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Friday, October 01, 2004
Friday with a bullet!

For the few folks who are interested, I'm sorry I didn't get back to the aesthetics talk last night. I meant to get online last night, but I was absolutely captivated by the Presidential debate (strange as I've never watched the debates before). Hopefully, I'll get back to it tonight.

In the meantime, though, some bullets that haven't made sense to fit in over the last few days. [If you're coming over from Be the Boy, I'll warn you right now that this post is neither "smartly written" nor "worthy of your attention. Sorry.]

*Does anyone reading this know how many pages are reprinted in the new release of Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage collection that weren't in the old printing? I have the old one, and was frustrated (though not $20 frustrated) to hear that the new printing contained extra material.

*Along those lines, is there anyone reading this who has read both the original version and the "revised and expanded edition" of Stephen King's The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower Book One)? If so, how substantive are the changes? I have the original paperback, and am preparing to re-read the whole series now that book seven is out, and I'd like to know if I'll be lost if I don't have the new version.

*Friend of the Coffee Shop Die Wachen has been doing some rare comics blogging of late, speaking pretty intelligently about Steven T. Seagle's graphic novel "It's a Bird." I actually haven't read the book yet, but if you have and you're interested in some intelligent commentary on it, the discussion starts here and continues for about seven entries. Good stuff, Maynard.

*Last October, Sean Collins provided some excellent horror-blogging, with emphasis on stuff that's actually scary and why (as opposed to being goth or gore-heavy). Sadly, Sean's not blogging much these days due to a new job. I've thought about doing a little of my own horror-blogging this month, but can't commit to being as interesting nor as consistent as Mr. Collins. Anyone know of any smart folks blogging about horror? I should mention that Captain Corey does a great job blogging about obscure horror movies year-round (I assume, he's only been blogging for a few months), so give him a click if that kind of thing interests you.

*Finally, that old "Five Questions" blog meme has resurfaced among comics bloggers. I participated earlier, but it appears as if haloscan has eaten all of my old comments, so neither the questions nor the answers are available. So, if your memory is bad, or if you're new around here, ask me five questions about anything you want to know in the comments, and I'll post answers in actual posts over the weekend. Have fun!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
The continuing crisis

Still trying to work through my personal theory of aesthetics, if such a thing is possible. There've been some really insightful comments so far, which have clarified some of my thoughts and brought up some new questions, so let's get onto some replies.

Dave Fiore says:

"[T]his is precisely the problem with aesthetic hierarchies--it's all very well to claim that complex structure and susceptibility to multiple interpretations makes a work objectively 'more artful', but what happens when other readers begin finding all kinds of complexities and polysemies in a supposedly flat, 'for entertainment purposes only' text? This happens all of the time! And the humbling fact is that just about any work of art can be a steak, if the reader approaches it with a steak-sized appetite (can we change the metaphor to a gourmet oatmeal?)."

One of my struggles in thinking through this subject is my own deficiencies in language: knowing what I mean, but not being able to find the right words. On Monday, I used the word "hierarchy" to explain my theory, but I didn't really mean hierarchy in the sense that one work is inherently better than another. I meant that certain works make more sense to me to be grouped together based on certain internal and external qualities than simply by saying "X is a movie" or "Y a comic," or even that "Z is sci-fi" while "Q a mystery."

Rather than a hierarchy, then, what if we talked about the works as being placed along a horizontal continuum which moves from "Fun with Dick and Jane" on the left to something like "Paradise Lost" or "Ulysses" on the right? In this way, we can still group works by certain similarities, while not saying that X or Y is inherently better than Q or Z. Where a work fits on the continuum is based on the criteria outlined on Monday, though I confess that I tend to place a greater weight on complexity/subtlety and authorial (artistic) intent/intended audience than some of the others (but they all factor in).

Of course, that's also where the trouble comes in, especially if we want to avoid creating a situation in this continuum where one work is "better than" another (that'll come later, bear with me). There's two sets of judgments that factor in: expectations and experience.

While I suspect that in an ideal world, one would come to any work completely blank mind with no expectations (this would be the same world in which "there is no need to assign value to art"), in our world that's rarely the case. For instance, I expect that A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden (which I've never read) will go somewhere towards the right end of the continuum (keep in mind that it's a continuum, though, so it doesn't necessarily have an end), based on having read a few other books by Byatt, knowing what I do about Byatt's style and general audience and on knowing what other people whose opinions I trust have said about it. I expect that Brad Meltzer's The Zero Game (which I also haven't read) belongs closer to the left side for similar reasons. Once I have read (or experienced) these books, I may need to adjust where they actually fall based on what other books that I have read they share the most in common with, but to be honest, I think I'm pretty close.

While there can be infinite points on a continuum, and infinite types of groupings, at some point one needs to say "these works are close enough" to merit a comparison. That comparison within a group, then, is where opinion and Dave Intermittent's "super-fuzziness" comes into play, and where it's hard to avoid creating a hierarchy.

Let's say for example that the Coen Brothers' movies all fall closely together enough to be grouped together (there's probably other works that might also come into play, but I'm trying to reduce this as best I can). The top of the group would probably be Barton Fink, Raising Arizona and Fargo, while The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There might be closer to the middle, with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers coming towards the bottom because they just don't quite work as well as some of the others. Even though there are degrees within a group, it's still a group that makes sense together while, say, Happy Gilmore, Deuce Bigelow and Tommy Boy which might work to varying degrees in another group.

What makes this whole schema even more complex is when, as Dave F. says, someone finds "complexities and polysemies in a supposedly flat, 'for entertainment purposes only' text." I suspect that there's a couple things going on here. The first is when a work turns out to belong somewhere different than where one expected it to upon actually experiencing it. This happens all the time, and if one is so rigidly stuck in one's personal schema that there's no room for movement, then there are other issues at play. If a work has more or less depth than you expected, just change your thought processes so that you can evaluate it alongside similar works.

Another issue may be the simple fact that one person's trash is another person's treasure. While this may sometimes reflect some sort of formal quality within a work itself, more often it's reflective of the person(s) critiquing it. I may place Stephen King's books further to the right on my continuum than someone else because I have a blind spot to King for reasons of nostalgia (being the first "adult" author I really got into) or because my life experiences (and experiences with other literature) allow me to appreciate facets of his writing that may not be readily apparent to someone who isn't immersed in King's work.

But I'll tell you something else, and this is really dangerous when it comes to artistic critiques: sometimes, we spend so much time with a work or we like a work so much that we can see depth or subtlety where there is none, or at least not as much as we want to see. In my college years, I read quite a bit of pop culture criticism of the kind one finds in the Journal of Popular Culture and other sources, because I really wanted to show that the literary "canon" was inherently flawed, and that there was merit in works outside the canon that I wanted to prove was valuable. Occasionally, this type of thinking has merit.

In my admittedly limited experience within the academic and critical sphere, however, I think I've determined that there's usually a reason for a canon, and a reason that Paradise Lost is required reading in most serious literary studies and The Firm isn't. Yes, I could probably write a serious academic study examining the role of women or minorities in Grisham's novels, or what Grisham says about the law or big business, and as long as I presented a cogent argument backed up by the text itself, I could graduate with an "A" (or however they grade a PhD thesis), but that doesn't mean that the work itself merits that level of study. Sometimes an apple is just an apple, no matter how many similarities it has to a steak. If hundreds or thousands of scholars say that Paradise Lost is more worthy of study than The Firm, you know what? It probably is.

That said, if what you're trying to do is show that you can say something original about a work, you'll probably have better luck outside the canon, simply because so much has already been said about canonical works. I would argue, however, that one should look to works which make the most sense when grouped with works from the canon in the continuum, than looking toward Fun with Dick and Jane. (Dave F., I know this line of thought probably offends you to the very core of your being, and all I can say is that I'm glad it does because you defend your own position very well, and I look forward to your hopefully good-natured evisceration of it!).

One last thing before I go today. I don't want anyone who's read this far to read this as me in any way saying that a work's place on the continuum tells you how much you might enjoy it. I suspect that Finnegan's Wake belongs toward the far right, but I'd sure as hell get more personal enjoyment out of a more left-leaning Meltzer novel. Your level of enjoyment of a work is determined by your personal preference at the time you select a work to experience. Last week, I read and enjoyed Idlewild, a fairly centric, if not leaning to the left, book; this week, I'm reading The Fortress of Solitude, which I think belongs on the right.

Okay, I said a lot (did I cover one or two topics today?), and still haven't responded to some of the well thought out comments from the last few days, but it's time to stop and post this sucker so I can get home in time to watch Lost!

Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Once more, into the breach

Yesterday, I left my exploration of aesthetics with the conclusion of some initial thoughts that had been rattling around in my head over the last week or so. As predicted, simply getting those thoughts out of my head has made room in my poor caveman brain for some new thoughts, which I hope clarify my position, or at least open up new avenues for thought/discussion.

I'd like to begin, though, by addressing a few of the insightful comments left by coffee shop patrons over the last day or so.

Brandon comments:

". . . There's really no need to assign value to 'art.' Certainly art can be enjoyed in different ways and fulfilling in different amounts. Why worry about it?"

I know where you're coming from, Brandon, I really do; I'm just not sure I agree entirely. In one sense, you're absolutely right: assigning a value to "art" is a bit of a fool's game. No two people are going to view any work of art the same way.

[Digression: I don't know that I should have used the term "art" as broadly as I did yesterday. Though there's certainly value in discussing all of the arts, and maybe in discussing all art together, I'm particularly interested at the moment in the narrative arts, or storytelling. Trying to extrapolate some of my thoughts to primarily visual or aural arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, landscape, music, etc., realizing that comics, movies, theater and TV are both narrative and visual, and possibly even aural, but work with me here) just doesn't work, which may reveal a glaring flaw in my argument, but there you go. Back to my response to Brandon.]

In another sense, I think it's a worthwhile endeavor to determine for oneself what one is looking for when one reads a novel or comic, or watches a movie, play or TV show. If you don't know what is important to you, and what goes into your thought processes when you're examining something critically, you run the risk of painting yourself into a corner or limiting yourself in other ways.

To use an example I mentioned yesterday, when I started to write some movie reviews last week, I found that I wanted to give a reasonably positive review to Resident Evil: Apocalypse and a fairly negative review to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, despite the fact that I (somewhat contrarily) think Sky Captain is probably the better of the two movies. I really struggled with why the reviews were turning out the way they did, and why I left RE:A smiling and SCatWoT sort of grumbling. Eventually, I decided that they're two inherently different types of movie and, as such, I had a different set of expectations for each and, more importantly, I was weighing each movie against a different set of criteria. But why, and was that fair (in hindsight, I'm not so sure it was for those particular movies, but bare with me).

Brandon continues:

"Once you start assigning value to an artform, I think you limit what you're willing to be exposed to."

While I think this may be true in some cases, and I could name names of people I know if I wanted to, I don't think it's necessarily true in others, most particularly my own. Over the years, I've read a lot of comics and books, watched a hell of a lot of movies, and probably watched more than my fair share of series TV. In general, I try not to limit myself too much with regard to what I expose myself to. I watch and enjoy Survivor and The Sopranos, but are they necessarily equal and I think critically about them as equals? I've read and enjoyed Brad Meltzer's The Millionaires, Nick Sagan's Idlewild and Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake, but should I view all of these books through the same critical lens? Is that fair to the works? Every month, I buy new issues of comics as varied as JSA, Promethea and Stray Bullets, but should I look for the same things in each, and consider them to be equal at the outset? I really don't think so.

It's true that I do limit myself to some extent: I don't read Chuck Austen's Worldwatch or G.I. Joe comics and I've never reader an issue of either; I don't watch The Bachelor or Arli$$, and I've never seen an episode of either; I haven't read an Anne Rice novel in 10 years (or more), nor have read Atlas Shrugged or anything by James Patterson. I can also tell you without hesitation that I have no interest in ever having direct experience with any of these works. Am I limiting myself because of some value I've placed on these works? Totally and completely, but there aren't enough hours in my life to expose myself to something that I have no reason to think I'm going to like.

That said, Dave Fiore constantly writes entertaining and energetic essays/blog entries about comics like Roger Stern's Power of the Atom and Mark Gruenwald's Captain America that I had completely written off as not worthy of my attention. Because of his writing, at some point down the road when I have those comics back in my possession (they're currently still at my parents' house), I'll probably give them another read. Granted, I will go in with some expectations, based on Dave's passion, my memories of the books and my experience with the writers on other books (Stern has written some of my favorite classic-style Marvel comics and Gruenwald, well, I really want to like him but as I said yesterday Squadron Supreme just didn't do it for me), but I haven't limited what I'm willing to be exposed to.

See why I didn't want to respond in the comments field!

Sadly, my blogging time for today has come to an end, but I promise to be back tomorrow with more thoughts. Keep the comments coming, because I'm still working through my thoughts on the matter!

Monday, September 27, 2004
Thoughts toward a theory of aesthetics

Okay, I was trying to write up a review of Shaun of the Dead (maybe coming tomorrow; stay tuned!), but I'm clearly not going to get any reviews written until I gather some thoughts brought on by some recent posts by Dave Fiore and Ed Cunard (in response to a post by Alan David Doane; aren't we comics bloggers an incestuous lot?).

Their posts are in relation to comics' (lack of) legitimacy or respectability, but I'm not going to quote from them here because that's not really what I want to talk about (but you should still click over and read the posts because they're all smart people and it may give you some background). Reading their posts started me thinking about the validity or necessity of a canon or hierarchy in comics or any art form, and it's those thoughts that I need to get out of my brain and into writing so that I can chew on them a little more.

Let me say straight up that these are not my final thoughts on the topic, and I'm well aware that these things can differ from person to person based on varied experiences with life or art and/or personal agendas. What I'm attempting to do with this post is to put down some initial thoughts and, hopefully, to start a discussion (either cross-blog or in the comments) which might help clarify my scattered thoughts and move towards a personal definition. I'm also not above being argued out of my initial position by those who have given the matter more thought (or are simply more persuasive) than I.

Now that that's out of the way, here are the questions I've been thinking about:

Q1: Is all material in any given art form equal? [note that I'm using "art form" in it's broadest sense.]

Q2: Is it fair to compare material within an art form? Can material in one form be reasonably compared with material in another art form?

Q3: Is a "canon" or "hierarchy" valid (or even necessary) when talking about art? If so, how is it created and what is it's use?

Q4: If I don't find something interesting or even entertaining, is it still valid, and can I assign it to similar works in a hierarchy? [I may need to redefine this question later]

My answers to all of these questions, at least at the moment, is "yes." My struggle, though, is to figure out why I think the way I do, and how such a thing is created. Question four especially complicates my thinking because while I can generally recognize those works that would be at the top of the hierarchy, I tend to have a greater appreciation for (or spend more time reading) works slightly below the top.

In general, I think a work's relative value can be determined by looking at the following criteria (in no specific order):

-innovation or unique ideas (or unique presentation of ideas)
-use of metaphor or symbolism
-development of themes
-consistency (ability to maintain the presentation over a long period of time)
-dynamic characters
-authorial intent
-skill level of writers/directors/actors/artists
-reflection of or insight into the human condition
-beauty (I recognize that this is very subjective; nonetheless, I think it important to take into account)
-cultural significance (involving placing the work into the time/circumstances in which it was produced)

Let's look at a few specifics.

Authors like A.S. Byatt, Peter Carey, and Thomas Pynchon write "literary fiction" to a relatively well-read audience. While their novels generally don't rely on a high concept, they distinguish themselves by their often innovative (and, yes, perhaps purple or flowery) use of language, characterized by the often subtle and complex use of themes, metaphors, and symbolism. Compare with authors like Richard Russo, David Lodge or Russell Banks (maybe Margaret Atwood, too, or she may fit somewhere in between), whose novels share a complexity of character and insight into the human condition with the first group, but are perhaps less innovative in their use of language and less self-consciously literary. Then compare authors like Brad Meltzer, Sue Grafton or John Grisham, whose novels aren't particularly complexly structured (though they may be very tightly plotted), and rarely work on multiple levels.

To compare works by authors from the three groups seems unfair to me, as they all have different goals and styles. Sometimes, I really want a steak dinner of a novel, so I may pick up something by Byatt. Other times, I just want a snack that will keep me entertained (and maybe even riveted) while I'm on a trip, so I'll pick up the latest Meltzer thriller and love every minute of reading it. With the steak dinner, I'm full for a good long while, and I may think back on how good it was and why it was so good. With the snack, an hour after finishing, I'm ready for something else. But somehow, I think that even a poorly prepared steak dinner (like Peter Carey's Illywacker) has more inherent value than a really good desert (I particularly liked Meltzer's The First Counsel).

You can use the same basic taxonomy for TV, movies or even comics. In sitcoms, All in the Family or M.A.S.H. work on a different level than, say, The Cosby Show or even Seinfeld, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room for them all. The films of Billy Wilder or Stanley Kubrick are very different than those of Ron Howard or Russ Meyer, but it's unfair to compare a Wilder failure with a Ron Howard success because they are inherently different creatures; they aren't even trying to be the same thing (or, if they are, the skill level of the craftsmen is different). Of course, I'd still rather watch A Beautiful Mind a second time than I would The Lost Weekend.

Moving to comics, I've read what Alan Moore is capable of, and I know that reading something by him is going to be more fulfilling than reading something by, say, Geoff Johns. That said, four out of five times, I'm going to pick up something by Johns, because I don't want to eat steak every day. Similarly, I prefer reading novels along the Russo/Lodge/Banks level than the Byatt/Carey/Pynchon level most of the time (that probably says more about me than it does about my taxonomy).

Not to pick on Dave Fiore's tastes (but I will because I've read enough by him to know he can take it - and he'll even try to argue me out of my position, I expect), but Mark Gruenwald is, at best, on a Ron Howard or John Grisham level. I've read all of Dave's posts on the glory of Gruenwald's Captain America and Squadron Supreme, but I still think they are inherently lesser works than Acme Novelty Library, Eightball, Watchmen, From Hell, Forlorn Funnies, etc. Comparing them with the other Marvel comics of the time (which is what I contend they should be compared with), yes, I'd agree they stand out as something special; but compared to even some of DCs output at the time (DKR, Watchmen), they come up as woefully inadequate. While they may gain something for innovation and consistency, they lose ground through lack of complexity and fairly generic craftsmanship (both writing and art). [for the record, I enjoyed Gruenwald's Cap when I was younger. I didn't like SS enough to buy the whole series when it came out; and when I finally read it as a whole last year, I found it to be a struggle to get through.]

I don't want to come off as saying that I have a sliding scale where I can assign any given work a rating of 1-10 for each of the criteria I outlined above and come out with its "grade" or level on a hierarchy (it's hard for me not to think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchert's textbook in Dead Poet's Society as I try to explain my thoughts). In fact, it's often much more subtle than that. Part of the reason I rarely give letter grades for anything I review is because I place every work within it's context.

Shaun of the Dead is a really good zombie movie, but is it a really good movie? I don't think so. I saw Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow on the same day, and I enjoyed Resident Evil more, but does that make it a better movie? No, I think just had different criteria and/or expectations for each movie (which may not have been fair to Sky Captain in hindsight). I stayed up till 2:30 in the morning one night last week because I literally couldn't put Nick Sagan's Idlewild down, whereas I've been reading Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude for four days now, and am only on page 100 or so. Does that mean Idlewild is a better book? No, but it was certainly initially more engaging to me.

That's probably enough to chew on for today, but I'm interested to know what folks think. Am I way off base here, assigning art this type of value? Did I explain myself well, or is my third draft of this post (that would be the one you're reading) still confusing (if so, you should have read the first two!)?

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