquy to see a marked difference between the morality play and Shakespeare’s stage (and Marlowe’s stage before that). Compared to these earlier theaters, the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare decidedly don’t have much in the way of direct audience address (save a few Choruses, hanging on from centuries past). Soliloquists on the Renaissance stage don’t speak to theatergoers, they speak to themselves. This distancing takes theater one step closer to what we now know as cinema: there’s a filter, or a screen, between Shakespeare’s stage and his audience. By no means am I suggesting that Shakespeare’s plays are better suited to cinema (see Branagh and Zeffirelli for ample proof), but only that Shakespeare’s interests, along with language, were to broaden and challenge his medium and form. I think he would have had a terrific time with celluloid and digital platforms.

Shakespeare was a great collaborator. If he didn’t want to collaborate, he wouldn’t have written and staged drama. He probably would have followed in the footsteps of Spenser. We’re not sure that every line spoken in his theater was written exclusively by the playwright and not a bit by the actors themselves. Even still, the effects of cinema, those things not in the script, may be collaborative while the script stays with one. Citizen Kane is co-written, but most of the films from David Lynch, Woody Allen, and Lars von Trier are not.

By theavantridiculous on 11/27/07 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich and Jordan:

Sure, it’s fun to argue about whether X is better than Y.  I just wonder if we add anything to the meaning of a statement by saying “X is great” as opposed to “X has attributes 1, 2, and 3.” We can then argue whether atrributes 1, 2, and 3 are more important than attributes 4, 5, and 6, but at least we’re on somewhat more concrete footing.  (Provided we’re clear what we mean by “important”—i.e., “Attributes 1, 2, and 3 are socially useful” or “Attributes 4, 5, and 6 make listeners feel great” or whatever.)

And having more fans cannot be a measure of greatness.  For centuries, Bach was neglected.  Biber remains neglected.  Shakespeare was criticized for not following the classical unities.  Late modernists opposed romanticism.  One hundred years from now, I have no doubt that some excellent works will be appreciated, and others will be forgotten, waiting to be rediscovered.  This isn’t an argument for quietism, but I also think there are cycles of greatness: it is so wrong if one generation becomes more obsessed by Euripides than Sophocles, or the moderns over the ancients, so long as they are not replacing great work with shit work?

That’s different from the fear of a culture that fails to recognize human achievements of style and grace at all.  Once we get to the point where commercials are the only art, I’m afraid we’ll have more important worries than whether or not people are listening to great music.  The question, then, is whether we’re really heading in this direction.  I’m not a Virginia Postrel (sp?) fan, but I think she has a point that commercial culture has become *more* artistic over the last century, less dumbed down.  At the same time, there is more great music, art, and literature available to more people for less money than ever before.  I mean, growing up, I couldn’t buy a Bach album because we had no music stores that carried them.  Now, I can go to Barnes and Noble and pick up the complete works or buy a cheap, excellent Naxos recording, or order a used CD for $1 from Amazon, or stream a recording for free on-line.  If you think about it, more people today have *heard* more great music performed than most of the great composers pre-1900. 

So I’m not afraid of some nightmarish, totalizing commericializing of culture.

By on 11/27/07 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

‘Kauf[f]man[n]’s passage is very much about canonicity...’ So it seems, after a long and lamented absence, that Kaufman is back on the Valve.

Also, Trent: your first comment up there … very funny.

By Adam Roberts on 11/27/07 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thing is, it’s hard to compare a movie with other genres because a movie is a single performance while the other genres, even novels, are the recipes for a performance. Which makes even a very great movie problematic as part of a canon, not because it can not define a tradition or civilization but because it is too damned definitive. Of course the watchings of Casablanca evolve just as the readings of Don Quixote evolve but it just isn’t the same because no novel ever controlled its reader to the extent that a movie controls its viewers.

By Jim Harrison on 11/27/07 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “I just wonder if we add anything to the meaning of a statement by saying “X is great” as opposed to “X has attributes 1, 2, and 3.””

In my opinion, when people argue about whether a work of art is great, what they really mean is that it’s esthetically great—or, at least, that’s the most interesting to me part of what they mean.  If someone says “X is great” and they are talking about a novel or an art photograph rather than a scientific paper or a news photograph, they are primarily making an esthetic claim.  Sure, some people think greatness means number of fans, but I don’t think we have to give them any serious consideration.  And to some people, greatness means influence on later art or on culture, but I think that’s a seperable matter, in theory.

So if someone says “X is great” and you ask “Why?”, certainly their response may be that it is great because it has attributes 1, 2, and 3.  That a better response than “Because I said so,” because it allows for conversation.  But the conversation about attributes 1, 2, and 3 is very different in the context of a preceeding claim that X is great than it would be if you didn’t make such a claim.  In the second case, you may just be talking about the work descriptively.  In the first, you’re talking about it descriptively as justification for the esthetic judgement that it is great, and not only that—because “great” is not half of a binary—that you can determine its degree of greatness compared to other art.  I think that focussing too soon on attributes 1, 2, and 3 runs the risk of forgetting why the discussion is happening, especially since there is a perfectly reasonable alternative academic-descriptive form of speech about art that has largely given up on esthetics.

By on 11/28/07 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: I suppose I want to push the aesthete’s judgement back to the object.  “What is it about the art object makes you feel a sense of greatness?”

I mean, can we really debate experiences?  Can I say that my aesthetic experience with Copland is greater than my aesthetic experience with Barber?  Isn’t that a question of sincerity: “Are you *really* moved more by Copland than by Barber?”

Otherwise, even the question about aesthetic effect come down to the qualities in the art object that are provoking these aesthetic effects.  Joyce’s “The Dead” provokes an intense emotional reaction out me; Donald Barthleme’s “The Indian Uprising” promotoes hillarity and defamiliarization. 

“Great” just comes once someone decides that certain reactions amd certain provocateurs are all that we mean when we call something great.

My sleeping pill is kicking in.  ByEbYe

By on 11/29/07 at 01:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope you don’t mind if I add to each point given so far.

It’d be interesting to imagine that people in the future might look up to Homer, Shakespeare, and de Laurentiis. Here are other things to consider: it’s possible that there may have been several Homeric epics, and only two survived. Only around a third of Shakespeare’s plays are usually performed and a portion of his sonnets read. Finally, de Laurentiis is primarily a producer.

I’m sure that The Wizard of Oz is part of the film canon, but I watched it when I was a child and can hardly think of anything important to say about it today. I enjoyed watching *The Godfather* and *Pulp Fiction*, but after watching *Donnie Brasco* I no longer found the glorification of gangster life significant.

When I read about the argument that greatness is based on perfection, I’m reminded of an argument that I raised in the past about Laurence Perrine, who wrote in his textbook that a short story may be evaluated by considering two questions: did the work fulfill its central purpose (i.e., it is an organic whole) and is that purpose significant? In which case, we may argue that a sorbet or touchdown are perfect, but how important are they to us?

The idea of personal taste is probably open to a lot of consideration. It is possible, for example, that my tastes are strongly influenced by education, advertising, peer pressure, and neurological processes (i.e., the attraction of spectacular special effects, or in general bright colors, fast-moving images, and loud, regular musical beats accompanied by melodies that are easy to follow). Is it possible that if the first three are modified then my tastes might change, and that the fourth implies that watching commercial films and listening to commercial pop music aren’t things which I deliberately have to choose to do?

About the comparison between theater and film, it is also interesting to note that generally advancements in technology did not play a great deal in theater. In film, however, there is a lot to the point that the medium is still identified as film and yet is radically altered. For starters, film is sometimes no longer used, and images and sounds may now be manipulated and even created using computers. It is even possible now to make a whole movie using computers, with only real-life figures used as models. Perhaps even some computer games can be seen as movies, but with actors manipulated by players, and there might even come a point when virtual reality will come into play.

About debates on the canon, some writers argue that this might be a concern only of some countries, like the U.S. As for the argument that Waits and Anderson might be seen as great compared to Springsteen and Dylan in the future, perhaps we should imagine who were the pop greats from, say, fifty years ago, and whether young people still value them today. Also, what is the possibility that by that time we’d be old enough such that pop music will simply be too loud and painful, and that we’d rather listen to Satie?

One can imagine Shakespeare using film today, but given the fact that there are some artists who still use theater and the written word, one can also imagine otherwise.

About the claim that commercial works are more artistic today, I recall Fred Turner giving the same argument, that we are more in touch with Bach today than people were when Bach was alive. The question is, who is “we”?

If there is one thing to note about comparing *Casablanca* and reading *Don Quixote*, it’s that it’s probably easier to watch movies than to read books. The second requires greater concentration and certainly more time.

By on 11/30/07 at 12:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Who is the Sophocles or Bach of the 20th century?”

I can’t be the only one who’s willing to bite the bullet and just answer the question.  Eliot, Joyce, Fellini, James, the Beatles, Radiohead.  Now, obviously, they’re doing different things than Sophocles or Bach.  None of the writers gets to come up with the innovation of a third character, and none of the musicians comes close to Bach if it’s counterpoint you’re looking for.  And I should also say, these are just a few that I happened to know & think of.  There are huge swaths of literature & music that I don’t know well, and no doubt there are some towering presences in those ambits as well.

But really: Sophocles?  Indeed, he wrote some very, very powerful plays, which have remained so for a long, long time.  But the idea that no one in the 20th century even comes close just strikes me as a strange form of classics-worship.  Which is an aesthetic unto itself, and one whose appeal I appreciate.  But I wouldn’t trade my copies of Ezra Pound & Kid A for that aesthetic worldview, and I don’t think myself the poorer for it.

By on 11/30/07 at 01:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Christopher M on this but I’d go one step further and say that popular culture is culture.

We know Shakespeare’s plays today because people enjoyed his plays back then and still do. Tastes have changed and more people today can relate to the aesthetics of Pulp Fiction or Battlestar Galactica but that doesn’t make them lesser art than the classics. If anything, they are elevated by the fact that they speak to the same desires to explore and know better our human condition. Just because Shakespeare and Dante, etc. started talking about these concepts doesn’t mean the conversation ended with them.

By on 11/30/07 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One problem I’ve got is that many discussions of this issue tend to treat artistic quality being one-dimensional; thus we can arrange all works in order between best and worst. The great ones are simply the ones at the top of the order. Kauffmann is then asserting that all films are lower in the list than certain past works of literature, art, and music.

I don’t think artistic quality is one-dimensional. For example, I’m reasonably convinced that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis are all at the same level of greatness. I’m also sure that the music of Parker and Davis is a more sophisticated than that of Armstrong or Ellington. What do I mean by that?

For example, if you understand the music of Parker or Davis, then you will understand the music of Armstrong and Ellington, but the reverse is not necessarily true. The level of understanding needed to hear Parker’s music as music presupposes the level of understanding needed to hear Armstong or Ellington as music. Someone who comprehends Davis may or may not like Armstrong and Ellington, but if he or she dislikes either, it’s not because he or she can’t hear their music as music.

It is quite possible, however, to be able to understand Armstrong or Ellington, and to like them (though this is secondary to my point), but be unable to hear Parker or Davis as playing music. Historically, this was quite common. Many swing musicians and fans simply couldn’t hear bop and later jazz as music. It sounded like disorganized sound.

It’s not at all clear to me just what greatness is.

By Bill Benzon on 11/30/07 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would start with the converse argument: why would film be necessarily unable to achieve what other arts have?  There’s generally no reason I can think of to assert that film will necessarily be unable to do that (it may or may not have done so as of yet, which is a different question).

Specific comments:

1. Film usually is collaborative, but not always, to the extreme of Stan Brakhage’s hand-painting each frame of his later work.  And many other arts are also collaborative, so there’s no necessary difference there.
2. Plenty of other arts aren’t recipes for performances. Architecture, for instance. (or if architecture is also a recipe, then what isn’t?)
3. Somewhere within Kaufmann’s statement is some sort of claim about modernity, that modernity is of necessity subordinate or inferior to previous eras. That’s at least a potentially possible claim - that some early era (say, Periclean Athens or the 15th century Italy or Jacobean England or 19th century Russia or any other era one might choose) had the best aesthetic theory or the best culture or in general best environment for art. But, unless Kaufmann is making some sort of fairly extreme claim - that that lost Golden Age can never be re-achieved by humans again - then even if modernity has not yet achieved that level, then it’s a possibility that humans will again sometime in the future do so.  That Kaufmann praises figures from both ancient Greece (Sophocles) and Renaissance (Dante, Michelangelo) indicates he believes Renaissance is a possible event (it happened in the past, and thus is at least possible in the future).
4. And it’s hard for me to assert (with a straight face, at least) that humans are somehow permanently worse or less able than they were in some earlier era. Though they may certainly temporarily be worse or less able at various times.

By on 12/03/07 at 01:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But Bill, isn’t one of the things you need to know to understand the music of Parker or Davis the music of Ellington and Armstrong?  Which would mean that Ellington and Armstrong have aesthetic priority, insofar as their music is a necessary condition for the music of Parker and Davis.  Is it then sophistication or simply “standing on the shoulders of giants”? 

This is clearer with the modernists.  You can’t say *The Cantos* are more sophisticated than *King Lear* simply because you need to know more to understand Pound’s project.  Sure, if you understand *The Cantos*, chances are you can understand *King Lear*, and sure, the converse isn’t true. (I, for one, do not understand Pound and do understand Shakespeare fairly well.)

I suppose I see a difference between sophistication and complexity. 

But I agree that greatness presupposes some single quality that all art strives equally to attain.  But if different arts—and individual artists—strive for various different qualities, we end up comparing apples and oranges.  Unless, of course, one begins by arguing that while artists do not all want to master one quality, that one quality is the most important quality an art can have—which would mean that many artists are simply out of running from the start.  That’s fine, but I don’t see the point of such an argument.  Once you decide that “engagement in the struggle of the working class” is the quality that defines all Great Art, what’s the point of using the term “Great Art”?  It’s simply a tautology.  You’re just saying “Art that engages the struggle of the working class” is “art that engages the struggle of the working class.”

This is why a descriptive aesthetics seems more important to me than an evaluative aesthetics.  It’s the old “ought” from an “is” dilemma.

By on 12/03/07 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know what “aesthetic priority” means or is about. You’re waffling with the “simply” before “standing on the shoulders of giants.” That “standing” is about aspects of the music one can describe, and there is a logical priority such that you have to know certain techniques before you can understand certain other techniques. Bad bebop is bad music, buy it’s still more sophisticated or complex than good swing or trad.

As for “complexity” and “sophistication,” it depends on what you mean by the terms, descriptively, whether there’s an important difference.  Descriptively, calculation with Roman numerals is more complex than calculation with Arabic numerals - trying doing long division in Roman numerals. But the Arabic notation is more sophisticated. Can a similar distinction be sustained in the arts? I suspect so.

By Bill Benzon on 12/03/07 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

burritoboy: “And it’s hard for me to assert (with a straight face, at least) that humans are somehow permanently worse or less able than they were in some earlier era.”

But there are a lot of artistic theories that presuppose that there are a limited number of basic ways to make art, and that they get used up.  Harold Bloom, for instance, seems to think that after Shakespeare did all those things with the English language, later writers no matter how able are doomed to take off on Shakespeare, take off on someone taking off on Shakespeare, etc. until finally there’s nothing left to do.  Or I remember one of the “death of the novel” quotes being something about how there are only a certain number of basic plots, and then the realistic novel dies.  That theory would indicate that after a long period, new great art has to wait for either a new language, a new artistic medium, or perhaps accumulated cultural change to the point where you have essentially a new culture.

Luther: “But I agree that greatness presupposes some single quality that all art strives equally to attain.  But if different arts—and individual artists—strive for various different qualities, we end up comparing apples and oranges.”

Not necessarily.  Let’s imagine that greatness in art means that the art often causes people who experience it to feel that the art is great—an esthetic experience, basically.  There could be all sorts of different ways of getting there, just as when we refer to the beauty of people we can mean all sorts of different qualities, not fidelity to a Barbie Doll ideal.  That doesn’t mean that different art can’t be compared by the intensity or quality of the experience it tends to produce, assuming that you can come up with some generally shared vocabulary about asthetics.

By on 12/03/07 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I agree that we need a clearer sense of what we mean by “sophisticated.” Your example with long division confuses me, because long division with Arabic numerals is simply easier, not more sophisticated.  Unless, by “sophisticated” you mean “the simplest means to achieve an end.”

Rich, I agree that great art should give us an experience of greatness.  But then we need to determine *what*, exactly, about the art experience leads to that sense of greatness, and we’d need to differentiate it from the various feelings of greatness we experience in nature and life: the greatness of a wonderful tree, the greatness of seeing Bob Dylan in person, etc.  We cannot simply displace greatness from the object to the subject and think we’ve found some underlying quality known as “greatness.”

And I’m not sure that “greatness” as an aesthetic experience wouldn’t exclude certain art.  Satie’s music never comes off as “great” to me; I can find no means of comparison between Satie and Sophocles beyond the Hemingway sense of style: anything done with grace.  But are “grace” and “great” synonymous here?  Satie’s art is graceful, moving, charming, as *important* as Sophocles’ art, in my opinion.  But the aesthetic experiences are so different that I’m not sure competition for a place in the canon can rest on feelings of “greatness” in such a case. 

A descriptive aesthetics might compare the different aesthetic experiences, but I’m not sure we could find some common quality—even in the experiences—that could be called “greatness.” And let’s remember that this discussion was begun by the desire to use this quality—let’s call it “G”—to determine canons, syllabi, and so on.  Low G art would then be substituted by high G art.

By on 12/03/07 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The use of “G” is very witty.  The implicit reference to the intelligence quotient “g”, and all the arguments from people supporting its use that ignore the limits on what it actually measures in favor of the idea of what we want it to measure, effectively preempted my paragraph about how we should imagine that someone has invented Bill Benzon’s brain-estheto-meter.  And that kind of thought experiment would only annoy John Emerson, so it’s best avoided.

Next, how about interpretive communities?  If G is determined by how a community reads art, then if the community learns how to read a wider range of art, comparisons become possible.  Or something like that.  Again, any comparison only becomes possible by saying something concrete or descriptive about the art, so in that sense you’re right.  But I still think that description is possible within an evaluative esthetic context that is different in kind from description in a descriptive context.

By on 12/03/07 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, It’s the Arabic notation, as a whole, that’s more sophisticated than the Roman notation. One consequence of that sophistication is that you can do division in a straightforward way.

By Bill Benzon on 12/05/07 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"That theory would indicate that after a long period, new great art has to wait for either a new language, a new artistic medium, or perhaps accumulated cultural change to the point where you have essentially a new culture.”

Since film IS a new artistic medium, then that argument works fine for saying that great films (the equal of Michelangelo’s statues) will arrive if they haven’t yet. And, since Kaufmann is arguing the exact opposite (that there has been no Shakespeare of film yet) then we face no exhaustion.  Kaufmann’s argument actually says that all arts in modernity is degraded from earlier times. Yet, since modernity has a different culture, your argument would indicate that we could have our own Dantes.

By on 12/06/07 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Check out Harold Bloom talking smack about Harry Potter. He makes some very interesting points, but I have to think, if you’re a defender of the canon as such, you almost have to share Bloom’s antipathy for film, television, etc. Is there a less medium-restrictive canon, but one that still has Shakespeare as its center?

By theavantridiculous on 12/06/07 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe this is just a re-run of the ancients vs. the moderns. & maybe the current Zizekfest is pretty much the same.

By Bill Benzon on 12/06/07 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"your argument would indicate that we could have our own Dantes”

Well, it’s not actually my argument in the sense that I personally support it.  I was trying to point out, though, that you don’t need to presuppose that humans are less able than they were in a previous era, or that culture is worse than it was in a previous era, in order to still have a narrative of decline.  It could just be that you start with a sort of limited resource and it gets used up.

Without engaging with Kaufmann directly (I’d have to read more of him) I’d say that many people seem to think that there was a Golden Age of film and that the best of it is probably past.  And this kind of theory would not necessarily guarantee that all media had equal innate potentialities for producing art, so there could be no Shakespeare of movies, yet we could have already seen the best of them.  I also don’t think that Western modernity is really a sufficiently different culture from Shakespeare’s so that we’d have effectively hit the reset button—that happens, as in one of Bruce Sterling’s SF books (Schismatrix, say), when people can read Shakespeare, but just don’t get any of his cultural referents at all.

All of that makes this kind of thing harder to argue against.  An argument that presupposes cultural, much less personal, decline can pretty safely be dismissed as right-wing grumbling.  One about a limited potential space for art is more difficult.

By on 12/06/07 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Bill, aren’t you still basically saying that a “sophisticated” number system is one that let’s us best do the things we want to do with it?  How do we decide that Arabic numbers are more sophisticated than Roman numbers until we know what it is we want to *do* with the numbers?  If we want simply to count, Roman numbers are far more elegant, and children learn the notation quite easily.  My question still remains: how does this pan out for the arts?  Is sophisticated art art that best does the things we want art to do?  And doesn’t that, in each case, beg the question of what it is we want from number systems or art? 

On the question of the Great Decline of Art: I tend to consider this in the terms Stephen Jay Gould used to analyze the decline of batting averages.  Are today’s batters worse than all those .400 batters of the past?  Gould argues that the complete improvement of *all* players has meant a seeming decline in individual players.  As the field of the arts has generally improved, and as the audience for the arts has increased and been democratized, we no longer can have single, towering figures.  Instead, with more people doing interesting music, art, dance, writing, etc., and more people reading, viewing, buying, etc., the talent is spread out across the entire field.  We might not have Chaucer or Shakespeare, but we have far *more* interesting writers than in the medieval or Renaissance periods.  We might not have Bach, but we have Dylan and Hendrix and The Stones and the Beatles and The Kinks and Love and the 13th Floor Elevators and Pentangle and The Jam and The Feelies and Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Fela and ABC and X and Yo La Tengo and Lil Wayne and Stax and Studio One—and more people are more knowledgeable about more art than at any time in the history of the universe.

By on 12/06/07 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Bill, aren’t you still basically saying that a “sophisticated” number system is one that let’s us best do the things we want to do with it?

I’ve not given any explicit definition at all, as far as I can see. Just examples. Nor have I done so elswhere. My basic thinking on the difference between sophistication and complexity is scattered here and there in this essay. Still, it surely does have to do with how well a given system allows us to achieve our ends.

If we want simply to count, Roman numbers are far more elegant . . .

You need to argue this explicitly; your assertion is not at all obvious to me. The Roman notation looks like an ad hoc collection of kluges to me.

. . . and children learn the notation quite easily.

More easily than the Arabic notation (citations please)?

In any event, just what do you mean by simply wanting to count? Counting from 1 to 15 (or I to XV) is quite different from counting from 1 to 3985 (I to MMMCMLXXXV) or from 1 to 99,070,034 (I to ???). The Arabic system allows you to represent any positive integer magnitude using only ten numerals in suitable combination. The Roman system forces you to invent new conventions to handle larger and larger magnitudes. That’s a severe limitation for a counting system.

Of course, I rather doubt that anyone seriously tries to count to 1,000,000, or even 10,000. Beyond a certain undefined point, we use number systems for calculation. And the Arabic system is far more robust for calculation than the Roman system. For better or worse, the scientific and economic achievements of the modern West (after, say, 1500) would have been impossible without Arabic notation.

Unfortunately, it’s much harder to tell a similar story about art. We just don’t know how to describe the mechanisms very well, or at all, and don’t even seem to be much interested in doing so. Still, I’ve made some distinctions along these lines for narrative and music.

By Bill Benzon on 12/07/07 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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