Friday, 30 March 2007

Aesthetics versus Instrumentalism

I'm doing an Open University course this year, more for fun than anything else, to (maybe) change my way of thinking some.

I'm finding it hard to force myself back into "academic rigour" sometimes, AR that feels only for the sake of it and I can't say I enjoy turning over stones and watching theorists squirm out of the slime.

but but but

It is making me read stuff I know I would otherwise not read, certainly not ANALYSE. We started with a "deep analysis" of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (I barely scraped a "C" in the assignment!) and for the latest assignment we had to respond to Oscar Wilde's Art for Art's Sake bollox, more specifically, quote:

"Books are well-written, or badly written. That is all."

We had to do this and compare the "delicate feminine writing" of Katherine Mansfield (my quote-marks and my opinion, KM is too fey for my reading tastes even though I recognise her "delicate" aesthetic) with the tub-thumping testosterone-filled work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon in Sunset Song.

I am going to pretend now that I've read and loved Sunset Song (I WILL finish it, I will) but I would rather read this difficult book (and I don't like "difficult") with my feet in boiling water than read stories so fucking subtle and delicate (and about so little of weight (KM's) that "my purpose" seems to be to admire the way that comma was put there.)

fer fuck's sake!

I haven't read every Mansfield story but so many seem so impossibly "small". Oh, sure, she's "brilliant", a real artist. I write in my OU essay about single, carefully placed words that I missed first read. Oh, she's subtle all right. But the subject matter?

It's like reading forty pages about a genteel interior decorator choosing between magnolia and cream.

Of course i didn't say this in my OU essay, har-har.

PS I like "Bliss" and "The Woman at the Store" but apparently the latter was before she matured! (Boom! Boom!)


Gibbon kicks ass, whether he's writing about the 'Rape of the Fair Country', sex, violence, capitalism, the oppression of religion etc, and the writing itself (the rhythms are murder to get into but great when you do) is deliciously melodic, word-rich, dramatic (sometimes over-the-top melodramatic) and different

Doing background reading I started discovering stuff about some of his constructions (eg in Spartacus) being Latin based to a specific end.

I got a bit spooked when I read these phrasings and odd invented speech patterns to "represent" because I had done the same thing totally intuitively (or is instinctively a better word?) in some of my Welsh stories like The Bastard William Williams, Meredith Twp Evans and his Butty Ernie the Egg, and The Last Love Letter of Berwyn Price.


I am the bastard William Williams, late of The Universal Pit, Senghennydd, then Abertridwr, and latterly the cellars of The Commercial Hotel, as pot man. Now that the dust have slowed me I am easy to find. I am still lived next door to the English Congregational Church, Commercial Road, Senghennydd. I venture from my place only for the English Cong, and in summer, if I am lucky, a visit from a relation.



I do not mind this, but for the record, I am Ernest Jones, poultry farmer, son of Robert Jones, Deacon, and they are my hens that run amok on the hill above the town. You may eat whosoever's pigs you wish, but it is my eggs that you shall have on your plate if you sup anywhere in the valley from Park Hamlet right through Abertridwr. My eggs is on the plates for most the best part of Caerphilly, too, though I know of some Cardiff eggs there.

Actually, I went to copy something from "Berwyn" and in fact I DIDN'T play those games. Interesting that I thought I had...

I have to do the school-run now, so more later. (but quickly...)

Here's the start of my essay. Don't quote me cos an academic I isn't. I'm doing the course to make me read stuff and think, so as long as a I scrape a pass, that'll do. For example, I'm "wasting" a lot of words here before I even get to look at the two writers.

The Open University assignment, while asking us to discuss the Wilde quotation goes further and seems to set up a dichotomy of aestheticism versus instrumental writing. In fact, Wilde's comment above is part of a very brief 'essay', (in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray), a series of aphorisms and the particular aphorism begins: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book" and ends with the quote above.

I suggest that either Wilde was being provocative, or more likely, he is misinterpreted, since, as the most immediate example of instrumentalism Wilde's novel "Dorian Gray" itself managed to provoke and outrage society and the novel was "a powerful blast against the hypocrisies of Victorian polite society." Wilde's last work, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" has been called both "a social commentary" and a "cry for pity and forgiveness." In both cases, it seems to me that this author to whom has been attributed the cry "art for art's sake" did, in fact write instrumentally. As well as wishing to create art in words, beauty on the page, Wilde also "said something".

I define instrumental writing as writing with a purpose, whether that purpose be blatant and "shouting loudly" or subtle, hidden, subversive. Further I would argue that meaning, "point", message, moral, or profound insight into the human condition is in fact part of the aesthetic itself. If there are two pieces equally fine, beautifully-written, but one appears to be only pretty words while the other tells us about our lives in a profound way, then the second must surely be the greater and more long-lasting art? If there are two equally powerful pieces of political writing, or social commentary or insight into the human condition but one is poorly-written and the second one is beautiful and pleasurable to read, again the latter is the greater art. This seems obvious.

I would therefore argue that a prose work that is "only" beautiful, devoid of a point, message, argument or insight, would not be considered beautiful, would not be seen as art. Instead it would be dissmissed as much political speech is now dismissed, "plenty of words but no substance, no answers."

No comments: