Saturday, November 14, 2009

On Liking what you Like when you Like it: Or, why Art needs a dose of Literature sometimes

The longer I write journalistic art criticism, the more apparent it becomes to me that our response to art is often be highly temporal and situational—that is, we like what we like when we like it. Responses to, engagement with and affection for a given artwork are highly subject to change over time.

I mention this in part because I see this truth acknowledged a lot more often in literary circles than in more visually artistic ones. In particular, I found this passage from Michael Chabon helpful. It's excerpted from an essay where he describes being in his early 20s and how he started writing his novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh:

I went back out to my room and shambled irritably back and forth from the door that led to the hot tub to the door that went upstairs, mapping out the confines of my skull like the bear at the Pittsburgh Zoo. And my eye lighted on a relic of my stepfather's time at Boston University: The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby had been the favorite novel of one of those aforementioned friends whom I had decided that, for reasons of emotional grandeur and self-poignance, I was doomed never to meet up with again in this vale of tears. At his urging I had read it a couple of years earlier, without incident or effect. Now I had the sudden intuition that if I read it again, right now, this minute, something important might result: it might change my life. Or maybe there would be something in it that I could steal.

I lay on the bed, opened the book's cracked paper cover—it was an old Scribner trade paperback, the edition whose cover looked like it might have been one of old Ralph's wood shop projects—and this time The Great Gatsby read me. The mythographic cast of my mind in that era, the ideas of friendship and self-invention and problematic women, the sense, invoked so thrillingly in the book's closing paragraphs, that the small, at times tawdry love-sex-and-violence story of a few people could rehearse the entire history of the United States of America from its founding vision to the Black Sox scandal—The Great Gatsby did what every necessary piece of fiction does as you pass through that fruitful phase of your writing life: it made me want to do something just like it.

In a less wordy, less poetic vein on the topic of changing assessments of books, art and other things, op-ed columnist Rex Murphy is quoted in today's Globe as saying "[I have] long since parted with the delusion that my opinions, because they are mine, are less hostage to fallibility or walk nearer with truth than those of many others."

I don't know if these types of expressions on the changeability of judgment and artistic experience are more common in the writing world because one can always--or at least often--revisit books and text in a way we cannot revisit individual pieces of art.

In any case, this truth is something I'm glad to see acknowledged, and one I'm going to try and remember--even as I hammer out my own critical opinions, positive and negative, as well as I can at a given time.

Image from Bookdaddy

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