By Audrey Stallsmith
The title for this article was derived from the comment--so hated by intellectuals--that, "I may not know much about art, but I do know what I like." The supposedly lowbrow types who utter such sentiments are sometimes called "Philistines."
But a Philistine, Chesterton once commented, is simply someone who is right without knowing why. He probably meant that the common people aren’t as likely to be taken in by "the emperor’s new clothes," as are cultured types.
Since I’m a farmer’s daughter who also has a degree in creative writing and art, I’m partway between the two camps. After all, I faithfully attended the Artists’ Series events at my college in an attempt to acquire some culture. Since I’m a verbally oriented person I, quite predictably, liked the plays and operas. But music without words continues to bore me, and I still prefer that those lyrics have a country beat!
As for modern literary fiction, I find most of it both dull and depressing--a deadly combination. The story that comes most readily to mind is Salinger’s "A Perfect Day for Bananafish,' which was part of our required reading. My response to that one was a simple, "Huh?"
My baffled reaction applies mostly to recent literature. Like many other females, I’m a devoted fan of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and I was also surprised to find myself liking Shakespeare. But those particular authors didn’t write for the intelligentsia. Any small problems we may have with comprehending them today is largely due to language and expressions that are now outdated.
Paintings and sculpture were once much easier to appreciate as well. I was required to take a course in modern art as part of my college minor. On the first day of class, the professor asked, "Do you see modern art as a progression or a degeneration?" And, probably noticing that I was trying to shrink behind the student in front of me, he demanded, 'Audrey, what do you think?" My answer probably didn’t endear me to him!
In The World’s Last Night, C. S. Lewis notes, "Until quite recently it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct the public. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. We owe him ‘recognition’ even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests, and habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop the customer is always wrong."
Lewis’ books sold--and still sell--in a manner that, I suspect, disgruntled many of his university colleagues. In both his fiction and nonfiction, he presents deep ideas in a way that made those ideas comprehensible to most of his readers. And, even to people who don’t get the allegory in his novels, they are still a "jolly good read."
"When an artist is working," Lewis states, "he takes into account the existing tastes, interests, and capacity of his audience. Haughty indifference to them is laziness and incompetence." Madeleine L’Engle agrees, writing in Walking on Water, "Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn." Or, as Chesterton asserts in one of his columns, "It is the small soul that is sure it is an exception. . .it is the bad artist who is always 'misunderstood.'"
This doesn’t mean, of course, that readers or writers should limit themselves to art that is "easy." To exercise our minds, we must stretch them. I enjoy many of T. S. Eliot’s poems and plays because he does sometimes make me reach for his meaning.
All of us take a certain satisfaction in "getting it," the same as we do, say, when the solution to a knotty mystery or cryptic crossword clue finally dawns on us. But, for that to happen, there must be something there to be grasped--preferably something of more substance than the name of a fictional killer!
Yes, although I write them, I do concede that mysteries aren’t usually great literature. Perhaps referring to her own Wimsey novels, Dorothy Sayers asserts in Letters to a Diminished Church that "entertainment and moral spellbinding have their uses, but they are not art in the proper sense."
It is possible, however, to receive unexpected revelations in the strangest places: from a bad movie, something said in a detective story--or even from modern literature and art! Since the latter does communicate to some people, I’m willing to concede that it is art, as long as they don’t disparage what speaks to me.
But Sayers warns all artists that too much self-conscious worrying about the effect your work will have on your audience can be fatal. The only way to get other people fully involved in it is to be fully involved yourself. "The only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work."
It’s necessary to serve the work, since most of us writers have no idea where a book is going when we begin it. Even those who are organized enough to prepare an outline generally find themselves straying far from it as they progress. It’s a kind of journey of discovery for the author as well as the reader. Stephen King once described writing as more like digging up something that is already there than creating it.
As Sayers points out, "the poet himself did not know what his experience was until he created the poem which revealed his own experience to him. . .You only experience a thing when you can express it--however haltingly--to your own mind."
That’s why we writers are called on to put into words the truths that other people know deep-down, but can’t verbalize. Or as L’Engle observes, "all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. . .The reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian."