| For instance, in this image of Hokusai's Great Wave Kanagawa, I love the spare color and lines; the way the wave frames Mount Fuji in the center, and the meticulous attention to detail (I like the way the subject is presented). I appreciate the boats tossed in the wave which say to me that humans and the things we build are transient and fragile compared to the violence and relative permanence of nature (I like the meaning behind the subject). But neither Mount Fuji nor tidal waves are especially fascinating to me, so the subject itself isn't something that appeals to me here. (But the subject of Mount Fuji appeals very much to Hokosai - and to a large number of other Japanese artists, so I can understand that level of appreciation as well.) |
|On the other hand, this image of the Star Trek ship the U.S.S. Reliant docked at the Newport News Shipyard (less than thirty miles from where I live) isn't especially well-composed (other than the effort involved in combining the two images) and there certainly isn't much hidden meaning involved. It's simply a humorous combination of two subjects I appreciate: Star Trek and the area in which I live.|
That said, it occurred to me this morning while I was reading that there is a similar way to look at written artwork. You can appreciate a story or poem for itself, or for the way in which it was written, or for the meaning underneath it.
My mother and I used to have arguments when I was in high school about my reading material. I read (then and now) mostly science fiction and fantasy. My mother wanted me to read the sort of "classics" that give English teachers wet dreams. The thing is, I always hated encountering a story in high school that I really liked, and then having to analyze it until the enjoyment of the actual story was lost to me. And now I suddenly understand: the teachers were pushing the enjoyment of the meaning underneath the story (and occasionally the way it was written) to the exclusion of the enjoyment of the story itself. I don't know why they did that. Maybe they thought that since we could decide for ourselves whether we liked the story itself that they didn't need to emphasize that level of enjoyment.
But all it would have taken would have been a sentence or two: "Even if this had been written by a less skilled writer, it would be a good read." There was something in my high school English books to excite everyone except the most die-hard non-readers: Romance, adventure, revenge, history, magic, science fiction... But we read Hamlet twice in two years, and suddenly this elegant, sexy, and satisfyingly bloody story was subsumed in political analogies and symbollism. I think if my teachers had taken just one day each out of the weeks we'd spent on it to point out what a fantastic story it is, we might have been able to appreciate the ways the analogy and symbolism underlined that story, rather than letting them eclipse it. I was in college, analyzing Hamlet for the fourth time, when I finally began to re-appreciate the story, and it opened up the universe of Shakespeare for me that I'd never been able to fully enjoy before.
I got my first glimpse when we read T. S. Elliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in my senior year. Until that point, I didn't really like poetry. It was too dense. "Prufrock" when I first read it, was almost completely incomprehensible. I couldn't make heads or tails of what it was trying to say. When we began to analyse it - that's when it began to come together and mean something beautiful. Now, it's my favorite poem.
I won't bother continuing to rant about poor teaching methods. The point I wanted to make was this: Any kind of artwork - painted, sculpted, written, performed, or whatever - can be judged on these three categories. The subject itself, the mechanics of presentation, and the underlying meaning. What makes something a classic - what makes it truly art - is if it can bring pleasure in all three categories at once. The novels my mother fussed at me for reading scored high in subject, and occasionally would be especially well-written or have some thin meaning to them. But very few of them met all three.
That isn't to say that they weren't enjoyable to read. But I don't expect any of those books to survive the ages. And this is why I don't especially care for most "modern" art - most of it has a deep meaning behind it, and some of it is interestingly and beautifully executed. But I don't enjoy the central subject. It's too abstract, or too distorted, to appreciate.
Isn't it funny that now, finally, ten or fifteen years too late, I finally understand what my mom had been trying to tell me? And like suddenly turning on a light in a room which before had been lit only from light leaking around the curtains, everything seems so much brighter and clearer.
I just wanted to share.