June 2, 2011

Appreciation of the craft

In order to get clearer about my concept of beauty, I'm looking first at artistic creation: beauty in literature, music and the arts.[1] I'm focusing on examples from literature for now, but the ideas I'm sketching here should apply more or less the same to all forms of artistic creation. I begin by introducing the notions of appreciation, aesthetic ascent, and performance.

1) Appreciation.[2] Let's start with an obvious and rather truistic point: when we try to understand a work of literature, there is at least one special dimension compared to trying to understand any narrative in everyday life. A work of literature doesn't just tell a story; it does that, but it does it in a special way. For our understanding of something as literature, the way how the story is told is at least as important as its content.

When we read an article in a newspaper (telling us about a political summit, for instance), or a report at work, what we are mostly interested in is what the narrative tells us, not how it is told. Not that the latter aspect doesn't matter: there is a typical style to newspaper articles or work reports, and if a text of that sort fails to comply to our expectations, we're irritated. Imagine a work report using obscure or flowery language, or a newspaper article written in verse. We would be surprised, and because of the unusual format, we would have difficulty reading it as a work report or newspaper article. So the way such a text is written is not immaterial—it must be written in a particular way. But if it is, then we are precisely not interested in the question in what way it is written. The craft aspect, so to speak, is transparent to us. Ideally, we want to be informed, and the best style for a text with that objective is a style that isn't perceived as style, that keeps in the background.

Consider yet another sort of narrative that also is part of daily life. When your friend tells you the amusing (or depressing, depending on where you stand) story how many forms she had to fill in to get her laptop connected to the company network, you're not mostly interested in what exactly happened. If she told you the story to amuse you, then a lot depends on how well she succeeds in making it fun to listen to it. In this case again, the way the story is told is far from unimportant; but again, it should be transparent—it's not necessary for you to notice exactly what makes the story funny, which stylistic elements (choice of words, body language, exploitation of shared opinions) are used, and how well they are employed. On the contrary: the story will probably fail to be amusing if you are made aware of these elements too often and too directly.

In all these examples it is of course possible to reflect on narrative style, and appreciate it. You can come to like a certain newspaper precisely because of its sober and informative style, you can appreciate a colleague's work reports for their matter-of-factness, and of course we can value a friend's talent for amusing storytelling. Such additional reflection and appreciation is not strictly necessary for the functioning of something as a newspaper article, a work report, or an amusing conversation. But it refines your perceptive and social interaction skills if you are capable of doing so (and if you actually do it a lot). It is also a step into the direction of appreciation of art, and literature in particular.

With literature, reflection on and appreciation of the way how things are said in a text are built right into the practice, both on the side of the producers and on the side of the recipients. In other words, authors are aware that it's not just the stories they tell, but also how they are telling them (their particular style, use of language and idioms, the way they construct the story and plot etc.) which is subject to interest and appreciation; and readers know that they must look at these aspects in order to fully 'get' what's going on in the text.

Auguste Toulmouche,
The reading lesson
 Understanding literature, then, must include perceiving and appreciating the 'how' it is made, in addition to the 'what' that it says. This is a skill that requires some development, and naturally it benefits from learning to apply the terms and concepts of technical language. If you are able to distinguish between plot and story, or between the narrator's and the character's perspectives, and if you can use these terms to refer to such differences in discourse with yourself and others, then you have reached a higher level of skill in understanding literature. Note that having a conceptual skill does not necessarily mean that you also have to use some given terminology; many readers have an understanding of the difference between the narrator's perspective and a character's perspective, although they may never have learned the technical use of 'narrator', 'character' and 'perspective' employed here. It's not the particular use of words that matters — what matters is the conceptual capacity.

[1] Further steps must surely include human beauty (including eros and desire) and beauty of nature (in both its main forms: the organism and the wilderness).

[2] This is a slightly reworked version of an earlier post about Reflection and interpretation over at my online journal.

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