More on Greatness: Art vs. Art History

dolphinWhy is Citizen Kane always listed as the greatest movie of all-time?  Is it the most memorable, the most moving?  The most adored?  Nope — if that were the criteria, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life would top it easily, along with at least 100 others.  It’s not the most layered or the most worthy of critique, either — David Lynch runs circles around Orson Welles in terms of complexity, and I’ve never seen him on a top 100 list.

When critics call Citizen Kane the greatest movie of all time, what they really mean is that it was the most innovative.  It was Citizen Kane that introduced the montage, the spinning newspaper, deep focus cinematography, compressed time, disparate sound — tools other directors have been using ever since.  It doesn’t matter whether or not watching Citizen Kane is actually enjoyable today; it’s always going to be worth watching because it’s historically important.

In college I took an introductory film class at a time I was still a biology major.  The textbook was subtitled “A Guide to the Greatest Films in History,” but it was quickly clear that we weren’t really talking about film history, but rather, film evolution.  Every Monday night there was a screening, and for every movie we were told to watch some novel technique — the jump-cut, the sound bridge, the collage, the panorama.  The Graduate became a movie about the use of popular music in film.  Hitchcock’s Rope became the anatomy of a real-time film broken into 10-minute long takes.  The discussion was never about why the films were good; it was only about what aspects of the film were new.

Biologists are interested in the diversity of life, but evolutionary biologists are interested in the origins of anatomy.  The bottlenose dolphin is perfectly adapted to its life in the coastal sea, but evolutionary biologists are far more interested in the first toothed whales to use echolocation.  Bottlenose dolphins can differentiate between distant objects that differ by less than 10% in surface area.  Is it accurate to call early carnivorous whales, who could faintly detect a cluster of hard-shelled nautolids in the dark, “greater” than the bottlenosed dolphin, whose sonar is so fine-tuned?  Worse than inaccurate, a statement like that doesn’t even make ontological sense.  The word “great” is too ill-defined.  Early whales are more historically interesting.  Modern dolphins are more highly evolved.

When some people say art is “great” they mean historically important.  When most people say art is “great” (myself included) they mean that it’s evocative, transformative, memorable, moving, etc. — at some particular time, for some particular audience (usually “right now” and “me”).

This seems like a very simple distiction, right?  Almost too obvious to mention. But it’s a distinction that the vast majority of academics — and this is the problem with academia — seem incapable of making.  The other day a friend of mine asked me what I think about this article by J.D. Smith from American Arts Quarterly, and this statement in particular:

Artists have been expected to épater la bourgeoisie for over a century, but continuing a revolutionary struggle starts to look foolish when everyone alive has been born long after the fall of the ancien régime. Surveying twentieth-century poetry, for instance, Timothy Steele has argued that decades of vers libre bards are still reacting to the late Victorian era’s soporific iambic pentameter and metronomic approach to recitation, dragons long since slain by the likes of Eliot and Pound. Apparently, the former avant-garde, like many other triumphant revolutionaries, would rather fight than govern. Remaining in a defensive stance, they have failed to establish a tradition that admits of development and amplification. Instead, there is a narrowing and reduction—a working out of ever-narrower formal questions. Thus the “progression” from the Cubists to Mondrian to late Rothko.

If you can fight through the jargon, he’s just saying that poets since Eliot and Pound have been beating a dead horse.  We’re like those soldiers still fighting in Polynesia weeks after V-J Day.  The Romantic poets surrendered long ago, but free verse keeps on carpet-bombing.

The author is citing Timothy Steele, so I should probably read what he has to say before moving on — but this is a blog post, not an essay, and to me this argument seems fairly absurd.  The revolution of free verse was a simple one: poets realized that you don’t have to be metrical to be musical.  When you start using internal rhyme, variable feet, and visual space on the page, there’s so much more room to play.  It might have taken centuries to exhaust the possibilities of repetition in verse, but by 1900 we all but had, and the Imagists and Objectivists decided to move on.

Just because we’re still writing in free verse doesn’t mean we’re still fighting that war.  Eliot and Pound (and probably more importantly W.C.W. and H.D.) cleared that land for us, they slashed and burned the forest of iambic feet — and now we’re free to cultivate the fields, free to grow our prize-winning tomatoes and feed a nation of readers.  And that’s what poets have been doing.  Compare Mary Oliver to Anne Carson to Susan Howe.  They’re each using free verse in remarkably different ways, and aren’t reacting to meter in the least.  Meter isn’t dead, but poets have moved on, to the point where meter is just one of many tools at our disposal.  What else does Smith expect?  He complains that we’d “rather fight than govern,” but it seems to me that there’s been plenty of governing going on.

The problem is, art critics are evolutionary biologists — they’re obsessed with change, with charting innovations in anatomy, and so that’s all they see.  But readers are plain biologists; we focus on the beauty and efficacy and abundance of life.  We want to be inspired, transformed, transfixed.

And I think that’s why there’s this divide between the academic interpretation of poetry, and the kind of poetry people actually enjoy.  The former defines greatness as innovation — to take a poetry class in college is to basically study an evolutionary timeline.  No one has to enjoy a poem or film or work of art to acknowledge that it demonstrates a significant advancement.  But historical importance is not the same thing as importance.  There’s more to art than art history.

8 thoughts on “More on Greatness: Art vs. Art History

  1. Tim: I think you are saying that a poem does not have to be historically significant (that is, presenting either an evolutionary or revolutionary change in the art form) in order to be considered “great”. If so, I disagree to an extent: I think there must be some degree of innovation for a poem to be “great”. Otherwise it is simply derivative of other poems. The non-innovative poem may be “nice”, “commercial”, and have artistic value, but without innovation (change) I do not think it could be considered great. To me, innovation and creativity are inextricably linked. Of course, not all change need be as startling as Eliot and Cummings. Furthermore, innovation need not be limited to form, but could also include subject matter as well. I am thinking of the “confessional” poets (Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Sexton). Of course, I do not like poems that try too hard to be different: the ones that are overly obscure, gimmicky, or seem to rely on shock-value. The poem’s innovation should work within a cohesive artistic framework – – and be comprehensible to those other than author – – for a poem to be artistically sucessful, in addition to having a shot at greatness.

  2. I tend to agree with you if you take the broad view of “change” — creativity and originality are always going to be linked.

    But the point was that historical significance is often conflated with the idea of greatness, though they’re not really the same thing. A poem can be historically important without being artistically interesting — great for scholars, but not necessarily great for a reading audience.

  3. I get what you are saying. However, I believe that any poem which is “historically important” is also “artistically interesting” – – both for scholars and the reading audience (which nowadays must be considered the community of poets since I do not believe there is a general audience for poetry anymore).

    Tim (or anyone else), could I challenge you to actually identify a poem which is historically important, but not artistically interesting? I do not think such a poem exists.

  4. “Tender Buttons” is the first thing that comes to mind. Of course you’re going to argue with that, and I’d definitely see your point in doing so. It’s hard not to sacrifice reality by talking in generalities, so maybe the whole argument is moot.

  5. I am certainly not a fan of Gertrude Stein either; however, this is where we get into a problem with generalities and taste: I do not find Stein artisically interesting AND I don’t really find her to be historically important. I think of her work as basically an experiment that didn’t really work. To support your position a bit, I would also point to Ezra Pound. I don’t think people read the Cantos much for pleasure these days (although they mostly layer upon layer of obscure historical references, they do however have moments of artistic flourish).

    However, I still maintain that there are no truly historically significant poems that are not also artistically interesting. Put in logic terms, a Venn diagram, I think the set of historically significant poems is the little circle completely enclosed by the larger circle of artistically interesting poems. That is, all historically significant poems are artistically interesting, but not all artistically interesting poems are historically significant.

  6. Oh I think Stein is incredibly important historically. There are entire schools of poetry that seem to me spun off from her. And we learn about her in college lit classes, even though there aren’t very many people she does a whole lot for.

    To put it in a Venn diagram myself, I think it would be two circles with 75% convergence — some historical significant poems aren’t artistically interesting, and vice versa, though it’s mostly overlap.

    The Cantos would have been my third example. Proust would have been my second. Ulysses argues to be added, too, but I love it. I guess I’m diverging into fiction, there, but so be it.

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