Friday, February 10, 2006

Some Thoughts: Art, Reader-Response, Imitation

**I am responding to China's comments on my last blog entry**

China - I see your essential point - it's neo-Platonic, no? Because if the craftsman creates something (i.e. a work of art, a chair, a computer), it has some imitative component, if your argument about potential extends to all objects. So there must be an original bed: for Plato, the ideal bed.

I am interested in your example of the student and the novelist. You equated the student with the artist, and thus an essay with art. But I would not call an essay a work of art. I mean, I suppose that one could tweak one's viewpoint (per Ziff) to see it as art, but most would agree that an analytic essay is more a work of reason than aesthetic ecstasy (and yes, the two are separate here. I think that they can get close together and that they depend upon one-another, but that is for another blog entry. For now, they are distinct, as they are often in literary criticism). We literary critics may want to put our emotion into papers, but they are not intended (there's that word again) for aesthetic appreciation. One lauds a critical piece for its clarity, its complexity: its logical, comprehensive, innovative claim. So I guess the question is: is a writing about a work a piece of art in itself? Can it ever be? Hm.

Reader-response criticism will be helpful here, for it posits that the reader completes a piece by realizing part of its potential. But my preferred version of reader-response criticism doesn't presume to call the reader a second author. Rather, a reader completes the half-finished sculpture of the poem, creating meaning. So, how is this any different from what the artist does? Doesn't the artist just complete something else's meaning? Yes and no. The artist may realize a part of some object's potential, but he creates another part-sculpture, if that makes sense. An artist continues to spawn meaning by creating a definite form, be it music, poetry or dance etc. So then the question is whether the essay is another half-completed structure, another vessel to spark meaning.

I am not sure. Ideas? I am inclined to say no, because, as I said above, it is not just about meaning (which an essay certainly has), but about form. I agree with Bell's claim that form is essential to aesthetic experience. And, for the most part, an essay's form is less about emotion and space for the reader (viewer, audience-member etc) than logic, understanding, clarity, and simplicity of form. It is not meant to inspire, but to inform. Rational instead of emotional. But perhaps I need to say my definition of art:

Art is any human-produced aesthetic object.
An aesthetic object is any object that elicits an aesthetic experience from its viewer.
Aesthetic experience is difficult to describe (and impossible to prove rationally, but isn't that what is so wonderful about it?)

So this leaves room for anything to be an aesthetic object, really, but art has to be human-produced. Humans had to have given it its physical form, even if that action consists in moving a piece of driftwood into a gallery, or aesthetically viewing a bowl of pudding.

Okay, so I know that my definition of art might be a little controversial, and implicit in it is my valuation of the aesthetic experience. I am noting a difference between rational, intellectual objects and aesthetic objects, though there is, of course, overlap in each category. So those are some thoughts.

Mmm, bile.

I guess I'm having somewhat of an awkward time reading Autobiography of a Face because (brace yourself for the cliche answer) my uncle's going through a third bout of cancer at the moment, and at 44, I feel that he's way too young to deal with this kind of life punishment, so hearing a story about a kid enduring it isn't exactly comforting when kid in question lost part of her jaw in addition to her hair.

That out of the way, I agree with so many different things that have been said in class: that regardless of how unique your story is, it takes a narcissist to write an autobiography or memoir; that our "heroine" doesn't have to be mentally ill to sound a little mad; that I would appreciate this so much more if it were fiction because I wouldn't have to worry about how much of the story was exaggerated. I really don't think I could say anything original at this point that hasn't already been said about autobiography in general.

What I will say is that Grealy is very good at bringing descriptions of events and emotions to life, regardless of how ambitious a writer she is or isn't. Her accounts of vomiting until there's nothing but green bile, causing her to eat specific foods so that she has something to purge or can make it less nauseating to look at...I can physically feel and picture everything she describes at these points, including the exhaustion that would consume me, were I to make getting sick the major event of my day. And while I may not understand how reliable a narrator Grealy is, given the time that had passed between her earliest experience and the writing of her book, I do respect the fact that she gives people like her parents human flaws easy to relate to. The relief she feels when her dad leaves her to get the car and give her some peace (p. 84-85), for instance, was probably what most stood out to me. To be a patient in a hospital, or any position warranting pity from most people, is humiliating when you want to be treated with dignity, and I appreciate that Grealy could acknowledge that unspoken idea aloud with her readers.

Do I think she made her family members and herself into characters, though? Absolutely.