09 April 2007

What if Poe were in your Creative Writing class?

Following the Easter festivities today I began my quick read through of the mandatory blogs, news sites, and journals that generally make up my day. Usually this takes an acceptable amount of time, and usually this trek through cyberspace (is it a problem that I still hate that word?) leaves me with nuggets to think about for the remainder of the day. Most often I read the morning blurbs and get to work preparing lectures, editing reviews, and writing chapters of one of the three novels I am juggling. Occasionally it leads to research ideas for articles or papers for conferences. Today it rattled my world as a scholar, a reviewer, and a reader in general.

I was half way through reading my list tonight when I landed at Snark Central on Miss Snark's blog. She posted a link to an article on the Washington Post's site that troubled me. There was no way to embed the article and accompanying video so I'll just link it here:

"Pearls Before Breakfast" by Gene Weingarten

What will happen when one of the world's best violinist plays some of the worlds most respected classical music on a violin whose worth could feed a small country in the metro station in DC? Nothing. According to the article, of the 1,097 people passed by Joshua Bell as he played for 43 minutes in plain clothes in the busy station, "seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look."

There are many issues that come to mind when considering the outcome of this experiment. Perhaps those 1,097 people were just not classical music fans. Perhaps they had more important things to do. But when considering the gravitas that art, beauty and music are supposed to have on an individual, this becomes troublesome. For a scholar of English literature, this becomes problematic. For any art aficionado, be it literature, sculpture, music, or painting, this raises the uncomfortable question: Do you only appreciate X because society has deemed it worthy?

It's no secret to Early Modern scholars that Shakespeare was not the blockbuster playwright that we in the Academy tend to make him out to be. One look at the Stationer's Register will show you that his contemporaries were much more sought out than he. Middleton was adored by the "common" folk. Marlowe's death was mourned as an artistic tragedy. Dekker, Kyd, Greene--they all were performed extensively, and Shakespeare was just "one of those actors."

So why is Shakespeare taught in high schools and universities the world over as the greatest playwright to ever grace a quill to page? Canonization occurred, and suddenly we're all appreciating Hamlet because we're supposed to. Or, alternately, we're loathing him because we want to break with the accepted tradition. Fine. I'm for discussion of texts and the value of any given work, or body of work. In fact, I am elated to discuss why something fits in the "good" category or the "bad" category. Those distinctions are just as arbitrary, though. Who gets to decide what "good" writing is? Or "good" music, for that matter? You could argue that those guidelines have been trained into us socially and passed down generation to generation. It's why pop culture is always so controversial. Pop culture usually breaks with these norms, and forces people to look at things outside of the traditional boxes of what are good and bad. Just ask Andy Warhol.

All of this is well and good. But more to the point--would we (I, even) recognize the "brilliant" artists if they were not presented to me in a way that indicated their "genius?" Would I recognize something written by any of the "greats" and value it for brilliant writing? Or would I tear it to shreds because I have no predisposition to the author? Would a successful contemporary novelist's work fall under my Red Pen of Doom? And if it did, should I feel bad about that? If they're breaking rules of aesthetics, should I merely bow down to the genius nature of their abuse of the language for effect, or should I do as I do every day in the classroom and chastise them for lacking the ability to construct coherent sentences? Does the name matter? "That was So and So, you know... and you tore them to shreds."

I don't think we should feel bad. In fact, I think the experiment that Joshua Bell participated in goes a long way to show us just how much we actually know about the subjects we claim to be so proficient in understanding. It goes beyond simple Good/Bad categorization. To label art as just good or bad is to ignore what places them in those categories to begin with. You can train a monkey to point out the traditionally accepted "good" art, and it wouldn't understand what put it in that category. So are most people "artistic" monkeys? The one man who stopped and listened for nine minutes at the end of Bell's performance didn't stop because he recognized the virtuoso. He stopped because he understood the craft and skill, and he recognized masterful aptitude when he heard it. I only hope that if put to the test, those of us in the positions to judge the works of others are able to hear those same underlying tones of mastery with equal clarity.


Anonymous said...

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog: www.SawLady.com/blog
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

David McCaffery Paul said...

Very astute observations.

George Eliot in Middlemarch addresses a similar topic, in a scene involving Rosamond Vincy and her brother Fred. (Chapter 11). In this scene, Fred says: "Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers' slang." Rosamond replies (with "mild gravity"): "Are you beginning to dislike slang, then? Fred answers: "Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class." Rosamond counters:
"There is correct English: that is not slang." Fred then goes on the attack: "I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets." Rosamond: "You will say anything, Fred, to gain your point." Fred:
"Well, tell me whether it is slang or poetry to call an ox a leg-plaiter." Rosamond: "Of course you can call it poetry if you like." Fred: "Aha, Miss Rosy, you don't know Homer from slang. I shall invent a new game; I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips, and give them to you to separate."

In most of us, taste is given its direction and inclination not by our courageous visions and our strengths, but by our insecurities and our vanities. Sad but true. One of the great blessings in all of being is to be able to see beauty not where we are told it exists, but where we actually find it.