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Friday, October 13, 2006

A Few Articles

Atlantic Monthly's Fiction Issue 2006 has run an essay by Francine Prose where she asks whether learning to write can be taught. (The essay is not available on line). She relates her own experience in taking classes ultimately saying, "But that class, as helpful as it was, is not where I learned to write." What is the key, according to Prose? Read. Her statement echoes Chomsky's, Read widely and read well." When we think to the past there were not graduate programs in writing -- writers learned to write by trying and by reading -- somehow there is hope in that recollection.

When I teach contemporary art classes the question of bad art is nearly always the first question. And why not? The lines of good and bad have been erased thanks to post-structuralist activites, Postmodernism, deconstruction, and pluralism. I empathize with the students who know what they like, but who also feel they have no foundation for determing what is half-decent. Roger Scruton has provided a terrific article titled Kitsch and the Modern Predicament in City Journal, evidently from the Manhattan Institute that takes on this question. Now I know many will say I enjoy it because he's as harsh as I am but note I also respect art that directly confronts norms of goodness and badness, as so much contemporary art does. He gives a brief overview of kitsch and Modernism and then begins to dissect what makes kitsch tick. "Kitsch is pretense," he writes. It is the "...un-wanted hand on the knee. Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing." The quote that sticks is, "The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence." You've got to read this one.

Speaking of Kitsch, yesterday I came upon a great little essay by Jeffrey Louis Decker titled Saint Oprah. It's availble on line through LION and Project MUSE but you need a login through your local academic library. It's also in the Spring 2006 issue of Modern Fiction Studies if you can find that one. In it he discusses Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture by Eva Illouz and Oprah, Celebrity and the Formation of Self by Sherryl Wilson. Decker's essay is basically a review of the four books that dig into Oprah's mega-corporation whose purpose is to promote middle class norms as they relate to personal accountability and virtuous uplift. We've heard many people say her novel selections sell, but are they good... again the question arises. He says Oprah's book club made middlebrow practices relevant again but backs up his thought with a quote by Kathleen Rooney. "[N]either Winfrey nor her readers seemed permitted to remark critically on the selections, or to advance beyond any but they most immature, advertisement-like, unconditionally loving responses to every single novel they encountered."

It seems to me criticism is definitely headed in that direction -- a thought I consider terrifying.

Now for something completely different, check out this fabulous piece of art titled Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor.