Inventing “Art”

I keep thinking of ideas for posts, trying to decide what to write about, and then not writing anything. Oh well–my thoughts on Christianity in science fiction and fantasy will have to wait. For today, then:

I’ve only read one chapter of Martha Woodmansee’s The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, but I think about it constantly–driving to work listening to the Xenocide audiobook, watching cheesy westerns while eating lunch, and multiple times in the English department as I overhear intersecting ideas.

Her thesis so far is pretty simple and compelling: we’re used to thinking of “art” as a concept that connects visual arts, poetry, literature, dance, and music. (What did I forget?) We’re also used to thinking of art as something that is valuable for its own, intrinsic sake; its value doesn’t have to be related to how popular it is or if it “does” anything in the world. Art can just be there and we like it for its own sake–say, when we look at a painting and say, “Hmm, yes…” or when we sit in masses of people to silently listen to a symphony or watch a ballet.

But Woodmansee points out that this way of thinking about art isn’t just “the way things are” but is a historically situated frame of thought that first arose in mid-18th century Germany. As capitalism and the middle class grew, economics put new kinds of pressures on artists, and it was in their best interest to dream up a vision of “low art” that the masses liked and a “high art” that didn’t have to please anybody except elites who wanted to feel like they were elite because they knew about the fancy, less crowd-pleasing stuff. Now there would be an audience for more obscure stuff too–whew!

Now, I find this hard to dispute (because I’m not really a scholar of aesthetics or anything) and compelling in a lot of ways. But there’s that little part of me that rebels, saying, “Okay fine, the way I think about ‘good art’ is part of my cultural heritage, not something that just appeared in my heart. But there’s still something beautiful and worthwhile and important in art that is beautiful for its own sake, reflecting the hard-to-explain goodness that echoes through us when we’re in its presence, hinting at things bigger than our fleshy bodies.”

But the more I think about her book, the more it resonates with me too. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard between 3 creative writers who were going to present at a conference on “teaching genre in creative writing classes.” (I somewhat rudely pointed out that what they called “literary fiction” was as much a genre as sf. Oops?) They insisted that literary fiction focuses on character (and is thus “good”) while popular fiction like romance, fantasy, and sf is focused on plot. Now traditionally, sf has always had a strong sense of social critique to it; i.e., we’re supposed to get lured into the story by the spaceships and then leave with a better understanding of diversity or racism or war or religion or whatever. And when I apply Woodmansee here, it reminds me that “art” of this type, which we could call rhetorical because of its insistence of making change in the world (and not just leading readers to be engaged by characters), was set up for dismissal by the highbrow art world starting back in the 18th century.

In other words, sf is too popular and too rhetorical to be considered “art” by culture snobs, and it’s been that way for 250 years (and only 250 years).

And then when I start to think of art that excites me, it’s so often those rhetorical kinds of art that get to me–those stories and images and music and community-driven initiatives that pull people together to create change in the world, not just to be created for their own sake. I do enjoy hearing people somberly play classical music on their Stradivarius instruments, a whole whole lot, but it’s a two-plane enjoyment, on the levels of “This is beautiful, all on its own” and “This moves something that was surely put inside of me when I was born.” But I want to seek out art that has the third plane, too: “This can change the world.”


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  1. Pingback: Pirated Text « Transmedia Me

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