Sunday, 23 December 2012

The 'Shaping Experience' bias

There's a very large and, I think, very important critical question about art I never see addressed; or at least, if it is discussed I don't know where and by whom.  I'll give some examples of what I'm talking about.

Let's take a man (for example) in his 40s.  As a kid he fell in love with the music of The Beatles, just like millions.  But although some of what he responded to, in that music, had to do with the skill of Lennon-McCartney-as-popular-composers, much more had to do with the extraordinary potency of music itself.  Nobody ever hears music in the abstract; we always listen to music embodied in one composition or another.  The thing is: whichever musical text happens to be the one that introduces you to the wonder of music itself will tend to receive, back over itself (as it were) a lustre it has not in and of itself earned.  Lennon-McCartney were a talented pair of songwriters; but they didn't invent music itself.  A good proportion, I'd say, more, a majority of the emotional impact of their work involves them piggybacking on Music Itself. Another example might be: 'I used to think Robert Graves' Claudius novels were brilliant; now I see what I was reacting to was the fascination of Roman history; and Graves's novels are rather clunkily put-together.'

The problem is: how can a critic separate out these aspects of a work of art?  It's a particular problem in SF, where the sort of short stories, novels and films that first blew our minds and introduced us to Sense-of-Wonder can shape our tastes, such that we prize works that imitate those earlier works, and we ignore their faults to the exclusion of other, better-written or better-made stuff.  But as with Music Itself, 'the Sublime' was not invented by Asimov's Nightfall (or whatever); the 'Visual Spectacular' was not invented by Star Wars, and (to select one particular key text of my own youth) Narrative and Enchantment not invented by The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings.


Archie Valparaiso said...

I've always thought this was the reason why some art works that take a long time - sometimes longer than the artist's own lifetime - to "find their audience": there's no such thing as good or bad in a sociocultural vacuum.

It suggests that no art is an island, but rather that its success or failure is inextricably bound to what's going on around it when it's consumed. Some stuff "dates badly"* and fades away (MM's Cornelius stories), some stuff never dates (Shakespeare, and very possibly Star Wars), and other stuff has to hang around for a decade or more before its time it ripe (Van Gogh, Tolkien).

Does this mean that only the never-dates art is truly great? I'm not sure that it does. Richard Brautigan, for example, was a very popular and highly rated writer while he was still around, but now he's largely forgotten. But does that mean that we were wrong to rate him highly during a certain period? I don't think it can.

If, in 50 or 100 years' time, DFW is reduced to being just a footnote (ha!) in literary history, will that condition retroactively diminish his importance over the last 15-20 years?

At the turn of the last century, many people would have rated, say, George Meredith above Henry James. Were they wrong, because one's reputation has survived and the other's hasn't?

* I know what "dates badly" means, but what does it actually mean?

(I'm quite good at comments about things that are very nearly but not quite what you actually blogged about; have you noticed that? Anyway, Happy Christmas!)

Adam Roberts Project said...

.. and a very merry Christmas to you, sir!

Adam Roberts Project said...

On Twitter, Paul McAuley suggests 'imprinting' is a better name for this than my post-header. He's probably right.

mahendra singh said...

Imprinting is an excellent name for this phenomenon, and it's a very important mass marketing technique. If, for example, one can ensure that the first TV show most children are exposed to is unadulterated rubbish with the visual and conceptual complexity of a blow to the head, then selling them similar crap as adults is made much easier.

An added benefit to pop culture crap producers is that crap is much cheaper to produce than non-crap, which improves profit margins.

Imprinting drives a sort of cultural Wal-Martization, a race to the bottom of mass media. Except that there's no bottom …

Adam Roberts Project said...

Hmm: Mahendra, it's almost as if you have a particular TV show in mind ...