This morning, I had a course that’s called ‘Literary Studies: An Introduction’. For preparation, we had to read some of Aristotle’s Poetics, an article on the development of the term ‘romance’ as a literary genre, an article on Poetic Function, and a passage by Immanuel Kant on the Judgement of Aesthetics.
Okay, didn’t read half of it, but managed to open up the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and see what Kant was all about so I was able to contribute to the discussion.
One of the questions we had to discuss was:
Is it good that there is a distinction between high art and low art?
Luckily, I was placed in the proposition group. I say luckily, because defending a statement that I would defend out of my own accord is easier than placing myself in the shoes of the opposition.
I texted the discussion question and my defence of it to my friends and some were opposed. The opposition groups in my class had arguments that were twofold:
- A distinction between high art and low art opens up room for negative judgement on consuming low art, and,
- There is trouble categorizing works as either high or low, depending on subjective values, and,
- Up to who is it exactly to claim some works as important, and others as unimportant?
One of my friends posed the following defence of their stance:
- Can’t I develop my own tastes?
All these points were easily refuted by The Great Pretentious Debater Who Didn’t Take Debating In High School But Loves To Debate, me:
A distinction between high art and low art opens up room for negative judgement on consuming low art
According to some what I’ve read of Kant (see link above), he states that we make judgements constantly. There is a faculty within us that do nothing else but judge at the whim of our sensory perception. Is this situation dangerous, should I take flight? Is this activity useful, should I engage in it?
If an object is aesthetic this faculty is not used: something aesthetic seems to be purposeful, but is not purposeful in the end. We can appreciate beauty for what it is even if it is not according to our tastes. There are certain devices that can be employed in art that make that particular work aesthetic, be it in painting (symetry, an agreeable color scheme according to the color wheel, the golden ratio), literature (metaphors, rhyme, meter) or song (harmony), and these aesthetically pleasing characteristics seem to be universal.
A literary work can be deemed a e s t h e t i c because of the literary devices it employs, or, according to Aristotle’s Poetics, the moral lessons that can be derived from the work by the audience.
If you read a work that is deemed low art, you’re likely not to get much out of it in terms of beauty or moral lessons. One person from the opposition group had an anecdote on how she was reading Young Adult literature while she was in University because she enjoyed it but was judged harshly by friends. She said something along the lines of:
So I was reading Young Adult literature (literature targeted to teenagers) and a friend of mine said something like “You’re reading YA? You’re in University. Why don’t you read something smarter?” I felt really judged, as if what I was reading wasn’t good enough. But I enjoy it, so why bother judging me for that?
I replied to her question by saying something along the lines of, although a bit less well-formulated:
It’s okay to want to read Young Adult literature if you fit in that target audience, but once you’re maturing don’t you want to grow past that stage? Don’t you want to climb the intellectual ladder and explore what philosophical, historical, political or religious viewpoints are out there? Your point fits into the postmodern culture of sensitivity – you’re going to be judged even if you don’t want to since everyone subconsciously judges and categorizes matters, so if you don’t want to be judged you’re going to have a hard time out there. If you want to be judged less harshly, try living up to a high standard. Or try brushing judgements off and keep reading what you like, you’re free to do so.
In my not so humble opinion, it’s good that there’s a standard to live up to. This standard sets the good apart from the bad, the moral from the immoral. It’s yin-yang, duality. Live up to the standard and succeed or never aim to improve yourself and keep roaming about the bottom. Of course this is ego-driven. Until you get to that higher ground there’s little room for universal acceptance. It’s when you get to the top of the mountain that you can see above the clouds.
There is trouble categorizing works as either high or low, depending on subjective values
According to classmates (and friends) the apparent subjectivity of categorizing between high and low art depends on what people find beautiful, and since this differs from person to person. What people find beautiful differs from one person to the next.
Except it is not so. Some aethetical philosophers, in particular the British ones, state that what people find aesthetically pleasing is universal. My teacher helpfully provided an example: the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio was used in a lot of Italian Renaissance painting, because the painters believed it to be aesthetically pleasing. There has been research done on the public perception of the ratio, and indeed, most people find it aesthetically pleasing.
So there are artistic devices one can use to make his or her work more aesthetically beautiful. These devices are universally recognized and appreciated, according to Kant. Aristotle gives a beautiful metaphor as example in his Poetics. This takes some of the subjectivity of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” away. You can objectively classify works as either high or low by looking for inventive usage of these devices.
A nuance to make is that time can change the status of a work. From the literary works that have survived from the 13th century many are now seen as high art, while their contemporaries probably won’t have agreed on that matter. It’s the test of time: if a work survives the ages, it is more likely to be seen as a high work of art, while it could have been a low piece in its own time.
And up to who is it exactly to claim some works as important, and others as unimportant?
In the past, probably the cultural elite and the clergy. Now we’ve got the internet, and there are websites suchs as GoodReads, where appreciating books is given a democratic dimension. There are problems with this form of democracy however: If the majority of the world has read 50 Shades of Grey and appreciates it, does that make it Literature? Obviously not.
In my opinion, good critics and a learned group of selectors are still needed to weed out the junk and create a literary canon, taking (among others) the universally accepted objective aesthetic devices, the test of time and the moral value in mind when selecting these works.
Only a just hierarchy will uplift those at the bottom in the attempt to create a level playing field where everybody’s educated and of moral soundness. It’s a hierarchy that will bring us closer to world peace, not democracy: you can depend on education-ridden masses to appreciate vulgarity, impulsivity and banality.
Can’t people develop their own tastes?
If I could tell you how much of your tastes are based on nature and how many are based on nurture, I would. Just remember that the average child is exposed to 40,000 advertisements per year, and that this number is increasing yearly.
Learn to love the filter. It’s what sets the great apart from the mediocre.
Until next time.