Thursday, July 2, 2015

An Experiment in Criticism, part two

"The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender.  Look.  Listen.  Receive.  Get yourself out of the way.  (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)"  (An Experiment in Criticism, 19)

In the first entry in this little series on CS Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, I explained Lewis's distinction between the few and the many.  Or, rather, I explained it as far as he got with it in his first couple of chapters.  The difficulty of drawing the distinction clearly, you recall, necessitated some examples.  Lewis proposes to further explain by examining the use of pictures and music.  I am mainly interested in his discussion of pictures, for what I take to be obvious reasons.

To begin with, Lewis makes the point that the many tend to like pictures because of their contents.  When he was a child, he says,

"it mattered intensely what the picture was 'of''; hardly at all what the picture was.  It acted almost as a hieroglyph.  Once it had set my emotions and imagination to work on the things depicted, it had done what I wanted.  Prolonged and careful observation of the picture itself was not necessary.  It might even have hindered the subjective activity."  (15)

This is more or less the way the many continue to use pictures.  And "use" is really the right word here, he thinks.  The many use pictures.  Just as we use an icon to prompt us to devotion (and hence don't care much about the appearance of the icon in itself--indeed, an icon that draws attention to itself is failing to do its job properly!), the many use pictures to prompt them to something other than the contemplation of the picture as an object in its own right.  These uses may not all be objectionable or base.

"To one such spectator, Tintoretto's Three Graces may be merely an assistance in prurient imagination; he has used it as pornography.  To another, it may be the starting-point for a meditation on Greek myth which, in its own right, is of value.  It might conceivably, in its own different way, lead to something as good as the picture itself.  This may be what happened when Keats looked at a Grecian urn.  If so, his use of the vase was admirable.  But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art."  (18)

Whether such uses might be admirable or not, however, "they are not essentially appreciations of pictures,"  The many don't appreciate pictures at all.  The few do.  And they appreciate pictures only through the process mentioned at the head of this piece, the process of surrender.  (I prefer the term "docility," but it comes to the same thing.)  Surrender is not a purely passive act.  It is, Lewis says, an imaginative activity--but an obedient one.  And once one has been obedient to the picture, one can form one's judgment.  If it is a bad picture, one can simply turn away from it.

Lewis concludes that

"To be moved by the thought of a solitary old shepherd's death and the fidelity of his dog is, in itself and apart from the present topic, not in the least a sign of inferiority.  The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself.  The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there.  You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world."  (21-22)

So much for the distinction.  There's a further matter, though, and that is that good works can be put to degraded uses (as with a viewer using Tintoretto as pornography), but Lewis thinks a bad work cannot long be subjected to a "full and disciplined" reception.

"This was borne in upon me lately when I was waiting at a bus stop near a hoarding [ed. I don't know what a hoarding is.  I should look it up someday] and found myself, for a minute or so, really looking at a poster--a picture of a man and a girl drinking beer in a public house.  It would not endure the treatment.  Whatever merits it seemed to have at the first glance diminished with every second of attention.  The smiles became waxwork grins.  The color was, or seemed to me, tolerably realistic, but it was in no way delightful.  There was nothing in the composition to satisfy the eye.  The whole poster, besides being 'of' something, was not also a pleasing object.  And this, I think, is what must happen to any bad picture if it is really examined."  (20)

And here there's room for an important objection to what Lewis is doing here.  He demands surrender; he distinguishes types of reactions to artworks; he then lumps in an advertising poster with a Tintoretto, as though they were both the same kind of thing, and concludes that one is a good example of that kind of thing, and the other is a poor example.  But that might not be the case at all.  The advertising poster might not be intended to be subjected to a full and disciplined reception: that might be the province of a work of "fine art."  An advertising image isn't bad simply because it's not a good work of "fine art."  It seems to me that surrender of the sort Lewis has in mind must entail an attempt to grasp what the work is for--or what it is.

Was this poster that Lewis saw a bad work of fine art?  Or a good advertising poster?  Or both?  I don't know--having not seen it, and knowing nothing about the painter or what have you.  But it is at least possible that it was a very good advertising poster and never intended to be a work of fine art at all, and hence not a bad work of fine art, any more than my desk chair is a bad work of fine art.

In the case of Rockwell, I think most of his advertising images are very good advertising images, and at least some are also excellent works of fine art.  But not all.

In many cases, such as the above, the advertising images just don't have much about them that marks them out as Rockwellian in any particular way.  His characteristic touch is largely missing, leaving very good realistic images, but not images that you'd immediately pick out as Rockwells.  They're far too photographic to be of very much interest.  (Or so it seems to me.)  Cute and well made, to be sure.  But fine art?  I don't see it.  That's no knock on the pictures--it's just an attempt to put it in the right sort of category--it's part of "surrendering" to the picture.  In this case, very little surrender is required.  So I think Lewis is too quick to imagine that all images belong in the same category, and that leads him somewhat astray.

Enough of the objection, though.  To return to the distinction itself: the many use pictures simply by enjoying what they're about.  The few enjoy pictures as pictures.  There's little doubt that many (most?) Rockwell fans approach his pictures largely by way of their content.  The pictures present images of cute kids or of delightful events, and people are enchanted by the stories they tell.  Rockwell himself was quite clear that his main aim in making a picture is always to tell a story.  Well, telling a story is essentially content-related.  In other words, Rockwell's aim in making his pictures is to make them appreciable by Lewis's many.

But this gives no reason whatever to think that Rockwell's pictures cannot be enjoyed greatly by the few.  And, indeed, even their massive and longstanding appreciation by the many seems to lend weight to their quality.  Anyone can make pictures whose content is easily appreciated by the many.  But not just anyone enjoys the kind of popularity that Rockwell has so long enjoyed.  He was just one of many, many illustrators of his time.  He shared the cover of the Post with a wide array of talented artists.  Can you name some of the others?  I thought not.

Admittedly, massive popularity among the many isn't necessarily a sign that the works in question really are likely to be appreciated by the few.  Compare, for example, Agatha Christie.  I've always been an Agatha Christie fan.  I spent much of high school reading her books in the evening instead of doing homework.  And I'm still a fan.  But I wouldn't say that I read her books in quite the way I read, say, Evelyn Waugh's.  I return to Brideshead Revisited every year or so.  There are no Agatha Christie books that I deliberately reread in that way.  Her incredible popularity among the many doesn't necessarily mean her books are after all suitable for the few--it just means she's by far the best writer of cozy mysteries ever.  People read her books for the puzzles they contain.  Once you've seen the solution to the puzzle, there's little reason to return to the book.

But I think in Rockwell's case the quality of his storytelling pictures is often so great that there is no way to draw any kind of line between his works, and the works of other great artists.  Rockwell is, in my view, more Waugh or Tolkien (or Dickens!) than Christie.  Popular, in many ways easy to approach, but nevertheless inexhaustible.  (Not all of Waugh is like that.  Many of his early books are fairly thin.  But the Sword of Honour trilogy and Brideshead in particular stand out as truly great.)

Anyway, we'll come back to this in future installments of this series on Lewis.

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