Saturday, August 25, 2007

Smuttering retreats

In writing of "snobbery about smutty books" Sam Jordison complains that we haven't escaped from "the assumption that clever people can cope with raunch and others, well, it might give them bad ideas!". It's probably true - I mean, the assumption is probably true. After all, it has given Sam bad ideas. One is that of a straw man: "If Ian McEwan fills healthy portions of his books with awkward young men's masturbatory fantasies, it's art. When Jilly Cooper glories in no holds barred rutting, it's a cheap attempt to shift units and titillate her (by implication rather pathetic) readers." Who is making these judgements? Nowhere in the blog is the claim that "one deserves more respect than the other, elevated as it is by art" attributed to anyone. Perhaps "the mysterious invisible authorities" who canonise these specious oppositions and producing so much snobbery are closer to home than Sam imagines.

In an old notebook, I found this from James Joyce: "Pornography is kinetic. It has aims and is therefore bad art." (I've no idea where this comes from by the way.) Yet what is bad art? We've all heard enthusiasts recommending Shakespeare with reports of extreme violence in Coriolanus and King Lear or humour in so many of the rest. The suggestion is that thrills and laughs give convenient access to better things - "great art", whatever that is. But what this great art is meant to provide has never trickled down in the same way as the concurrent suggestion: that Shakespeare is no better than wish-fulfilling entertainments - Joyce's bad art. No wonder happy consumers of these are confused and offended when not afforded the same "respect" as those who are stroking only their chins.

One commenter on the blog tries to make the distinction between stories that "explore something about the dysfunctionality of the characters" and bodice-rippers in which "the sex is just there to be sex". Unfortunately this makes literature sound like a branch of sociology and, worse, gives the impression that it is further removed from reality than penny dreadfuls. More bad ideas! Direct access to the real is the hope of art; it wants not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. This hope is soon dissolved, and indeed reality is kept at bay with distancing ideas and the tight control of genre (hence reviewers proudly claiming to enjoy potboilers as much as Pulitzer winners). In contrast, the drama of great art emerges as both ideas and genre are questioned, destroyed even.

For example, Shakespeare's Richard II animates the tension between trust in ritual and growing suspicion. The King undermines authority in the ritual of trial by combat by halting the fight between two noblemen. It all leads eventually to the destruction of faith in his divine right and he is overthrown; superstition can no longer protect him. Richard's death marks a change of epoch. One thing the play doesn't do, however, is doubt the ritual of the art itself. But perhaps doubt is implicit; something we can see from a distance breaking the power of theatre after Shakespeare's time as much as it broke King Richard. (So, if Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn't be Shakespeare.) Yet it's a trust Sam Jordison tries to maintain. It's understandable as it's constitutive of the products that drive discussion in dominant cultural forums. And it does, after all, have a mysterious cultural authority. The trouble is, it is an artistically empty maintenance. It has no artistic authority. It leads to pointless chatter about respectability, as if that was all great art had to offer! But I don't want to pick on Sam. I've defended him elsewhere and there are others maintaining the dead space more deserving of criticism: Ian McEwan and Jilly Cooper for instance.


  1. Anonymous6:21 am

    I found this excerpt on a blog (source below):

    "In his early autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, James Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, draws on Aristotle in a discussion of aesthetics, where he distinguishes between improper and proper art. The former is kinetic, meaning its purpose is to excite and elicit emotional movement in the observer, listener, or reader, as in pornographic or didactic art. The focus of the creator here is external, for it is on the audience's response. Proper art, Stephen continues, is static, insofar as it is interested only in the art itself - the internal - not its elicited or desired reaction....Whereas creators can be faithful to their inspiring Muse and not to the art's effect on others, performers likewise can be faithful to the inspiration's source, and not their special ability to arouse emotion in their audiences. A discerning public can tell the difference between proper and improper artists and performers; those who remain true to the genius of the inspiration as opposed to those who care only for the external gratifications - in Freud's famous words regarding the artist: the pursuit of honor, power, and love." - Kenneth Wapnick, "A Portrait of A Course in Miracles Student As An Artist"

    I don't know. And the source is off the beaten path to say the least. Furthermore, the "discerning public" sound a lot like the "clever people [who can] cope with raunch."

    Here's one thing I especially appreciate about what you said: Direct access to the real is the hope of art; it wants not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.

    The subtleties of intent and reaction in the reader/audience still elude me.


  2. Anonymous5:30 pm

    I'm intrigued by this post. I'd like to know about the Shakespeare argument. Could you cite any examples of where people have said thrills and laughter have given access to great art? I'd be interested, or indeed which plays, other than the ones you mention, you had in mind as examples of what you argue.

    Mohinder Vadeep

  3. Mohinder, it's not something that gets written down but I've often heard people recommending the violence and humour in Shakespeare as a sop to get others to watch a play. My point is that what one is supposed to gain once one has taken the bait is never discussed. As for more on the "argument" check out Josipovici's book "On Trust". And I don't have examples of other plays. But was there a playwright as great after Shakespeare?

  4. Anonymous1:41 pm

    Thanks for the book tip, I'll look that up. I was curious because I can't ever recall anyone ever making any kind of recommendation of a Shakespeare play in quite the terms that you refer to. The ones I've seen were either because I wanted to or they were on the exam syllabus at the time. That probably says more about me than it does of Shakespeare.




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