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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


In this essay I provided a definition of "play" from Johann Huizinga:

Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
Elsewhere in the essay I didn't see the need to provide a definition of "work."  However, it now occurs to me that "work" does require some definition when one is speaking of how its dynamic appears in the criticism of art-- with special attention here to literature as such.

In a series of 2008 essays beginning with MERIT RAISED, I sought to show the differences between three Frye-derived critical methodologies, applying all three-- "ethical criticism," "aesthetic criticism," and "archetypal criticism"-- in a compare-and-contrast of two thematically related works.  Of these three methodologies, I've stated elsewhere that "ethical criticism" and "aesthetic criticism" are the dominant approaches in academia.  Certainly one can see both approaches implied in Gary Groth's statement of standards in his January 2013 essay, examined at length here:

What constitutes “literary” values won’t be disposed of in this paragraph, but maybe we can agree that form and content have to be successfully married to create something of human relevance, depth, and substance, or otherwise offer the play of pure aesthetic pleasure.
The phrase "play of pure aesthetic pleasure" can hardly be separated from the general concept of aesthetic criticism, however the speaker might define said "play."  As for Groth's values of "human relevance, depth, and substance," I think, based on his many jeremiads against authors he has regarded as less than moral, I believe that the vague terms "relevance" and "substance" are simply stand-ins for his take on ethical criticism. (And indeed, most of the evaluations he makes of EC comics in the January essay deal with ethical rather than aesthetic concerns.)  Historically Groth, like the majority of comics-critics, has dominantly pursued ethical criticism, while only a smattering of these critics, such as R.C. Harvey, tend to examine aesthetic matters. 

Despite Gary Groth's inappropriate use of the word "play," I believe that both of these disciplines are focused not on "play" but on "work." As evidence of the real attitude underlying both disciplines, here, I cite Leslie Fiedler, who in his 1982 work WHAT WAS LITERATURE took a contrarian attitude toward the priorities of academic literary criticism.  Here he describes the dominant attitude of the hidebound academic to "junk literature:"

"...such 'trash' is available to almost anyone, requiring neither subtlety of perception, 'education,' or anything resembling good old true-blue Protestant Hard Work."

Slightly later in the same chapter, Fiedler proposes to "drastically downgrade both ethics and aesthetics" in favor of what he terms "ecstatics"-- a concept that deserves a future essay here.  Putting that concept aside for now, it's enough to see that Fiedler conflates both ethical and aesthetic criticism with what Max Weber defined as the dominant value of American culture:"hard work," the basis of the Protestant Ethic.

Is this conflation accurate?

There can be little question that ethical criticism is concerned with having a utilitarian effect on culture and/or society. In Part 1 of this essay-series I asserted:

"Serious work," in my view, includes the idea of using art to instruct, to inform, to render judgments upon "the selfish, the foolish, and the cruel," to make readers aware of the old homily "actions have consequences"
Now, in that same essay I mentioned the "art for art's sake" movement as one that opposed any ethical orientation in literature, citing Ortega y Gasset as a representative of that opposition:

...preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper.

I further noted that the proponents of a purely aesthetic justicification of high art used an approach similar to my concept of "thematic escapism:"

It's ironic that the "art for art's sake" ethos, in claiming that that art's technical excellence exempts it from moral considerations, employs a basic logic not far from my exculpation of popular literature from the expectation that it must be moral.
That said, "basic logic" does not imply identity, for the proponents of aesthetic criticism are in their own way advocating a different form of "hard work," the work that a skillful author produces when he goes beyond the formulas of  what Clement Greenberg chose to call "kitsch," and succeeds in producing "ambitious art and literature."  Greenberg cites the "art for art's sake" movement:

Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point. "Art for art's sake" and "pure poetry" appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague.
In the end, though Greenberg evinces the usual Marxist fustiness toward the  "ruling class," he still validates the avant-garde artist in terms of the "high order" of the work produced:

That avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating -- the fact itself -- calls for neither approval nor disapproval. It is true that this culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome. The lines quoted from Yeats referred to Byzantium, which is very close to Alexandria; and in a sense this imitation of imitating is a superior sort of Alexandrianism. But there is one most important difference: the avant-garde moves, while Alexandrianism stands still. And this, precisely, is what justifies the avant-garde's methods and makes them necessary. The necessity lies in the fact that by no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order. To quarrel with necessity by throwing about terms like "formalism," "purism," "ivory tower" and so forth is either dull or dishonest.
This stress upon constant reinvention, rather than the rehashing of familiar motifs seen in  kitsch, implies "hard work" just as much as ethical criticism does.  The only difference is that whereas the ethical critic advocates the utilitarian "work" that art and literature can perform upon culture and society, the aesthetic critic advocates what might best be called "work for work's sake."

But neither species of work is covalent with "play," and as Fiedler observes, both are inadequate to describe the nature of art. 

More in a forthcoming final section.

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