Wednesday, October 04, 2006

aesthetically pleasing

As of this week, the living room in my apartment is almost completely painted. My roommates and I are trying to find a large painting for the biggest wall, but we're not sure where we can find an pretty-looking piece that costs next to nothing.

I have very mixed feelings about art--or at least, my own ability to define such feelings. Aside from determining the accuracy of representation, I often find it very difficult to account for artistic value. What makes a painting beautiful, if not its resemblance of a photograph (or, conversely, defamiliarization)? When I was younger, my mother would always ask me the same question in museums: "If you could take home any painting in this room, which would you choose?"

In Literature After Feminism, Rita Felski discusses the question of literary value, arriving at the conclusion that "there is nothing natural about loving literature."

Those who value Shakespeare and Shelley, Dickens and Dickinson, have learned to do so. This usually means growing up in a household wher reading and talking about books is taken for granted or taking a lot of literature classes in college. In other words, aesthetic appreciation is linked to social class and access to education.
For Felski, then, there is no a priori aesthetic of literature; value is inherently structured in terms of culture and power, and, consequently, open to interpretation. As counterpoints, she offers Rorty's discussion of "the inspirational value of great works of literature" and George Levin's lamentation that, in the wake of post-structuralism, "literature is all too often demeaned, the aesthetic experience denigrated or reduced to mystified ideology."
Rorty argues that contemporary criticism is losing sight of the power of such works, their ability to awe us, amaze us, inspire us to see the world in a different light. Great literature, he suggests, can radically recontextualize what we know.

"You cannot," he declares, "find inspirational in a text at the same time that you are viewing it as a product of a mechanism of cultural production."
Literary value, as Felski maintains, is undeniably laden with socio-cultural baggage: even the most wizened opponents of post-structuralism will concede to the instability of aesthetics. Beauty and brilliance can be deconstucted, and perfect representation--the invisible point where mimesis meets reality--is not only impossible, but deconstruct-able itself; the original depends on the copy. The same hierarchy of supplementation can be applied to the relatonship between Ulysses and Chloe Does Yale.

Framing, of course, is what constitutes art, and critiquing the constructed nature of such criteria endangers not only the works that are priviled by standards, but art itself. While I find myself averse to reactionary defenses of literary value--Rene Wellek et al--in some ways, I can't help but identify with Rorty, wondering if the realignment of aesthetics with politics belies my appreciation of certain literature. When I consider the reasons why I love certain books and hate others--it certainly isn't because I admire things like the rhetorical subversion of phallocentric narrative structures.

While recognizing the political ability of aesthetics--the capacity (and necessity) of form to become content in itself--I also feel compelled to occasionally depoliticize value when deciding what I find the most valuable--to consider my own visceral reaction to words without considering the social, cultural, or economic bases of the reaction. In the end, this takes me back to the museum, where I simply wanted to leave with the piece of art that made my heart skip a beat.


DC said...

I think the the rhetorical subversion of phallocentric narrative structures usually makes for good beach reading.

I have been thinking a lot about habitual reading lately. It seems I either meet people who always have a book going (me) or people with every good intention of reading but who didn't grow up with the inclination to always have a book tucked under their arm, and might read something all the way through every now and again but don't have the same momentum.

elmrockcity said...
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