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childeroland
04-17-2008, 05:15 AM
Didn't know if this should go here or in Critical Theory, but it was suggested to me that this is the right place, so I put it here.

Read this at Film Freak Central's Blog and wondered what you all thought of it -- are there absolute values in the liberal arts?

April 13, 2008

The Trench (http://filmfreakcentral.blogspot.com/2008/04/trench.html)

Brief thoughts on a Sabbath night:

I don’t really understand – and don’t really like, and certainly don’t respect – anyone who doesn’t think that No Country For Old Men is a great film. I feel badly for people who don’t like Tarantino; worse for people who don’t seem to understand Malick or Nagisa or Kim Ki-Duk; but I’m sympathetic that there are opposing viewpoints, y’know. See – the basis for this critical debasement is the dangerous idea that there are no absolutes in the liberal arts. It’s what’s made it all such a ... mess, it’s arguably what’s caused Nathan Lee over at the NY Post and David Ansen at Newsweek to lose their positions (everyone else is next save St. Ebert) recently, this democratization of opinion. Everyone has one. Like an asshole. Get it? The irony of it is that you make any kind of consideration a matter of “well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion” and suddenly nobody needs yours.

By making this thing of ours accessible to a wide, wider, widest audience; my colleagues have politicked themselves out of a job and, before long, out of an entire frickin’ profession. I met David Ansen once – we sat on a panel together at the Vail Film Festival talking about, primarily, the state of modern film criticism (Godfrey Cheshire moderated – he having lost his job a long time ago) – and he struck me as a smart, moral, well-versed critic: a film-lover who’d given a good deal of thought to what was happening at newspapers and magazines. Now, about two years later, he’s taken a buyout offered him and from what I understand, will close out the end of the year before another major outlet, his, closes for good to film criticism.

So the thesis is this: that allowing for people to disagree about the quality of No Country For Old Men is symptomatic of why there’s a dearth of good criticism in the United States. I remember in this Milton seminar I had back in the day that someone piped up that they didn’t think that Milton was very good and, y’know, I have this to say to that. Shut the @#*$ up. You’re allowed not to like Milton, you’re not allowed to opine that Milton was inept and, more to the point, no one’s asking. At a certain level, with certain films, it’s not about good or bad, it has to be about how and why. You can hate Hitchcock – you can’t say that he didn’t make his handful of masterpieces.

Criticism without knowledge is a zero sum game. Everyone’s an asshole who does it.
There are absolutes in the liberal arts. There are things that are absolutely black and white. Find your place of gray within that or find yourself keeping company with that idiot couple behind you in the theater that wishes the Coens’ had given Chigurgh a backstory.

Ruv Draba
04-17-2008, 03:04 PM
I'm glad you moved this article, ChildeR... I wasn't able to respond to it as I wanted, where it was.

To answer your question literally: 'Are there absolute values in liberal arts', I think that the answer is patently 'yes', for the simple reason that the liberal arts traditionally include arithmetic, logic and geometry - all of which have truths that are verifiable by anyone with education in these things, and not reasonably contestable, except in ignorance.

But I think you may really mean to ask whether there are absolute values in the humanities and perhaps the social sciences. A literal answer to that is that there probably are - there are certainly practitioners who hold values to be absolute - but they're not well regarded at the moment, because subjectivism and moral relativism are so popular. :tongue Truth, we are told, is subjective - and of course if we can't trust truth then we can't trust a common notion of good, which means that we also can't trust values or morality or anything requiring values-based interpretation.

I have a problem with this viewpoint. It's not that I believe that any one particular version of truth is absolute -- I don't. I'm both a logician and a scientist by training, and I know the difference -- I don't believe that any particular scientific results are incontrovertibly true -- even less do I believe that any particular proposition in the humanities or social sciences is unassailable. What I object to is the moral relativist position that cultural truths a priori cannot be found(*); that it's somehow anathemical to society and human dignity to even seek them or try and discuss them.

There are lots of reasons that I disagree with this position, and perhaps they're worth discussing later, but the most glaring reason will be obvious to any logician: The statement (*) is an absolutist statement. It's therefore self-contradictory.

While it may be possible to patch up this statement with a shift of syntax, the hypocrisy in the "I'm okay/you're okay" camp is not so easily patched. If every view is equally valid then surely no viewpoint can be contested. If so then why contest absolutist viewpoints?

So my answer is: it should be valid to at least seek common truths and common values in the humanities and social sciences. It should also be legitimate to seek common ground by which to compare propositions, and use rational, shared criteria to improve upon them.

How that applies to the quoted article, I dunno. Haven't seen the movie (but plan to some time). But I consider the proposition that 'movie X is good by the shared values of this culture' is potentially defensible, provided that you can locate what 'shared values' mean to a culture -- and I think that you can.

childeroland
04-17-2008, 04:17 PM
But in the arts consensus acts as objective truth as far as most people are concerned -- well, that was a traditional view. Shakespeare's greatness isn't objective but enjoys such wide consensus that it is treated as such and anti-Shakespeareans like Voltaire and Tolstoy are treated as cranks. It's not considered an acceptable mainstream opinion that Citizen Kane is great, but the idea that it may not be conventionally entertaining for a modern audience is. Can we argue the mainstream opinion or is the 'fact' of its greatness unassailable? Can there be a good argument that it's a bad movie because it isn't a bad movie? Or can one say, there isn't a good argument that "Othello" is a bad play because it's not? Is it the same as arguing an 'objective' scientific 'fact'? Or are there absolutes here and it's not just people trying to establish a canon; or can a canon be objective at all?

Higgins
04-17-2008, 04:59 PM
But in the arts consensus acts as objective truth as far as most people are concerned -- well, that was a traditional view. Shakespeare's greatness isn't objective but enjoys such wide consensus that it is treated as such and anti-Shakespeareans like Voltaire and Tolstoy are treated as cranks. It's not considered an acceptable mainstream opinion that Citizen Kane is great, but the idea that it may not be conventionally entertaining for a modern audience is. Can we argue the mainstream opinion or is the 'fact' of its greatness unassailable? Can there be a good argument that it's a bad movie because it isn't a bad movie? Or can one say, there isn't a good argument that "Othello" is a bad play because it's not? Is it the same as arguing an 'objective' scientific 'fact'? Or are there absolutes here and it's not just people trying to establish a canon; or can a canon be objective at all?

There are plenty of absolute values in the liberal arts. They are just more complex than thumbs up (in canon) or thumbs down (out of canon).

Ruv Draba
04-18-2008, 12:18 AM
But in the arts consensus acts as objective truth as far as most people are concerned -- well, that was a traditional view.

Actually I don't believe it's a traditional view so much as a recent view. I'm not sure that Socrates or Artistotle, say, would agree that consensus determines truth in the humanities. (Socrates especially might object to that proposition, since he was willing to die to oppose consensus). Copernicus and Galileo (whose science was still classifiable as natural philosophy) would doubtless agree with Socrates, and so would Darwin, Freud and Jung, whose studies were based on natural and social observation rather than laboratory work.

What consensus determines is popularity, not truth. As any of the thinkers I mentioned could tell you, many propositions are unpopular but still legitimate steps toward truth. The propositions themselves may not be absolutely true, but still better than whatever's popular at the time. But I'm still using the 'liberal arts' angle to include sciences and mathematics here, so let me move into the more creative areas, and especially literature since that's why we're gathered...

More than any other art, literature is the art of ideas: of experience, feeling, memory, perception; of sense and intuition; of physicality and abstraction; of reality and non-reality; of the shared and the intimately personal.

Feed anyone a dish of ideas and they'll have their own personal reaction to the experience. That reaction may be unique. Fair enough. It's legitimate to record a personal reaction; it's useful to compare those personal reactions too -- all part of how we digest the ideas and learn to appreciate them. But that's far from the end of it.

Ideas themselves don't exist in atomic isolation. Senses, experiences and memories are based on events. Feelings and intuitions are based on values and knowledge and experiences, so it all connects. We can certainly check those connections for properties that are not simply subjective. For example:

Is the setting authentic and well-researched?
Are the characters' history, thoughts, reactions consistent with what we presently understand of human experience, thought and behaviour?
Do the ideas presented in this work (especially those present in plot and character arcs) represent matters of current or emerging concern for my culture?
Is the treatment of these concerns focused (i.e. sticking to topic), appropriate (i.e. finding the sore-points) and balanced (i.e. presenting views and opinions in contrast, and with their best foot forward?)
Are the ideas and presentation in a work robust enough to allow us to revisit them from multiple perspectives over significant periods of time?
Does the author demonstrate understanding of the audience, and sufficient skill to make the ideas easy to comprehend, digest and assimilate?
In comparison with other treatments of the same concerns, does this treatment offer enough originality, insight, skill, polish to make it worth absorbing this work, rather than some other work competing for our time?Any idiot can have an opinion about whether they liked or didn't like a manuscript, but it takes an educated opinion to answer questions like the ones above. You have to know what's happening in the concerns of your culture, and where those concerns are currently being explored; how they are being explored. You need to be willing to research settings, to study human behaviour, and just importantly you need to have some fairly high ethical standard for your critique - at least as high as that for journalism, say, and perhaps higher.

It's my view that having strong opinions, some skill in expressing them and some column-inches assigned to you do not qualify you for critique. And the ability to know which editor loves which popular opinion doesn't qualify you for academic research. It's also my view that critique from ignorance and covert social or personal agenda is every bit as flawed and reprehensible as journalism or scholarship of the same sort.

On the other hand, might it be in the interests of the ignorant, the lazy, the heavily opinionated and the self-serving to seek to legitimise their biased, unresearched views by elevating this approach to critique as 'democratisation'?

Well, yes it might. But that's what postmodern critique is all about, isn't it? :Headbang:

childeroland
04-18-2008, 01:48 AM
But do we always agree on a definition of terms like 'authentic,' 'consistent,' 'focused,' 'appropriate,' 'robust,' 'skill,' etc? Are these objective terms when applied to a particular work or are their definitions when applied to particular work only consensual or ruled by the most common taste among those most skilled/experienced in making aesthetic judgments? After all, the common critical consensus on Faulkner is high, yet Nabokov, a considerable critic, could not abide him. If the assessment of Faulkner is correct -- if his settings are authentic, his characters consistent with human behavior, his ideas relevant, his treatment focused, and so on -- why could Nabokov not see this? Is it the same as refusing to see a scientific 'fact' as 'fact' (or Nabokov being something of a crank on Faulkner as he was on Freud)? You could apply this to Ray Carney on 'Citizen Kane,' T.S. Eliot on the Romantics, to a lesser extent Mary McCarthy and Mailer on Salinger, and, I guess, any number of similar scenarios. Or are some consensuses just more subjective than I think but this isn't usually so and I'm overstating the case?

Ruv Draba
04-18-2008, 02:51 AM
But do we always agree on a definition of terms like 'authentic,' 'consistent,' 'focused,' 'appropriate,' 'robust,' 'skill,' etc?

Of course we don't. But the fact that we disagree is not in itself a problem. Scientists disagree all the time, and definitions improve because of it. As long as you have something external and shared to test against, it can be quite constructive. For the words you mentioned, I think we do.

But here's the problem...

I question whether Arts education provides enough education in the difference between internal/external, subjective/objective, emotional and rational. There's a tendency to assert that all things are internal, all things subjective, and to use emotional arguments where rational ones might serve better. Maybe there's not enough training in the physical (or even respect for it), before messing with the metaphysical?

I've found myself at the wrong end of these discussions quite a lot (not so much in Absolute Write forums, but in others where the education/skills mix is not so balanced). The sort of conversation I'm talking about goes something like this:

Ruv: The sky is blue.

Arts colleague: That's YOUR perception and its informed by UNQUESTIONED cultural BIASES arising from PATRIARCHAL domination of the paradigm of dialogue! (Apparently you have to write in caps a lot if you do a liberal arts degree. :D)

Ruv: Actually, it really is blue. You can measure it.

Arts colleague: Ah, but who DECIDED on the measurements? Who decided what the THRESHOLD for blue is!?

Ruv: We can define it as a fuzzy range - something that's well defined around the middle, and less well defined around the edges. That's good enough for...

Arts colleague: You see!? You're MARGINALISING people who sit outside your own arbitrary NORM!

Ruv: Well, if you take something in the middle of the blue spectrum and insist that it's pink, you're really marginalising yourself.

Arts colleague: Only because YOU made up the definitions so that YOU benefit!

Ruv: *sighs* You're right. The sky doesn't have a colour. It is its own unique self, and our appreciation of it is unique to every one of us. Only my sky is blue, and it's only really my blue.

Arts colleague: *kindly* There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

Ruv: Great, but now we have nothing to talk about. So I'm going off now to grab my guitar and play some blues... I mean, uh.. music of colour. :Headbang:

Ruv Draba
04-18-2008, 03:26 AM
For fun and contrast, here's the sort of conversation I'd like to have with liberal Arts students.

Ruv: The sky is blue.

Arts colleague: Yes, but what does that mean?

Ruv: Well, physically I think we're pretty confident about what it means, but metaphysically...

Arts colleague: Does it mean the same to you and to me? Does it mean the same to us now as it did to Socrates?

Ruv: I'm thinking probably not.

Arts colleague: Me too, but how has it changed?

Ruv: Well, from a physical perspective, as much as the sky is concerned, we used to think of it as vast, imponderable and eternal... but now, we're thinking of it as thin, layered and fragile.

Arts colleague: And has 'blue' changed for us because the sky has changed?

Ruv: Maybe it has... maybe blue is changing from a colour of reflection and opportunity...

Arts colleague: ...to a colour of despair.

childeroland
04-18-2008, 04:56 AM
That something external and shared, the yardstick, is usually embodied in a canon of a particular art -- literature, film, etc. I tend to make distinctions between internal/subjective/emotional criteria and responses and external/objective/rational ones. Or at least I like to think so. But since I happen to like most canonical art works I'm not sure I do or if there is a practical difference between external and internal responses for me. Especially since repeatedly reading/viewing a book, film, etc tends to shape my emotions about it. e.g, I hated Picasso until I read some criticism on him and, with understanding, began to appreciate him on a head level, though he's still not really my cup of tea.

But most people do not distinguish between what they like and what they consider great, which leads to, say, Chris Matthews calling Stephen King a great writer, a judgment Harold Bloom would complain of as an example of critical debasement. Is Bloom right or can an argument be made for King based on an alternate set of values? Would those alternate values be as good as the canonical values that elevate the accepted pantheon of writers?

This bit from the Film Freak Central blog puts the question better than I could.

But certainly personal sensibilities must matter at some point, unless we’re actually willing to judge “greatness” solely on a film’s ability to achieve its intended goals. By standards of the latter, Taco Bell is in fact great because its “s*&^” bean burrito is all that Taco Bell wants it to be. And, in a film sense, that ultra-vulgar “2 Girls & 1 Cup” video that is barfing its way around the Internet is great because it is exactly what it wants to be. It seems to me that once someone begins to interpret anything beyond whether the artist’s art fulfilled its intended vision (and that’s based on perception in the first place), he/she is already dipping into personal preference of techniques, etc., which means judging a film based on whether or not he/she “likes it” – the only difference is that he/she happens to like it for all the “right” reasons. Remember: if people who don’t like “No Country For Old Men” are idiots, then people who like “No Country For Old Men” for the wrong reasons are equally idiotic.

CDarklock
04-18-2008, 05:25 AM
See, here's the conversation I'd like to have:

Me: The sky is blue.

Art fart: That's YOUR perception and its informed by...

Me: <SMACK>

Art fart: You smacked me!

Me: Shut the f@$k up.

Ruv Draba
04-18-2008, 07:26 AM
That something external and shared, the yardstick, is usually embodied in a canon of a particular art -- literature, film, etc.
If by canon you mean classics, then I agree. But I've argued before (e.g. in this thread (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=87596)) that what makes literature a classic is that it covers an area of common concern in a way that's original and revealing and creates new impact. Sampling whether people like a work doesn't give you enough information on whether a work is a classic, and neither does just checking who used the work as an influence. You need to look at the concern, the treatment and the context in which the work was developed. That requires some knowledge and education.

I tend to make distinctions between internal/subjective/emotional criteria and responses and external/objective/rational ones. Or at least I like to think so. But since I happen to like most canonical art works I'm not sure I doTo describe a work as a classic doesn't mean that you must delight in the work or idolise its creator. It's simply recognition that a milestone has been laid along the path of human thought. Of course, once we realise that it's often easy to learn to respect a work, and even like it.

On the other hand, one can read classic literature for entertainment, education, curiosity, research, or to impress people. What you get from classics may depend on what you bring to the reading. If all I want is to impress people with my erudition then it's easy to inflate the significance and quality of the work. Classical literature is not always the best crafted literature about a concern - it's simply the first to treat a concern effectively in a particular way, and so it invites comparisons. E.g. Robert Johnson is one of the first great blues guitarists. There have been plenty of better blues guitarists since, but Johnson's music is classic in the genre - influencing bands as famous as the Rolling Stones, say.


But most people do not distinguish between what they like and what they consider greatTo form a view broader than one's own initial impressions requires some education and effort. It also requires some dedication to literature as endeavour, and not simply as a source of education. First impressions are fine and not to be disparaged, but they're not the end of literary appreciation.

Questions about values elided.

Let me move onto values for a bit. We each have personal values, and in a modern society we hold it as a right that our personal values may vary. So far so good. But as a culture we also have - or seek to have - collective values. We must have these or otherwise we wouldn't be a culture, but simply a rabble bound together by force and economic dependence.

We can certainly evaluate a work based on our personal values and personal knowledge, but in doing so we can't presume to speak for our culture. But equally, we can choose to evaluate a work based on cultural values, and cultural knowledge. This requires us first to educate ourselves in what those things are, and why they are. When we do so (or represent that we are doing so), I believe that we incur an ethical professional responsibility. We're serving the interests of others and not simply ourselves and our ideals. And this brings me back to focus, appropriateness, balance, robustness etc...

But in evaluating work for others, we present our commentary to also be evaluated. Some will evaluate our critique against their personal values and maybe disagree. If so, so be it! But others may wish to evaluate our critique against a cultural context and they may use very different criteria or use them in a different way.

When I evaluate critique in a personal context I'll ask questions like:

Have you read what I've read? Do you like similar things?
How does your opinion of this work compare to your opinion of the other things I've read?
What are your reasons for liking/disliking elements of this work, and how does this compare to my reasons?This is how I typically get recommendations for my leisure reading. I listen to people whose personal values are similar to my own.

But from a cultural perspective I think very differently. I think about history and cultural context and styles and influences. These are all things that can be identified, measured, compared, contrasted. I don't care to defend my personal tastes in literature, but I'm very happy to discuss cultural impacts with anyone because that's something you can verify.

But certainly personal sensibilities must matter at some point,Yes, they matter when we're operating personally, rather than professionally -- or if you prefer, as a trusted, educated servant of our community. (Another idea many Arts-educated people don't feel comfortable about is the idea of community accountability. It seems to be missing from the ethics and morality syllabus these days; but most scientists, engineers, accountants, doctors, journalists and even *gasp* economists and politicians know exactly what it means.)

If people who don’t like “No Country For Old Men” are idiots, then people who like “No Country For Old Men” for the wrong reasons are equally idiotic.
Yes. Or Tolstoy or Dickens. I can't disagree with that. :D

Medievalist
04-18-2008, 07:48 AM
Gah.

I think I've read that argument 1500 times in sophomore survey courses.

You know what? Some of what Milton wrote was crap. There's a fair amount of crap in the canon, in fact, and I can prove it:

Look at this by Keats:



My ear is open like a greedy shark
To catch the tunings of a voice divine.

Even Keats had a bad day.

Milton's got some positively nauseating stuff -- "he for God only, she for God and him"--

The canon isn't all that definitive in terms of "quality." It's meant to be quasi definitive, at best, in terms of importance. We don't really know if Beowulf is any good at all, in terms of contemporary culture when it was written -- but it's all we have, and it does seem pretty nifty to us now . . .

Ruv Draba
04-18-2008, 08:03 AM
We don't really know if Beowulf is any good at all, in terms of contemporary culture when it was written -- but it's all we have, and it does seem pretty nifty to us now . . .Not to disparage the earlier part of the argument - which I agree with, but I think we can infer a bit more about Beowulf than that "it's the only one left so it must be a classic". I doubt that any future culture finding the last surviving Ford Pinto would form a similar conclusion. :D :D :D

Medievalist
04-18-2008, 08:49 AM
Not to disparage the earlier part of the argument - which I agree with, but I think we can infer a bit more about Beowulf than that "it's the only one left so it must be a classic". I doubt that any future culture finding the last surviving Ford Pinto would form a similar conclusion. :D :D :D

Umm . . . dude.

It's a pretty clumsy and cheaply produced mss.

The scribes are less than competent, and the argument that Beowulf might be a piece of apprentice work is one of the cruxes of Old English criticism and scholarly debate. It's even a bit of a chestnut.

kuwisdelu
04-18-2008, 11:17 AM
Oh lordy.

No, there are no absolute values in liberal arts. The idea is just silly.

Are some people really still clinging to the grade-school idea that there's only one right interpretation of some things? Do some people really think that only one perspective on a subjective matter is right?

The very nature of art is its subjectivity.

Take a picture of a landscape. That's an objective. Paint the same landscape. Immediately, the whole idea becomes subjective.

Seriously, even (good) science doesn't claim that there's only one right answer or that anyone knows it. Look at quantum mechanics. The particles upon which everything in the universe is built aren't even absolute! Even physics we cannot know for certain. So do some people really think liberal arts can be even more scientific than science?

The fact that art can have so many different interpretations and so many different perspectives is part of the very nature of its beauty. Do these same people believe that, as there are certain works of "absolute value," that there are certain philosophies of absolute correctness?

This is in no way to say that one opinion is equal to another. They're not. I agree that the democratization of the liberal arts is a problem. Not every interpretation is right. No, not everyone is entitled to an opinion...well, a valid opinion, anyway. If an interpretation or a perspective or an idea of value is not supported by some kind of evidence, then it's not well-founded. Otherwise, art will merely become religion. Certain people will believe in one book, while some believe in another, and each believes the other is wrong "just because." No. Interpretations, ideas, theories, perspectives need evidence. They need support. People lose focus on this simple idea.

The idea that there are certain works of absolute value--that everyone must respect and admit is great--along with the idea that everyone's opinion is equal, everyone's interpretation equally valid, are both absolutes. Like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between.

Dale Emery
04-18-2008, 12:57 PM
Me: The sky is blue.

Art fart: That's YOUR perception and its informed by...

Me: <SMACK>

Art fart: You smacked me!

Me: That's YOUR perception...

Dale

Higgins
04-18-2008, 05:19 PM
Actually I don't believe it's a traditional view so much as a recent view. I'm not sure that Socrates or Artistotle, say, would agree that consensus determines truth in the humanities. (Socrates especially might object to that proposition, since he was willing to die to oppose consensus). Copernicus and Galileo (whose science was still classifiable as natural philosophy) would doubtless agree with Socrates, and so would Darwin, Freud and Jung, whose studies were based on natural and social observation rather than laboratory work.

What consensus determines is popularity, not truth. As any of the thinkers I mentioned could tell you, many propositions are unpopular but still legitimate steps toward truth. The propositions themselves may not be absolutely true, but still better than whatever's popular at the time. But I'm still using the 'liberal arts' angle to include sciences and mathematics here, so let me move into the more creative areas, and especially literature since that's why we're gathered...

More than any other art, literature is the art of ideas: of experience, feeling, memory, perception; of sense and intuition; of physicality and abstraction; of reality and non-reality; of the shared and the intimately personal.

Feed anyone a dish of ideas and they'll have their own personal reaction to the experience. That reaction may be unique. Fair enough. It's legitimate to record a personal reaction; it's useful to compare those personal reactions too -- all part of how we digest the ideas and learn to appreciate them. But that's far from the end of it.

Ideas themselves don't exist in atomic isolation. Senses, experiences and memories are based on events. Feelings and intuitions are based on values and knowledge and experiences, so it all connects. We can certainly check those connections for properties that are not simply subjective. For example:

Is the setting authentic and well-researched?
Are the characters' history, thoughts, reactions consistent with what we presently understand of human experience, thought and behaviour?
Do the ideas presented in this work (especially those present in plot and character arcs) represent matters of current or emerging concern for my culture?
Is the treatment of these concerns focused (i.e. sticking to topic), appropriate (i.e. finding the sore-points) and balanced (i.e. presenting views and opinions in contrast, and with their best foot forward?)
Are the ideas and presentation in a work robust enough to allow us to revisit them from multiple perspectives over significant periods of time?
Does the author demonstrate understanding of the audience, and sufficient skill to make the ideas easy to comprehend, digest and assimilate?
In comparison with other treatments of the same concerns, does this treatment offer enough originality, insight, skill, polish to make it worth absorbing this work, rather than some other work competing for our time?Any idiot can have an opinion about whether they liked or didn't like a manuscript, but it takes an educated opinion to answer questions like the ones above. You have to know what's happening in the concerns of your culture, and where those concerns are currently being explored; how they are being explored. You need to be willing to research settings, to study human behaviour, and just importantly you need to have some fairly high ethical standard for your critique - at least as high as that for journalism, say, and perhaps higher.

It's my view that having strong opinions, some skill in expressing them and some column-inches assigned to you do not qualify you for critique. And the ability to know which editor loves which popular opinion doesn't qualify you for academic research. It's also my view that critique from ignorance and covert social or personal agenda is every bit as flawed and reprehensible as journalism or scholarship of the same sort.

On the other hand, might it be in the interests of the ignorant, the lazy, the heavily opinionated and the self-serving to seek to legitimise their biased, unresearched views by elevating this approach to critique as 'democratisation'?

Well, yes it might. But that's what postmodern critique is all about, isn't it? :Headbang:

So, as you seem to suggest, there are absolute values outside of the sciences. For example: to make certain types of judgements about a text you have to be able to read the language in which it is written.

And apparently (see elsewhere in the thread), you can get smacked around for not inventing something "obvious", but you may not have to read the original language since the most complete text may be in another language.

Higgins
04-18-2008, 05:23 PM
Oh lordy.

No, there are no absolute values in liberal arts. The idea is just silly.

Are some people really still clinging to the grade-school idea that there's only one right interpretation of some things? Do some people really think that only one perspective on a subjective matter is right?

The very nature of art is its subjectivity.

Take a picture of a landscape. That's an objective. Paint the same landscape. Immediately, the whole idea becomes subjective.

Seriously, even (good) science doesn't claim that there's only one right answer or that anyone knows it. Look at quantum mechanics. The particles upon which everything in the universe is built aren't even absolute! Even physics we cannot know for certain. So do some people really think liberal arts can be even more scientific than science?

The fact that art can have so many different interpretations and so many different perspectives is part of the very nature of its beauty. Do these same people believe that, as there are certain works of "absolute value," that there are certain philosophies of absolute correctness?

This is in no way to say that one opinion is equal to another. They're not. I agree that the democratization of the liberal arts is a problem. Not every interpretation is right. No, not everyone is entitled to an opinion...well, a valid opinion, anyway. If an interpretation or a perspective or an idea of value is not supported by some kind of evidence, then it's not well-founded. Otherwise, art will merely become religion. Certain people will believe in one book, while some believe in another, and each believes the other is wrong "just because." No. Interpretations, ideas, theories, perspectives need evidence. They need support. People lose focus on this simple idea.

The idea that there are certain works of absolute value--that everyone must respect and admit is great--along with the idea that everyone's opinion is equal, everyone's interpretation equally valid, are both absolutes. Like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between.

There are a number of rules for forming judgements in both the sciences and the liberal arts that are roughly the same. These rules are more or less the grounds for a certain range of absolute judgements. In terms of such rules, the sciences and the liberal arts are pretty similar.

Higgins
04-18-2008, 05:27 PM
For fun and contrast, here's the sort of conversation I'd like to have with liberal Arts students.

Ruv: The sky is blue.

Arts colleague: Yes, but what does that mean?

Ruv: Well, physically I think we're pretty confident about what it means, but metaphysically...

Arts colleague: Does it mean the same to you and to me? Does it mean the same to us now as it did to Socrates?

Ruv: I'm thinking probably not.

Arts colleague: Me too, but how has it changed?

Ruv: Well, from a physical perspective, as much as the sky is concerned, we used to think of it as vast, imponderable and eternal... but now, we're thinking of it as thin, layered and fragile.

Arts colleague: And has 'blue' changed for us because the sky has changed?

Ruv: Maybe it has... maybe blue is changing from a colour of reflection and opportunity...

Arts colleague: ...to a colour of despair.

You have some strange fantasies about what is problematic in the arts. I don't think the basic color of the cloudless sky at midday is one of them.

I don't think "what does it mean?" is something one hears among people who work a lot on art...certainly not with reference to the natural world. Actually, people who work on art have a pretty clear view of the natural world as having certain characteristics that are not in themselves particularly problematic.

childeroland
04-18-2008, 07:25 PM
Gah.

I think I've read that argument 1500 times in sophomore survey courses.

You know what? Some of what Milton wrote was crap. There's a fair amount of crap in the canon, in fact, and I can prove it:

...

Milton's got some positively nauseating stuff -- "he for God only, she for God and him"--

The canon isn't all that definitive in terms "quality." Its meant to be quasi definitive, at best, in terms of importance. We don't really know if Beowulf is any good at all, in terms of contemporary culture when it was written -- but it's all we have, and it does seem pretty nifty to us now . . .

Could our cultural values (e.g. attitudes toward women) being different than what they were in Milton's day eventually render large parts of Milton's work irrelevant and obsolete except as documents of past attitudes? Or does all his work enjoy an aesthetic authority that transcends his culture and ours? Is such an authority possible or does tradition create the illusion of it? If readers decide Milton's morality (as shown in that quote "he for God only, she for God and him") is shown to be too morally deficient, can his poem still be termed great or as great as readers thought it through the years? Or must we rethink him? After all, it's been argued that Wagner's antisemitism is built into the very structure of his Ring cycle in Alberich's motif which is yet a vital part of the work. Are aesthetic judgments synonymous with moral judgments? Or can you separate the "art" from the "morality"? Can we reject the parts of Milton we don't like for 'moral' reasons if those parts are a vital part of the aesthetic whole?

pconsidine
04-18-2008, 07:46 PM
For me, this is where the concept of Craft comes in handy. The idea of whether something is well-crafted or not brings with it at least a semblance of objective measures (for example, the cinematographic quality of a movie) from which one can begin to base an evaluation. There are well-crafted songs that I don't really like, but respect. There are well-crafted movies that I hate. Of course there's still subjectivity involved, but at least it's a marginally more stable place to start from.

Not that I'm especially up to speed on criticism anymore.

ColoradoGuy
04-18-2008, 08:35 PM
Actually, people who work on art have a pretty clear view of the natural world as having certain characteristics that are not in themselves particularly problematic.
I agree. Sometimes it seems it is only the critics, postmodernist-leaning or not, who are troubled by these things.

Ruv Draba
04-19-2008, 03:47 AM
Could our cultural values (e.g. attitudes toward women) being different than what they were in Milton's day eventually render large parts of Milton's work irrelevant and obsolete except as documents of past attitudes?
Or put another way: if it's no longer considered Politically Correct, can it still be considered a classic? :tongue (That's a question worthy of George Orwell maybe. :D :D :D)

But clearly, it can. Troupes still perform the Taming of the Shrew to liberal audiences. Sometimes the play gets reinterpreted toward more modern values; other times it gets presented in a more traditional interpretation. But so far I haven't heard of people protesting out the front of the theatre and clearly it's more than just an historical curio.

Some of the values in the Taming of the Shrew are highly dated, but I think that the play can remain entertaining because the concerns are still current, and the treatment is so strong - in the hands of any capable troupe, sparks really fly between Katherine and Petruchio. The thematic impact of the play may have diminished over time, though, and may continue to diminish. Perhaps one day, audiences won't appreciate the themes at all, but given that gender differences seem likely to stay with us forever, the concerns will likely remain with us too, so I wouldn't expect the play to disappear from stages in any forseeable future.

Medievalist
04-19-2008, 07:14 AM
Could our cultural values (e.g. attitudes toward women) being different than what they were in Milton's day eventually render large parts of Milton's work irrelevant and obsolete except as documents of past attitudes? Or does all his work enjoy an aesthetic authority that transcends his culture and ours?

If it's really good, it really does transcend cultural/temporal boundaries.

And much of Milton does -- but even in the context of Milton's lifetime, that particutlar line "He for God, she for God in him"--which is from memory, and mine is fallible -- that particular line was seen as trite in Milton's own era.


Or can you separate the "art" from the "morality"? Can we reject the parts of Milton we don't like for 'moral' reasons if those parts are a vital part of the aesthetic whole?

Sure you can; we do it all the time. I am exceedingly fond of the Táin, for instance, but I really don't favor cattle-raids, or courtship via abduction.

Craig Gosse
04-19-2008, 07:51 AM
Reality...

'Before' any given event, you can 'predict' anything you want.

AT any given event, the 'odds' become '50/50' - either it will, or it won't.
Post-event - whatever happened, happened. 100%

The thing to remember, at all times, is that every current 'opinion'/'odds'/etc. are attempts to predict the future... and that, REGARDLESS of what 'model' you use, your 'math' DOES NOT CHANGE the reality.

'A billion to one' DOES NOT refer to what will happen... it's just a mathematical construct. The universe feels no obligation to match this prediction...

(*Grin*)

Higgins
04-24-2008, 09:28 PM
Or put another way: if it's no longer considered Politically Correct, can it still be considered a classic? :tongue (That's a question worthy of George Orwell maybe. :D :D :D)



How politically correct is the Iliad? a Tale of what can go wrong when a man has his favorite sex slave handed over to his social superior.

Liam Jackson
04-29-2008, 05:46 AM
Terms like "Billion to one" were invented to provide hyperbolic statisticians and threat/risk analysts with gainful employment.

Liam Jackson
05-08-2008, 05:22 PM
Well, butter my buns and call me a dinner roll. I killed this thread deader than $3.00 used car battery.