Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Artful Demotion of Literature

What the **** is going on? I keep coming across statements (usually in comment threads) that literature is not an art but a craft, and now my good friend Adrian Slatcher whose very own blog is named after Henry James's famous essay The Art of Fiction is having a crisis of confidence over the matter - though I suspect really he's artfully or even craftily pulling our legs.

The thing that really takes the biscuit is that the statement is never accompanied by a definition of the writer's terms (the word 'art' can of course carry different meanings). (Well I guess Adrian has a bash.)

Here are some of the Shorter OED definitions:
From Middle English, base meaning 'put together, join, fit'.

I. Skill ... 1. Skill as the result of knowledge and practice ... Technical or professional skill ... Human skill as opposed to nature. 2. The learning of the schools; scholarship (now archaic). 3. The application of skill according to aesthetic principles esp. in the production of visible works of imagination, imitation, or design (painting, sculpture, architecture etc); skilful execution of workmanship as an object in itself; the cultivation of the production of aesthetic objects in its principles, practice and results.

II. ... A pursuit or occupation in which the skill is directed towards the gratification of the aesthetic senses ; the product of any such pursuit.
It seems to me that the current opposition of 'art' and 'craft' on the web is a hierarchical one, and on the whole the thrust seems to be to value the notion of literature as 'craft' (and thus honest and straightforward) over the notion of literature as 'art' (airy-fairy and pretentious) - and the idea seems to be that those who consider their writing 'art' are being pretentious. Inherent in all this is a concept of literature as inferior to or at any rate different from the 'real' arts and of writers requiring less 'innate talent' for their chosen form (Adrian Slatcher) than do, say, musicians or painters.

But the OED definition of art I 1) would apply very well to any 'mere' or 'down-to-earth' craft. As for the last two definitions I've quoted, well, what I want to know is what good piece of literature is not a work of 'imagination, imitation or design' or not 'directed towards the gratification of the aesthetic senses'?

The deeper question to ask here is: why is there such a fear of the notion of literature as art? Is it linked to the general commodification of literature and does the fact that so many are expressing it mean that writers have finally been cowed?


Adrian said...

Henry James' original essay was a dispute in itself, of course - "Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel ...had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it - of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison." And that, I think may well be where we are now. James made the case (and more than that, I think, proved the case) in this essay that fiction had to have "artistic faith". There was something I was beginning to work towards in that blogpost, Elizabeth, as I think you've noticed - I think its the term "art" that may well have been demoted, and I guess I was inferring that literature, at its best, so much more than "craft", suffers by wanting to be defined as an art. More soon, I think...

Anonymous said...

I suppose it depends on what you think writing needs more of. I'm perpetually disappointed by fiction that feels self-indulgent, so I wish more writers thought of their work as a craft and disciplined themselves accordingly. 'Craft' has a stronger notion of purpose beyond the whims of the creator - and it emphasises skill over inspiration to a greater extent. But I'm sure there are at least as many people who think that what writing in general needs is more imagination, and so wish more writers aspired to the creation of art.

Elizabeth Baines said...

As far as I'm concerned the raw distinction between craft and art is dubious, as I think those dictionary definitions show. If we are going to make those distinctions I'd say that good writing requires both art (which I'd define as an aesthetic sense and purpose) and craft (which I'd define as more easily learnable skills).

Anonymous said...

Literature requires application of craft to achieve art. It can become art but isn't always (like any medium), and usually requires careful practice and skill to do so.