Chris Kerr, 28 October 2009
‘But that’s just your opinion, isn’t it?’ is the question that hovers, if unspoken, above arts seminar tables in universities everywhere. As an undergraduate English student, I have noted that many, even most, of my fellow students believe what they say about a given text or author is every bit as valid as the arguments of an academic specialist in the field, and these often informed by decades of experience. Yet, this relativism is not the liberating, enlivening force that many imagine it to be. In fact, this attitude actually closes down discussion and prevents students’ ideas from being challenged. Ironically, it also scuppers any challenge to the ideas of the loathed critical authorities: if I can’t be right, how can you be wrong?
The atmosphere of relativism in the academy leaves us with a situation in which it makes about as much sense to challenge a student’s opinion on Henry James as it does to lambast them for preferring chocolate over strawberry ice cream. Many students take so much care to preface their contributions with comments about how it’s really impossible to say anything meaningful about a text, that they walk around cocooned in a secure complacency, confident that their ideas can never be challenged. After all, how can a direct intellectual challenge so much as touch subjective whims?
The malaise is not confined to the student body. Whilst there remain academics in every institution who continue to value and defend the legitimacy of criticism, a lack of confidence in aesthetic judgement reaches to the top of the academy. The vacuum left by the evacuation of judgement is often filled with Literary Theory, a shabby gauze of politically interested stock responses and clichés where sensitive, flexible judgement should be. Of course, aesthetic judgements must take place in a theoretical framework, but such a framework should be philosophical, and as disinterested as is humanly possible. The abandonment of judgement has allowed fads such as ‘ecocriticism’, which seeks to do for the environment what feminist criticism is supposed to have done for women (although quite how esoteric Lit Crit has ever managed to help advance the cause of women is unclear. The idea that the place to stage the fight for civil rights is the literary journal has never made much sense to me). In place of serious engagement with texts we have modish postures which positively flaunt their political interest.
Judgement has always been more vulnerable in the arts than in the sciences. Everyone has some gut aesthetic instinct, a sense of what type of wallpaper they like. This is what makes it seemingly impossible to distinguish a person’s casual liking of Lady Gaga’s pop music from their appreciation of Mozart. By contrast, few members of the public would hazard an opinion on the finer points of particle physics. Admittedly, the arts and sciences are different. There is no science of the aesthetic, no such thing as genuine objective judgement in the humanities (however, it should be remembered that there is also always disagreement between scientists, and necessarily an element of interpretation in ascertaining what the results of an experiment mean, though these same results appear each time). Still, some aesthetic judgements are better than others, and some are plain wrong, for taste (itself a dirty word in most arts circles) is learned and cultivated over years. It is not something we are just born with.
Meaningful judgements about taste are possible. Immanuel Kant argued in his Critique of the Power of Judgement that aesthetic appreciation can be grounded in Reason. Kant postulated that a person may claim an ‘intersubjective’ (if not objective) validity for the pleasurable feelings they experience in response to a beautiful object because this pleasure is produced by the free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding, and not a mere concern for how advantageous it would be to possess the observed object. As the cognitive faculties that produce this feeling of pleasure are common to all human beings, and work more or less the in the same manner in all of us, a person’s aesthetic responses have a validity that is more than subjective. Clearly, the nuances of Kant’s argument cannot be explored here, but the Enlightenment assumption that people are reasonable agents can show us that there are ways of talking about literature, and indeed all art, which have a place at the discussion table. Everything else should be left at the door.
Whims, and mere brute responses such as ‘I like chocolate’ have no place on the seminar table, or in any public exchange of ideas. Even academic critics often couch their ideas in terms of these weak positive feelings. A critic as important as John Carey (the emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford) was able to preface a final chapter asserting that literature is the superior art form in What Good Are the Arts? with the caveat that all of that followed was purely subjective. If so, why should we care? Why are these words any more worth reading than the average undergraduate student essay? Few believed for a second that Carey really believed in his caveat, but the fact that he felt he should believe it is troubling.
It is not the place of universities to flatter the ‘tastes’ that students have when they arrive. Students need to be informed so that they can begin to develop a serious appreciation of art. This is not to say that it is any more the place of a university to mould its students, indoctrinating them with a uniform, orthodox taste. A careful balance must be struck between relativism and authority. I will turn to this issue soon, though not before looking at how an unwillingness to challenge students on matters of taste is part of a problem facing wider society
The ‘all must have prizes’ culture is familiar by now. Stories of school sports days in which every child is awarded a medal, just for taking part, and classrooms in which teachers are afraid to criticise pupils for fear of hurting their feelings, abound. The problem is not confined to academic and media criticism of the arts: society as a whole is reticent about all forms of criticism. Commentators who question the required orthodox response to climate change, or verbally attack religion, are either shouted down, or worse, they self-censor. The problem manifests itself not just in the hesitancy of critics to speak with an authoritative voice, but in the violence of the reaction of a public when they are told, as they see it, what and what not to like. The ferocious response of someone who has just been told that their taste in poetry is dubious, or even that the latest Harry Potter film wasn’t that great after all, is matched only by that of a person who has just had their religious faith challenged.
Why should this be? After all, a someone’s taste is just another of their ideas. Why should they view an attack on their ideas as an attack on themselves, or their very identity? It is because matters of taste have been so thoroughly subjectivised that it is no longer possible to dissociate the person from the idea. To the injured fan of a mediocre writer, the critic might as well be attacking their personal appearance. This childish withdrawal into secure solipsism has left many people, and perhaps a generation of students, without the confidence to take partake in a serious, grown up debate. When taste becomes unchallengeable, it ceases to be something that can be taken seriously, and is reduced to a crutch for the insecure; something to assure them that their views, whatever they are, really do matter.
The attitude of the academic who eases off on his students, and even reassures them from the start that discussions will take place in a non-confrontational spirit, is fundamentally a patronising one. Critics of all kinds, instead of showing their audience intellectual respect, and expecting its members to come back with a still more devilish counter arguments when they are challenged, instead act as though they are talking to children who can’t bear not to get their own way. Such a take on instruction and teaching leaves prejudices unchallenged, and ideas still-born, stultifying the minds of students and ordinary people alike, and making it all the more difficult for them to grow both intellectually and as people.
But excessive faith in authority can be just as stifling. I am not recommending a university in which students are the passive recipients of knowledge passed down from on high, too timid to ever dare question what the expert is saying. This is why a balance must be struck between authority and ‘anything goes’ relativism. There is a common misconception among students of the arts, perhaps even held especially among those who are least pessimistic about the bounds of human knowledge, that they are apprentices, being trained up to become authorities, by authorities. It is a fact of the academy that if there are authorities in the humanities, they are often overturned by the very next generation. The greatest authorities are still students at heart, focused on the process of enquiry itself, and not on the chimera of some final, authoritative truth of their chosen subject that they will be able to impart to their students. The greatest critics are their own greatest critics.
Students should remember that while their teachers’ ideas are bound to be more informed than their own, supplemented by years of sensitive appreciation and both inward and outward debate, and fired by an impressive intelligence, they should not be afraid to challenge them. This is where the real intelligence lies; in being able to spot the flaws in an argument constructed by an expert in the topic, and defend a counter-argument of your own, despite the fact that as a student, you will know comparatively little about the topic. And it is through facing down criticism that authorities are not only confirmed, but also made.
In the early part of the 20th century, in my own field of English, critics like IA Richards, William Empson and TS Eliot fought to replace the vain, ‘flight of fancy’ writing that passed for criticism much of the time in the 19th century with a serious, intellectually defensible criticism. It was only then that English was taken seriously by the academy as an intellectual discipline. At the beginning of this century, the failure of confidence in critical judgement, and its widespread replacement with subjective ‘I feel’-ism, puts the position of English, as well as the standing of art history and musicology, into doubt once more. Without a belief in judgement, the arts will be taken less and less seriously within and without the universities. Indeed, without judgement, the arts, as they are today, deserve a place not in the academy, but at the ice cream stand.
Chris Kerr is an English undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.
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