What is art? I know what I like…
Sometimes it feels as if my whole life consists of defending why I like something. When I was a kid, I was frequently called up to justify why I preferred reading books to playing with other kids my age. Even the notion that reading was educational wasn’t enough to satisfy some people (many of them teachers). And heaven forfend that I should mention how many times “playing” with kids my age actually meant being bullied, harassed, and ridiculed non-stop! As I got older, the kind of books I liked became the issue. “Reading too much make-believe is unhealthy!1” or “Aren’t you a little old to believe in all the space hooey?2”Of course, it wasn’t just the science fiction and fantasy that set people off. If I was caught reading a book about science fact, or the hardcover of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House my grandma bought me at a library sale, or my well-worn paperback of Homer’s The Iliad, it was more proof that I was an “over-educated freak4.”
When I finally escaped to college and met people who valued reading over sports, I thought that I had left all of that behind. Oh, how naive I was! According to these literati wannabes, my tastes were quite low brow. How could I possible understand the meaning of serious art and literature if I actually enjoyed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The White Dragon or Harpist in the Wind or Midnight at the Well of Souls? Or even worse, I watched television!?
It’s easy to dismiss those latter examples as either snobbery or hipster-ism. Except I can be just as guilty of judging other people for liking things that I don’t.
Who am I kidding? I have been incredibly worse about this. When I think a particular book or series or movie or what-have-you is not just unlikeable, but very badly made, it will completely boggle my mind when someone I know actually likes it. And I seem to be absolutely incapable of hiding my incredulity. I frequently have to remind myself that sometimes what I think of as one of a particular work’s mediocre-but-not-awful parts might be someone else’s fiction kink. And by fiction kink I mean, it’s something they like or identify with so much that it can be a redeeming quality. Such a redeeming quality makes the parts some of us see as glaring shortcomings, merely a small price to pay to get the other thing.
Goodness knows I have my own favorite books, series, and movies that I know are flawed, but I enjoy them anyway because they contain a particular character dynamic, or a type of plot line, or use a particular combination of mythic tropes which appeal to me. I try to make the distinction between something that I don’t like for reasons of taste as opposed to something I don’t like for reasons of actual quality. It is a subjective judgement, but not an impossible one.
I got tired of finding myself having to defend my preferred reading material. Eventually, I was saved by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, the Russian author of such great classic novels as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I have to confess that I tried to read War and Peace at least a couple of times, and just failed to plough all the way through it. And failing to get through it was one of the things that made me wonder if those people who said my tastes were too low brow to understand great works of art were correct. But then, when a similar sort of discussion happened in one of my college literature classes, the instructor5 quoted a bit from Tolstoy’s nonfiction book, What is Art? I think it was this passage:
Not long after that, I found a copy of the book in the library, which I wound up checking out and reading. There are a lot of Tolstoy’s arguments in the book which I don’t agree with. He had adopted, by the time he wrote it, a rather radical form of Christian anarchy. So he critiqued a lot of specific examples of art as being immoral in content—more often because he thought it promoted capitalism and classism than the sorts of things that get the modern religious right up in arms. He dissed Shakespeare and Dickens, for instance (though with a lot of caveats in Dickens’ case, since much of Dickens’ later work was critical of the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution).
The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself…it is the same as saying some kind of food is good but most people can’t eat it.
Despite those parts of his thesis with which I still disagree, his arguments in favor of accessibility and sincerity in art helped me figure out that those literati wannabes had mistaken obscurity for superiority. They’ve fallen victim to the notion that if “ordinary” people enjoy something, it cannot possibly be high quality. If you define art by its difficulty to be comprehended, you’ve completely misunderstood what art is. That doesn’t mean that art can’t be challenging, but there is a difference between a piece that requires thought, afterthought, and re-visiting to tease out all the layers of meaning and something which hides its meaninglessness under layers of pretension.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
The way I usually try to sum up Tolstoy’s notion is: Art happens when the heart of the artist touches the heart of the audience, and the audience responds. The audience doesn’t have to like it; a piece of art that evokes intense dislike must be doing something right, or you wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. But art should never leave you unmoved.
1. The exact words said both to me (and later to my parents at a parent-teacher conference) by my seventh grade social studies teacher. He was not that only one who said things to that general effect.
2. The exact words said to me by a minister3 of another church who caught me reading during afternoon free time on a rainy day at Bible camp. Again, he was not the only person by any means to make similar comments about my penchant for both science fiction and science fact, particularly NASA.
3. Of course, this was the same preacher who thought it was funny, when teasing or disagreeing with a boy (he never would do such a thing to a girl, oh no!), to grab your pinkie, twist it into a stress position, and keep you there not only until you agreed with whatever he was trying to make you say, but that you cried sufficiently that he thought you had learned your lesson.
4. The favorite phrase one of my uncles like to use to describe me.
5. Several instructors quoted Tolstoy at me around this time. Another literature profession quoted the famous line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” but he completely misunderstood it. On the other hand, one of my mathematics professors quoted the exact same line, and then explained how the line was the perfect example of an important statistics concept. The concept is sometimes referred to as the Anna Karenina principle in honor of the Tolstoy novel from which the line comes. One way to think of the principle is this: in any system, there are a large number of ways that a given process can fail, and the only way to achieve success is to avoid every single possible failure. A successful outcome depends on every single requirement being met, whereas a single shortcoming in only one requirement can cause failure of the entire endeavor.