Would Bacon’s Hamlet be Hamlet?

by John Quiggin on December 21, 2009

In the course of an interesting piece by Richard Dorment in the NY Review of Books on the authenticity or otherwise of works by Andy Warhol, I came across a striking passage

The single most important thing you can say about a work of art is that it is real, that the artist to whom it is attributed made it. Until you are certain that a work of art is authentic, it is impossible to say much else that is meaningful about it.
Is this a reasonable claim about art in general? How important is authentic attribution in, say, literature or music?

The biggest authenticity question in literature is the long-running campaign to prove that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays attributed to him. But this is a bit of misleading example. If it turned out, say, that Francis Bacon wrote all the plays we could just say “’Shakespeare’ was really Francis Bacon” and go on pretty much as before.

But what if Bacon wrote the tragedies and comedies, but Shakespeare wrote the history plays? At one level, it ought not to make any difference. But clearly it would. There are some good passages in the history plays, and at least one great character, but if that was all Shakespeare had written, he would probably be remembered as a Tudor propagandist of mostly historical interest, and the plays treated accordingly.

Still, unless you buy the Romantic idea of the artist as transcendent genius the question of who wrote what seems to be of secondary interest compared to the work itself. I suspect, Dorment’s claim is really one about the market for collectibles, a class that happens to include paintings.

{ 100 comments }

1

Brian 12.21.09 at 7:50 pm

“Is this a reasonable claim about art in general?” No.

“How important is authentic attribution in, say, literature or music?” Not overmuch.

However, see “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote.”

2

kid bitzer 12.21.09 at 8:19 pm

so it’s impossible to say much meaningful about any work of art of whose authenticity you are not certain?

i really don’t think that claim can be taken seriously. as it stands, it strikes me as so manifestly false that we should just write it off as one of those hyperbolic turns of phrase that come hastily to one’s prose when writing on a deadline.

3

chris y 12.21.09 at 8:19 pm

The biggest authenticity question in literature is the long-running campaign to prove that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays attributed to him.

No indeed. They were written by another man of the same name. I thought everybody knew that.

4

geo 12.21.09 at 8:29 pm

At one level, it ought not to make any difference.

Actually, I’d stop there. Of course there would be (moderately) interesting literary-historical issues in consequence, but none of any real (ie, aesthetic) importance. As some sensible person once said: “Shakespeare is whoever (singular or plural) wrote the plays.”

Not that Shakespeare is such hot stuff, anyway. As Shaw observed in “Better than Shakespeare”:

“… Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse.

“All that you miss in Shakespeare you find in Bunyan, to whom the true heroic came quite obviously and naturally. The world was to him a more terrible place than it was to Shakespeare; but he saw through it a path at the end of which a man might look not only forward to the Celestial City, but back on his life and say: ‘Tho’ with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get them.’ The heart vibrates like a bell to such utterances as this; to turn from it to ‘Out, out, brief candle,’ and ‘The rest is silence,’ and ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep’ is turn from life, strength, resolution, morning air and eternal youth, to the terrors of a drunken nightmare.”

5

Substance McGravitas 12.21.09 at 8:39 pm

All that you miss in Shakespeare you find in Bunyan

Tedium?

6

tom s. 12.21.09 at 8:57 pm

“the question of who wrote what seems to be of secondary interest compared to the work itself”

Authorship is also primary when it comes to minor works of great authors or juvenilia. I think the realm in which authorship matters is quite broad.

7

Anderson 12.21.09 at 9:10 pm

as it stands, it strikes me as so manifestly false

… as to be a shockingly embarrassing thing for a self-professed art critic to write.

God knows, people prefer reducing art to biography, but I’ve never seen such a sweeping statement that that is THE most important fact about art.

The current NYRB has a review by Christopher Ricks of Jane Campion’s Keats movie, lacerating her for reducing the poetry to the life. Glad that didn’t run in the same issue as the Dorment piece; there might have been some sort of explosion.

8

Colin Danby 12.21.09 at 9:26 pm

Folks should read Dorment’s article, though. The quoted statement comes after a couple sections which problematize the question of what it meant for Warhol to make a Warhol, if you see what I mean. Dorment recognizes a tension between Warhol’s methods and the idea of authenticity, which is perhaps what accounts for the undue force of the quoted assertion.

Additionally, the quoted lines are followed by the more-plausible “The separation of the real from the fake is the cornerstone on which our understanding of any artist’s work is based.”

Surely the larger question is what you’re reading the work *for.* If you’re trying to figure out the larger conversation that a work was part of, then who made it and when matter. Brian’s Borges reference is apt.

9

Substance McGravitas 12.21.09 at 9:35 pm

Dorment on Cy Twombly:

Critics have been getting Twombly wrong for 60 years, and I count myself among them. In 1987 he showed a series of dark-green paintings that simply depicted flowing water, like Monet’s late waterscapes.

When I saw these at the Venice Biennale I found them corny and disliked their lush romanticism and hated their shaped frames, which resembled painted ceilings in Italian baroque palaces. Seeing them again at the Tate in the context of Twombly’s entire career it is clear that are the culmination of a lifetime’s interest in depicting water that began with his series of 24 works on paper Poems to the Sea in 1959. What’s more, the emotion he’d held in check in the blackboard paintings and sculptures suddenly pours out in floods of intense magentas, forest greens and silvers.

So if Cy Twombly is the exhibit, the paintings are useful. If the paintings themselves are considered alone, they are terrible.

10

bob mcmanus 12.21.09 at 9:36 pm

Bacon or De Vere are not very interesting or illuminating of this question.

What if Shakespeare’s plays had been written by an late 20th century academic in the Upper Midwest? Would we consider that unauthentic art, or would we revere the plays as much? Is it Virginia Woolf’s personal character or problems what make her work “real” or her reflection of her period and surroundings.

IOW, I would say that contingency and context is the source or the kind of authenticity we really care about. A truly great be-bop sax solo, known to be performed in 1947, may or not be by Charlie Parker, but gains much of its interest by being performed in 1947 rather than 1974.

And I say a contemporaneous student copy of a Rembrandt, if completely indistinguishable from an “actual” Rembrandt, is pretty damn valuable. That the market so vehemently disagrees is based on a misunderstanding of art.

11

kid bitzer 12.21.09 at 9:38 pm

“The separation of the real from the fake is the cornerstone on which our understanding of any artist’s work is based.”

i guess i just don’t find that any more plausible, unless he has changed the topic from “what can we say about this work of art, in the absence of certainty about its authorship?” to the question “what can we say about artist x’s corpus, in the absence of certainty about which works it includes?”

in other words, is “any artist’s work” in the quoted phrase using work in the singular, to refer to an individual art-work? then the claim that authenticity is the “cornerstone of understanding” still seems false. or is “artist’s work” here a reference to the totality of rembrandt’s corpus? in that case, we obviously have to know what goes into the corpus and what is excluded from it in order to judge the corpus. but that fact won’t do anything to buttress the line that jq originally quoted. maybe i need to know whether a painting is by rembrandt in order to know whether it should go into the assessment of rembrandt’s corpus. but it does not follow from that fact, that i need to know whether it is by rembrandt before i can say “much meaningful” about that painting itself.

12

Hidari 12.21.09 at 9:55 pm

# 10. Yes the examples chosen are always so trivial. Say, for example, we discovered that the novels of Philip Roth had in fact been written by Jeffrey Archer? Would that make a difference to how we read them?

Or, to take another example, that Cy Twombly’s paintings had in fact been dribbled on canvas by an ape?

I’m not being facetious here: the question is real: would we look differently at the works in these cases?

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.21.09 at 10:05 pm

In some cases a new artistic style or concept is so simple and can be so easily reproduced that authenticity is all that matters. Something like Black Square, for example. Or “she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah”.

14

bob mcmanus 12.21.09 at 10:10 pm

12:Well, Warhol did I think deliberately raise a/the question in several media (what does in mean to make a movie). If a silkscreen had been made by one of his entourage, signed by Warhol without Warhol ever lifting a finger or even coming up with the idea, but indistinguishable from “authentic” Warhol , why is that silkscreen essentially worthless?

And Warhol’s work was, again, deliberately different from that of the Old Master studios. We can usually discern the authentic Rembrandts or van Der Weydens in the work, but not the silkscreens.

15

bert 12.21.09 at 10:22 pm

Jeffrey Archer was a big Warhol collector.
Did you read the ‘exchanges’? – http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23522 & http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23390. These fuckers deserve each other.
Salvador Dali, for a small consideration, would sign sheets of blank paper. Good for him.

16

Aulus Gellius 12.21.09 at 10:29 pm

As a Classicist, I’ll join in the chorus saying that that statement, as regards literature, is totally, utterly, absurdly false. There isn’t even full agreement on what it means to say that the Iliad is “really by Homer,” but people do manage to say interesting things about it anyway. The authenticity of Seneca’s tragedies used to be routinely questioned; but those tragedies were probably more influential then than they are now (when pretty much everybody agrees that they’re authentic, aside from the “Octavia”). Questions of authenticity come up all the time in Classics, one the level of works or of passages or of individual lines; if they paralyzed all other thought, we’d never get anything done. Similarly, in studies of ancient visual arts (which I don’t know much about, but I never let that stop me), assigning works to particular artists is very often impossible (especially if you want an actual name, rather than just a grouping of works), nearly always arguable, and much of the time not very important.

On the other hand, I wonder if Dorment is right with limited reference to the kind of work actually done, these days, by critics of modern art. There are some kinds of criticism to which authenticity is important: maybe he’s really just saying that all current criticism of modern art is of that kind. (If he is saying that, is he right?)

17

Keith 12.21.09 at 10:49 pm

Authenticity is important to criticism, not art. Art stands or falls on it’s own merits. The tragedies would still be tragic, regardless of who wrote them. But authenticity matters to critics, who make a living telling everyone else about the author and the world he inhabited and how that may or may not have affected the work. So it carries some weight in the academic field of criticism and theory but not so much when studying the aesthetics of a given work.

18

Aulus Gellius 12.21.09 at 10:49 pm

Separately: for the question that heads this post, and the stuff at the bottom about what if Bacon wrote some of the plays, this sounds a lot like the kind of question Kripke works with in “Naming and Necessity”: I can easily imagine a sentence in there going something like “Of course, Hamlet might not be by Shakespeare. But given that it is by Shakespeare, if it weren’t by Shakespeare, it wouldn’t be Hamlet (though it might be called Hamlet.)” (I don’t think this sentence is true, as far as it goes. But I might hesitate over something like, “Given that Titus Andronicus is by the author of Hamlet, if it weren’t by the author of Hamlet, it wouldn’t be Titus Andronicus.” Would a play that we don’t think is great be essentially altered if it didn’t share an author with other great plays? Even if it was still word-for-word identical with the play as we have it? Maybe. Certainly, if we discovered that TA wasn’t authentic, it would become much less interesting. Right?)

19

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.21.09 at 10:53 pm

Would it matter if Plato’s dialogues were found to be written by Aristophanes? Would it matter if classical Greek marble statuary were painted originally with garish colors?
We create narratives and then we use them to create others; but if there is such a thing as a great philosopher there is such a thing as a great novelist. Shaw was a moralist a vulgarian and a lightweight, but a good lightweight when he was funny. Shakespeare was just vulgar, and great.
Warhol had one of the best eyes (as a connoisseur has “an eye”) of the past century, and his best works were the product of that eye. If you ignore the smoke and mirrors of the market, even if he helped to run the smoke machine, there’s a real dark weight and beauty to his work. Twombley’s symbolist rhetoric was always indulgence but he had moments when he could suck you in. Preference isn’t enough. A critic should try to separate the dreams he shares with his favorite artists with his interest in the work.
But people always defend their favorites.

20

Aulus Gellius 12.21.09 at 10:54 pm

Keith: but you’re assuming that individual works are themselves indivisible, as far as authenticity goes. I assure you, that’s not always the case. What if you’re “studying the aesthetics” of a particular poem, and a few lines are in doubt? (If you study a long ancient poem, this will almost certainly be the case.) Do you analyze the poem including the lines, excluding them, or treating them as having some special status as “sort of part of the poem”? Going back to Shakespeare, there are some disputed passages in Macbeth (all that stuff about Hecate). So can we analyze Macbeth without taking a position on their authenticity?

21

John Quiggin 12.21.09 at 10:56 pm

I thought of using Titus Andronicus as an example, and it seems pretty clear that no one much would be interested in Titus Andronicus by Beaumont and Fletcher.

But the history plays provide some trickier questions I think.

22

Keith 12.21.09 at 11:03 pm

Bob mcmanus @10:
What if Shakespeare’s plays had been written by an late 20th century academic in the Upper Midwest?

Do you mean this in the Borgesian sense? That the plays are word for word what we know them, just with a 20th century copyright date? (which would effectively make them historical fiction, which might color the way we view the work). Or that “Hamlet” the story was never written until then, and chiefly concerns an unmedicated college professor of a certain age, contemplating adultery with a grad student named Ophelia Jones? That would be a difference.

Hidari@12 asks an interesting question: what if Shakespeare’s plays turned out to have been written by someone else with a different oeuvre to compare it to? What if it turned out that they were really authored by, say, Stephanie Myers or Robert Ludlum?

23

Keith 12.21.09 at 11:11 pm

Aulus Gellius@19: the disputed lines are still considered to be related to the work being studied, even if they are of dubious origin. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been included in that edition, meaning someone, somewhere made the editorial decision that they were Shakespearean enough (whatever that means). They are still related to the text even if just as commentary or a puzzling historical aside,* which I would include in the aesthetic criticism. In the appendix, probably with a footnote.

*This could lead us into historicity and whether or not to include commentary as part of the piece, which could get us into a sticky situation: is famous commentary of a piece part of the work now that it is permanently embedded in the metadata that defines the work?

24

novakant 12.21.09 at 11:11 pm

Not that Shakespeare is such hot stuff, anyway.

Yeah, right – let’s read Bunyan instead, lol.

25

kid bitzer 12.21.09 at 11:17 pm

“no one much would be interested in Titus Andronicus by Beaumont and Fletcher”

not true! there would have been a *lot* more incest. also, more wenching in general.
who isn’t interested in that?
and, sure, t.a. has a lot of blood on stage, rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. but does it have inter-species sex? well, if beaumont, and fletcher and eszsterhas and verhoeven had written it, then it would have had that too.

26

Aulus Gellius 12.21.09 at 11:32 pm

Keith: but I think you have to deal with commentaries, even when you deal with them, somewhat differently than you do with the text itself. Which means you have to decide which of those categories a given chunk of text falls into. Or you might have to decide which of two lines (or words, or letters) fits better at a particular point in a work. It’s easy to say “one of them goes to an appendix,” but in each case, the decision has to made, “which one?” I don’t think questions of authenticity can be entirely bracketed away from aesthetic criticism. (And I say this as someone who really, really wishes they could, because it would make my work a lot easier.)

27

Billikin 12.21.09 at 11:48 pm

Q: Mr. Art Critic, what do you think of these petroglyphs?

A: . . . .

Q: Sir?

A: Who is the artist? I can’t say anything without knowing who the artist is.

;)

28

Aulus Gellius 12.21.09 at 11:54 pm

Looking at the whole of Dorment’s article, though he does convince that the Warhol Foundation is acting pretty sketchy, he also makes it sound like they’re basically in an impossible position. Their job seems to be to verify the authenticity of works by an artist who worked very hard to blur the difference between works that were and weren’t “his.” It’s like being on a board assigned with officially registering the “nice” and “naughty”[1] characters in Shakespeare.

[1] I originally wrote “good” and “bad”, but this is more seasonal. And indeed, Santa also has a difficult job.

29

Colin Danby 12.21.09 at 11:55 pm

Over at Brad’s place there’s a parallel discussion of what makes an authentic Andrew Sullivan blog posting.

30

rm 12.22.09 at 12:01 am

I think Kevin Bacon is a bit too old to play Hamlet.

I could see him as Polonius or Claudius, though.

31

Keith 12.22.09 at 12:18 am

I don’t think questions of authenticity can be entirely bracketed away from aesthetic criticism. (And I say this as someone who really, really wishes they could, because it would make my work a lot easier.)

You and me both. It would make cataloging these books so much easier.

32

Bernard Yomtov 12.22.09 at 12:50 am

There are some good passages in the history plays, and at least one great character, but if that was all Shakespeare had written, he would probably be remembered as a Tudor propagandist of mostly historical interest, and the plays treated accordingly.

Way too dismissive of these plays, IMO.

33

geo 12.22.09 at 1:05 am

@23: Yeah, right – let’s read Bunyan instead, lol

Well, that shuts Shaw’s mouth. Solid rebuttal, nk.

34

Salient 12.22.09 at 2:33 am

geo, novakant, please don’t feed the trolls. The last thing this ‘Shaw’ fellow needs is encouragement.

35

Michael Drake 12.22.09 at 3:08 am

Hamlet written by a monkey at a typewriter on Twin Earth would be Hamlet.

36

barleybay 12.22.09 at 3:23 am

At the other end of the spectrum, if you step in dog shit, do you need to know the author to guess its worth?

37

barleybay 12.22.09 at 3:31 am

By the way, I think artistically dog shit stays the same, but if it’s from a famous dog you might be able to gain more value on Ebay.

However if the dog had been swallowing gold nuggets…

38

Lee A. Arnold 12.22.09 at 5:37 am

Our dog ate a box of Crayola crayons, and shat rainbows all over the yard.

39

garymar 12.22.09 at 6:58 am

Bunyan? Pshaw!

40

Ceri B. 12.22.09 at 8:27 am

It seems like authenticity questions are really important in some cases, interesting but not hugely important in others, and just irrelevant in still others. I guess I don’t quite see the appeal in going from obviously distinctive cases to such a huge generalization.

41

magistra 12.22.09 at 9:12 am

Doesn’t a lot of this rest on the balance between technical skill and conceptual ingenuity in any given work? Much modern art rests on the basis of the artist’s individual vision, so that it’s Carl Andre himself that makes a pile of bricks into the artwork Equivalent VIII, not the arrangement divorced from an identifiable artist. In contrast, a medieval goldsmith’s work can now be admired as an artwork even if its primary purpose is a practical one, because of its technical skill. Similarly, Shaw’s criticism of Shakespeare, quoted above, is a comment on his supposed conceptual/ideological weaknesses and ignores his style completely. And this also fits with the point made about the juvenalia of great writers being of interest regardless of its actual quality (no-one would care about Jane Austen’s History of England if it was by Jane Smith). If anyone can easily produce an original in the exact style of X, it’s only authenticity that then distinguishes the work of X.

42

bad Jim 12.22.09 at 9:24 am

There is a pony in here, I think.

The first Thursday of the month in my town is Art Walk, the galleries are open late and serving wine. It’s not exactly like visiting a major art museum and recognizing here a Corot and there Caravaggio; contemporary commercial artists, at least in my town, tend to be somewhat derivative. While they typically have a recognizable style, whether in terms of subject or technique or something intermediate, they’re familiar. They lack the shock the pioneers provoked.

It’s kind of nice to have painters revisiting the places that Picasso and Braque or Miro and Kandinsky first discovered. It’s good stuff. I’m proud that my grandmother and my sister produced Beardsleyesque ink drawings, and we exhibit them, but we acknowledge their source.

There’s a dark side. On my first grand tour of Europe, in the Uffizi Gallery, a horde of Japanese clustered around a Michelangelo drawing and blew past Tiziano’s Urbino Venus in the next room; an American, viewing Raffaello’s frescoes in the Vatican apartments, asked “Is this Michelangelo? Because that’s all I want to see.” Meaning what – is this on the test? I can’t judge for myself? If it’s not a work by an artist with a triple-A rating, it’s evidently negligible.

I find myself getting tired of Brahms. His perfectionism, I’ll contend, was the enemy of his art, because his so carefully finished pieces are all of a type, unlike those of his demented mentor Schumann, of whose music I can never get enough.

Does anyone even bother to try to fake music from folks like them? And if so, why not? An original manuscript of Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” would be pretty damned valuable; how much more would his noodlings on “Happy Birthday” fetch?

(To forestall the obvious question: I have heard Gabriela Montero playing variations on both tunes. She’s wonderful.)

43

JoB 12.22.09 at 10:57 am

21 – turn that around: how many wonderful Hamlet-quality stuff has been lost because she or he who made it wasn’t succesful in making her or his case to society? How many Kafka’s would there be that do not have the benefit of a rather maniac friend? If it is in the range of the Beaumont’s & Fletchers that get forgotten almost within their own life-time, we should pause for the Unknown Artist (maybe that’s a way to get away from all this bloody Xmas BS?).

44

novakant 12.22.09 at 1:00 pm

I think magistra is on to something here, especially as far as the visual arts are concerned, but we similarly tend to regard a writers work in the context of his whole life and thought, which makes perfect sense since it is more often than not both the source and subject matter of their work, while doing trying to divorce the two would seem rather artificial in many cases.

In fact, it is interesting to observe how this approach has been carried over into fields where it is much harder and often not that useful to apply. E.g. even in trying to evaluate an art form like film, which due to the nature of the production process is very much a collaborative art, our intuition and desire to assigning clear authorship leads many critics, especially academics, to focus more or less exclusively on the director and disregard the contributions of the script writer, DoP, editor, production designer etc.

45

roac 12.22.09 at 3:34 pm

Am I really the first to name-check The Counterfeiters, by Hugh Kenner?

46

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 3:40 pm

oh, sure. i thought of ‘the counterfeiters’, too.

but i’ve never been certain that it’s by kenner, so it was impossible for me to say much meaningful about it.

47

roac 12.22.09 at 4:46 pm

Win for kid bitzer.

BTW, somebody upthread mentioned Hamlet, monkeys and typewriters. Into this crack I wish to wedge the information that I recently lucked into a paperback collection of R.A. Lafferty stories (Chimes at Midnight) in a thrift shop. The last piece in the book is a meditation on this theme, and the punch line is one of the funniest ever. If Lafferty is to your taste, find a copy if you can.

48

geo 12.22.09 at 4:51 pm

Shaw’s criticism of Shakespeare, quoted above, is a comment on his supposed conceptual/ideological weaknesses and ignores his style completely

Not quite. When Shaw says, “As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse,” he’s pointing to something more than “conceptual/ideological weaknesses.” He’s saying that Shakespeare was shallow and conventional in feeling as well as “ideology,” that his imagination was petty and pedestrian, his characters were cut-outs. Lawrence said the same thing in “When I Read Shakespeare”:

“How boring, how small Shakespeare’s people are!
Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar.”

That we idolize Shakespeare is a judgment on us.

49

Substance McGravitas 12.22.09 at 5:15 pm

I prefer Kingsley Amis on Shakespeare:

To say or imply that the man of this name is not our greatest writer marks a second-rate person at best.

50

roac 12.22.09 at 5:44 pm

“Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent/And indifferent in a week/to a beautiful physique/Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives.”

Auden was right. Lawrence was wrong. Literature is performance. Ideas are decoration.

(The Lafferty story is called “Been A Long, Long time.”)

51

geo 12.22.09 at 6:13 pm

Ideas are decoration

Yes, I suppose, though “decoration” isn’t quite right; “material” or “data” would be better. But neither Shaw nor Lawrence is merely dismissing Shakespeare’s “ideas.” They’re pointing out that his entire view of life was impoverished, his sense of motivation and personality cramped, his imagination fertile but only within narrow limits.

I’m not insisting that Shaw and Lawrence are right (though I think they mostly are). Only suggesting that since they’re both giants of modern literature and among the best literary critics ever, their judgments should be taken more seriously than anyone here has so far seemed willing to do.

52

Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 6:27 pm

geo: Well, I’m happy to try and take their judgments seriously, but I find I don’t get very far. Of course, I haven’t read what they say on Shakespeare beyond what’s quoted here, but all I can say about that is “wow, that’s not anywhere close to what I see in Shakespeare.” Now maybe they could convince me at greater length, with some more specific comments, but just “pointing out” that Shakespeare’s “sense of motivation and personality [was] cramped” sounds to me like “pointing out” that the sky is green. The thing about pointing is that the other person has to be able to see what you’re pointing at.

And giants of modern literature sometimes have crazy ideas, or interesting ideas with absurd specific applications. As long as we’re on the Shakespeare-haters, Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” has a lot of fascinating stuff to say, but to accept it in toto would involve expelling from the canon basically all Western art since the rise of Christianity except for folk songs and the writings of St. Francis (and, I suppose, Tolstoy, though he’s not obnoxious enough to say so). Shakespeare, Beethoven (except some of the early stuff, before he went deaf), Wagner most of all — they’re not just bad, they did not actually create any art. This is a crazy thing to say, and I don’t think I’m disrespecting Tolstoy by pointing that out.

53

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.22.09 at 6:30 pm

“..it’s Carl Andre himself that makes a pile of bricks into the artwork Equivalent VIII, not the arrangement divorced from an identifiable artist. In contrast, a medieval goldsmith’s work can now be admired as an artwork even if its primary purpose is a practical one, because of its technical skill.”

To magistra and Novakant.
It’s not just skill it’s skill in complex form. Poetry is technical when it follows a strict scheme and that technical skill makes it easier to divorce the work from its author. Most modern art is more conversational than self-contained. Remove it from its context and a lot is lost. But being a great conversationalist is still an achievement, even a technical one.
And film directors are still directors. At the very least they’re first among equals with cinematographer/lighting, and editor. At the most and often best they’re hard taskmasters. Script and Scenery follow all of them. Film is about the camera and the eye before anything.

54

Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 6:32 pm

There’s also the problem of using loaded terms. You say a sense of motivation was “cramped,” I say it was “focused.” You say “impoverished,” I say “to-mah-to,” etc. At some level, we’re just talking about what kind of art we like. (And I note that Racine, e.g., would probably say that Shakespeare didn’t hold his imagination in narrow enough limits. But even Racine still managed to write some pretty darned good plays.)

55

Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 6:39 pm

At the most and often best they’re hard taskmasters.

I wonder how much this “how important is authenticity” question can be tied into prescriptive questions about the making of art. I think it’s widely believed, in other arts as well as in film, that the best artists maintain a lot of control over their work, even if they have collaborators. Does that belief support interpretive strategies that give importance to authenticity? Or, conversely, do we only believe that because of our interpretive strategies that involve assigning works to individual authors?

56

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.22.09 at 6:39 pm

Aulus Gellius: “The thing about pointing is that the other person has to be able to see what you’re pointing at.”
A great description.

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Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 6:44 pm

I do want to add, by the way, that even though I don’t approve of using him as a stick to beat Shakespeare with, Bunyan certainly is an absolutely wonderful writer, and it is to the vast loss of our age that he’s currently so unpopular.

58

geo 12.22.09 at 6:45 pm

All right, Aulus, if you really think the sky is blue rather than green, I suppose nothing I can say will persuade you otherwise. Plenty of people agree with you, after all.

59

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.22.09 at 7:00 pm

Authenticity is partly about finance and after than about the desire to identify with an individual actor. But there is a difference between myths as such and myths as told by a great storyteller. I’ve always thought the best art was caught between community and individual, made either by small groups with a leader or by one person who distilled everything that had been told to him by others. A model of the first would be Michelangelo or Shakespeare and the second would be Homer.
Arguing about the identification of Rembrandts is at its best is simply arguing about Rembrandt, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Outside the issue of money it’s like arguing about the identification of justice, an that’s a worthwhile thing to do. Good or great artworks are seen as having a form of structural integrity and some of that comes from the continuity of argument itself. It becomes hard to separate the object from the discussion.
Still I think if you took a few of Warhol’s most famous paintings and dropped them on a planet of intelligent bipeds, they would find them very interesting and maybe even disturbing.

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geo 12.22.09 at 7:07 pm

Sorry, Aulus, I wrote that last before I saw your subsequent comments, which at least make an effort. What Shaw and Lawrence are getting at is that Shakespeare’s characters have no sense of a purpose larger than themselves, their political or romantic ambitions, their dynastic allegiances, and other trivial matters. Bunyan’s, by contrast, live by and for something truly great, a conception of stark moral and intellectual grandeur. That’s what Shaw means by saying that Shakespeare’s sense of life is hackneyed and petty, while Bunyan’s is vital and original.

And then there are the quotes Shaw cites. I agree, myself, that the heart does indeed vibrate to Christian’s mighty declaration, while the tags from Shakespeare are feeble, petulant, and tinkling. How to prove this, I don’t know. But if you’re not sufficiently in awe of Shaw and Lawrence as critics and prose masters (as opposed to a twit like Amis) to at least pause long and respectfully before their judgments of Shakespeare’s language, then I leave you in triumphant possession of the field.

61

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 7:29 pm

“[bunyan] saw through it a path at the end of which a man might look … forward to the Celestial City…Out, out, brief candle,’ and ‘The rest is silence,’ and ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep’ is turn from life, strength, resolution, morning air and eternal youth, to the terrors of a drunken nightmare.”

so the central complain here is:

bunyan gives us traditional christian eschatology with immortality and post-mortem salvation; the rest is *not* silence, our little life is *not* rounded by a sleep, and if we’re good little pilgrims then we get to go to the celestial city.

some of shakespeare’s characters, including a moor and an ancient athenian, do not offer us slogans of christian redemption.

yeah, that pretty much marks shakespeare as a second-rater alright.

isn’t it worth recalling that shaw was never as much interested in art as he was in polemic, and polemic in the service of mankind? he may have preferred fabian eschatology to explicitly christian ones, but the salvific agenda is the same.

62

Substance McGravitas 12.22.09 at 7:41 pm

A funny sentence:

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress had infinitely outdone the Tale of a Tub, which, perhaps, had not made a single convert to infidelity, whereas the Pilgrim’s Progress has converted many sinners to Christ.

Therefore Bunyan>Swift.

63

Ray Davis 12.22.09 at 8:50 pm

Good ol’ genre confusion. Dorment uses “art” conventionally as a shorthand for “visual high art”, and the business of visual high art (including its criticism) is founded on connoisseurship. The resulting fetishism of “authenticity” is precisely what made it become a central concern for high-artists since Duchamp.

The business of literary criticism relies more on the critic’s ability to establish a personal brand than on the critic’s ability to spot forgeries. Attribution is only important inasmuch as it leads to associating a reprintable piece with a canonized writer, and thereby to the lucrative marketing of collected works and author-centered studies. How often do you think “Pericles” or “The Phoenix and the Turtle” would have been reprinted if other editions had followed the first Folio in excluding them?

In both media, however, attribution doesn’t require knowing much about the actual flesh-and-blood individual. It just requires positing an individual who can tie together multiple artifacts: “the Pearl Poet” or “the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece.” It makes little difference if a fella of the same name wrote Shakespeare’s works; it would affect publishing considerably more if that fella wrote “Hamlet” but didn’t write the sonnets.

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Ray Davis 12.22.09 at 8:56 pm

The businesses of visual ancient art, folk art, and primitive art make a nice compare-and-contrast: we find the same marketing and critical concerns with authenticity, but the posited authentic source is a culture rather than an individual artist.

65

Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 9:02 pm

I got into this a little before, but I think you’re going to have to further specify to something like “visual high art since the Renaissance.” (Maybe also “Western”? Are things different with the art of other regions? I have no idea) When it comes to ancient (and, I think, Medieval) art, connoisseurship and authenticity aren’t as central (and are less central now than they used to be).

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Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 9:03 pm

Whoops. Cross-posted.

67

roac 12.22.09 at 9:15 pm

it would affect publishing considerably more if that fella wrote “Hamlet” but didn’t write the sonnets.

Not to make like Captain Obvious or anything, but it would also wipe out the whole thread/rope/hawser of Shakespeare criticism that parses the plays in light of supposed biographical data from the sonnets. Goodbye, Dark Lady! Goodbye, Gay Bard!

68

novakant 12.22.09 at 9:24 pm

My point was not to diminish the contribution of directors, but to establish that film is a genuinely collaborative are – most people seem to have an incredibly hard time getting to grips with this concept because they think making a film is essentially similar to writing a novel or creating a painting, but it just isn’t.

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novakant 12.22.09 at 9:24 pm

collaborative art</em

70

steven 12.22.09 at 9:53 pm

John@21—

I thought of using Titus Andronicus as an example, and it seems pretty clear that no one much would be interested in Titus Andronicus by Beaumont and Fletcher.

If Beaumont and Fletcher had written Titus Andronicus, then “Beaumont and Fletcher” would mean something very different.

geo@51—

I’m not insisting that Shaw and Lawrence are right (though I think they mostly are). Only suggesting that since they’re both giants of modern literature and among the best literary critics ever

Shaw is very often an atrocious critic; in particular he had a hard-on for dissing Shakespeare, because he seriously thought his own plays deserved to supplant Shakespeare’s at the summit of the canon (lol).

their judgments should be taken more seriously than anyone here has so far seemed willing to do

Yes, or I could, y’know, remember that I have read Shakespeare and then make up my own mind, at which point it becomes clear that Shaw is talking monstrous balls.

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bob mcmanus 12.22.09 at 10:32 pm

65:Are things different with the art of other regions? I have no idea

Trying getting deep into Ukiyo-e

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Ray Davis 12.22.09 at 10:33 pm

novakant: In other venues, I’ve written about the historical link between attempts to move “commercial art” to “high art” status and attempts to extract canonizable proper names from collaborative efforts. For movies, there was an earlier critical push to treat the screenwriter as key, and there’s always been a niche for certain cinematographers, but directors have won out in the “heroic narrative” game — for good reason, but with often ludicrous results. Similarly, the studio systems behind comic strips and comic books tend to be ignored in favor of specific artists or writers.

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Aulus Gellius 12.22.09 at 10:34 pm

roac: True dat. This is a very, very contentious issue in some areas, particularly (to my knowledge) Latin love elegy. There’s a long tradition of trying to figure out who Propertius’ beloved “Cynthia” really was, for example, but more recently a lot of people have argued for either “it doesn’t matter” or “there was no such person, and Propertius didn’t even want us to think there was.” The latter answer is still, in a sense, biographical, but it makes biography less important.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.23.09 at 12:20 am

As a wise man once said.
“While it is true that commercial art is always in danger of ending up as a prostitute, it is equally true that noncommercial art is always in danger of ending up as an old maid. Non commercial art has given us Seurat’s “Grande Jatte” and Shakespeare’s sonnets,but also much that is esoteric to the point of incommunicability. Conversely, commercial art has given us much that is vulgar or snobbish (two aspects of the same thing) to the point of loathsomeness, but also Durer’s prints and Shakespeare’s plays. For, we mustnot forget that Durer’s prints were partly made on commission and partly intended to be sold in the open market; and that Shakespeare’s plays -in contrast to the earlier masques and intermezzi which were produced at court by aristocratic amateurs and could afford to be so incomprehensible that even those who described them in printed monographs occasionally failed to grasp their intended significance— were meant to appeal, and did appeal, not only to the select few but also to everyone who was prepared to pay a shilling for admission.

It is this requirement of communicability that makes commercial art more vital than noncommercial, and therefore potentially much more effective for better or for worse. The commercial producer can both educate and pervert the general public, and can allow thegeneral public —or rather his idea of the general public— both to educate and to pervert himself. As is demonstrated by a number of excellent films that proved to be great box office successes, the public does not refuse to accept good products if it gets them. That it does not get them very often is caused not so much by commercialism as such as by too little discernment and, paradoxical though it may seem, too much timidity in its application. Hollywood believes that it must produce “what the public wants” while the public would take whatever Hollywood produces. If Hollywood were to decide for itself what it wants it would get away with it —even ifit should decide to “depart from evil and do good.” For, to revert to whence we started, in modern life the movies are what most other forms of art have ceased to be, not an adornment but a necessity.”

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Matt McKeon 12.23.09 at 2:12 am

Shaw’s such a dickhead. He’s enraged that he’s always going to be second best to Shakespeare no matter what. His “iconoclastic” critique of Shakespeare is poorly disguised jealousy.

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novakant 12.23.09 at 2:36 am

Ray, that sounds interesting – where did you write about this? Cheers

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Aulus Gellius 12.23.09 at 4:50 am

Speaking of the importance of the author’s biography to interpretation.

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Ray Davis 12.23.09 at 6:23 pm

novakant: Briefly at my blog; formally in a future issue of Genre. And cheers backatcha, mate.

79

Walt 12.23.09 at 7:32 pm

John, I wanted to say that way back in the original post you get at the key point: the hard question for authenticity is not when the creator of a single body of work turns out to be somebody different, but if we discover that a single body of work is not, in fact, unitary.

I would say that Shaw and Lawrence were the two worst literary critics in the English language, if I didn’t know that a simple Internet search could find somebody worse in about five minutes.

80

geo 12.23.09 at 8:41 pm

Walt: why would you say that?

81

Matt Austern 12.24.09 at 5:14 am

I don’t know about Lawrence (I haven’t found his fiction very interesting, so I haven’t taken the trouble to seek out his criticism), but I’d saw that Shaw was an interesting, quirky, and unreliable critic. His essay on the Ring, for example, The Perfect Wagnerite, is informative and memorable. He’s clearly on to something. It’s an unbalanced essay, though. It focuses on a single aspect of the Ring to the exclusion of everything else, it treats the music and the drama separately, and when, ultimately, Shaw’s interpretation of the Ring is unable to cope with Götterdämmerung, he ends up abandoning Götterdämmerung instead of his interpretation.

Even if you don’t read his criticism, it’s pretty obvious just from his plays that Shaw enjoyed irony, provocation, and paradox. I’d have to read a lot more of his comments on Shakespeare to know whether I should take that paragraph at face value.

82

peter 12.24.09 at 9:08 pm

Geo @ #60:

One reading of Shakespeare’s plays is that some were encoded messages to, and about the plight of, England’s Catholics under the religious oppression of Elizabeth I and James I/VI. The play Hamlet, for example, may be an allegory in which the Gertrude represents England, old King Hamlet Catholicism, and his brother, Gertrude’s second husband and now King, Protestantism. Young Hamlet represents the English recusant Catholic community, torn between acquiescence to the new religious regime and rebellion against it. In the play he finally chooses rebellion, with disastrous consequences for all. Shakespeare, according to this interpretation, was sending a message to his recusant confreres, not to oppose the regime.

83

LFC 12.24.09 at 11:27 pm

From the original post:
There are some good passages in the history plays, and at least one great character, but if that was all Shakespeare had written, he would probably be remembered as a Tudor propagandist of mostly historical interest, and the plays treated accordingly.
Bernard Yomtov @32 was too kind in saying this is overly dismissive. It’s totally wrong, imo. If Shakespeare had written nothing but 1 Henry IV, he would be remembered today as a great playwright (perhaps not the greatest in the English language, but still great). Henry V isn’t too bad, either.

84

geo 12.25.09 at 5:39 am

peter:

Yes, that seems like a plausible reading. It doesn’t greatly increase my respect for Shakespeare, though; actually, it seems to fit under the final category of his characters’ purposes that I mentioned: ie, “other trivial matters.” There was nothing vital at stake, at least as represented by Shakespeare, in the quarrels between English Catholics and Protestants: they were simply religious factional squabbles, with political prizes at stake rather than profound moral or metaphysical differences. The Hebrew prophets and the Puritans were — even if one rejects their beliefs and ideals — moral and religious geniuses and heroes. Shakespeare’s protagonists may have been brave or loyal or in other ways virtuous, but they are all the servants of paltry, utterly conventional purposes, because Shakespeare (or Bacon) was a fine dramatic craftsman and very clever wordsmith, but no more than that.

At least, this is what Shaw thinks. I’ve only begun thinking over the question, but so far I think he’s right.

85

geo 12.25.09 at 5:39 am

peter:

Yes, that seems like a plausible reading. It doesn’t greatly increase my respect for Shakespeare, though; actually, it seems to fit under the final category of his characters’ purposes that I mentioned: ie, “other trivial matters.” There was nothing vital at stake, at least as represented by Shakespeare, in the quarrels between English Catholics and Protestants: they were simply religious factional squabbles, with political prizes at stake rather than profound moral or metaphysical differences. The Hebrew prophets and the Puritans were — even if one rejects their beliefs and ideals — moral and religious geniuses and heroes. Shakespeare’s protagonists may have been brave or loyal or in other ways virtuous, but they are all the servants of paltry, utterly conventional purposes, because Shakespeare (or Bacon) was a fine dramatic craftsman and very clever wordsmith, but no more than that.

At least, this is what Shaw thinks. I’ve only begun thinking over the question, but so far I think he’s right.

86

geo 12.25.09 at 5:40 am

Sorry for the double post. Dunno how that happened.

87

Substance McGravitas 12.25.09 at 3:13 pm

At least, this is what Shaw thinks. I’ve only begun thinking over the question, but so far I think he’s right.

It seems a very sad and blinkered vision of what great writing must be, not to mention a confusion of the limits of Shakespeare’s characters with his themes.

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roac 12.25.09 at 4:43 pm

I too think the original post was too dismissive of the history plays. Besides the Henry IVs and Henry V, Richard II is also very fine (I was in it in college). And Richard III, though pretty cheesy and one-dimensional in my personal view, has held the stage more or less continually for 400 years, so it can’t be dismissed.

89

peter 12.25.09 at 4:59 pm

Several thoughts strike me about G B Shaw as a literary critic of Shakespeare:

1. His own plays have all the subtlty of housebricks in their meaning and evocation. One can imagine few of the arguments which Shakespeare’s plays have generated and continue to generate among audiences over their interpretation ever being generated by one of Shaw’s plays. It’s 100% WYSIWYG with Mr Shaw, to the point of hectoring the audience.

2. In his music criticism, he showed a complete inability to appreciate subtlety or nuance, as in his notorious dismissal of Mendelsshohn’s music for its “kid-glove gentility”. Given the next point, however, one has to also wonder whether GBS was simply a plain old anti-semite.

3. Shaw ended his life supporting eugenics, mass murder and Nazism. Can’t say I’d take any advice from a person with such views, let alone seriously consider opinions on what constitutes good writing about “faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities”.

90

geo 12.25.09 at 6:03 pm

peter:

1) This seems to me a very sad and blinkered vision of Shaw’s dramatic art. Heartbreak House, Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Pygmalion, John Bull’s Other Island, and the rest — these seem to you one-dimensional, superficial, without rounded characters, subtle plots, brilliant dialogue, complex themes?

2) Shaw was the most famous and influential musical and dramatic critic of his time, and possibly of all time, at least in English. A mistaken (though hardly implausible) judgment, eg, about Mendelssohn, is hardly equivalent to a “complete inability to appreciate subtlety or nuance.” You’re swinging wildly here.

3) Shaw did indeed end his life saying outrageous things. But this hardly invalidates the many wise and sane things he said earlier in his life. His Common Sense About the War, Everybody’s Political What’s What, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, Fabian Essays, are masterpieces of political criticism. By the same criterion, you’d have to dismiss the entire oeuvre of Wordsworth, Mill, Brecht, Heidegger, Foucault, Solzhenitzyn, and innumerable others because of their sometime political follies.

I’m afraid Shakespeare’s putative greatness is going pretty much undefended here, except by assertion or ad hominem dismissal of his critic(s). Maybe we should get a little less polemical and actually try to figure out what makes for heroism, moral grandeur, imaginative depth, aesthetic originality.

Then again, it’s Christmas Day. Maybe we should take a rest.

91

geo 12.25.09 at 6:13 pm

[With the S-word mutilated to escape moderation. -- g]

peter:

1) This seems to me a very sad and blinkered vision of Shaw’s dramatic art. Heartbreak House, Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Pygmalion, John Bull’s Other Island, and the rest—these seem to you one-dimensional, superficial, without rounded characters, subtle plots, brilliant dialogue, complex themes?

2) Shaw was the most famous and influential musical and dramatic critic of his time, and possibly of all time, at least in English. A mistaken (though hardly implausible) judgment, eg, about Mendelssohn, is hardly equivalent to a “complete inability to appreciate subtlety or nuance.” You’re swinging wildly here.

3) Shaw did indeed end his life saying outrageous things. But this hardly invalidates the many wise and sane things he said earlier in his life. His Common Sense About the War, Everybody’s Political What’s What, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Soc1alism and Capitalism, Fabian Essays, etc. are masterpieces of political criticism. By the same criterion, you’d have to dismiss the entire oeuvre of Wordsworth, Mill, Brecht, Heidegger, Foucault, Solzhenitzyn, and innumerable others because of their sometime political follies.

I’m afraid Shakespeare’s putative greatness is going pretty much undefended here, except by assertion or ad hominem dismissal of his critic(s). Maybe we should get a little less polemical and actually try to figure out what makes for heroism, moral grandeur, imaginative depth, aesthetic originality.

Then again, it’s Christmas Day. Maybe we should take a rest

92

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.25.09 at 7:11 pm

The plays the thing; Shakespeare was a playwright not a philosopher.
But people aren’t heroes. Shakespeare described us and the complexity of what is, of the world as we experience it, better than most.
If Shaw had been as interested in people than was in ideas he wouldn’t have ended up saying so many stupid things late in life, or even earlier. Shakespeare was Aristophanes and Euripides, and one of the founders of the modern popular democratic form of culture.
I think your early experience with Plato and Opus Dei has done lasting harm to your imagination. You have a weakness for authority.

93

LFC 12.25.09 at 7:17 pm

For the record, since this seems to have devolved into Shaw vs. Shakespeare, it is very possible to like much of Shaw’s work (I do) and to think that Shaw was wrong about Shakespeare.

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Substance McGravitas 12.25.09 at 8:18 pm

Maybe we should get a little less polemical and actually try to figure out what makes for heroism, moral grandeur, imaginative depth, aesthetic originality.

The first two items on your list don’t seem to me to be a requirement for a great work, which you outline as Shaw’s beef. There is a long list of great works that do not set the Bowling Pin of Virtue against the Tenpins of Vice; Shaw’s complaint is absurd.

95

Substance McGravitas 12.25.09 at 8:21 pm

Bowling Ball of course. I am obviously not a great writer.

96

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.25.09 at 9:09 pm

Back in the day, who wasn’t supporting eugenics and mass murder?

97

Bloix 12.26.09 at 2:03 am

It’s way late to be joining a thread at #96 – but I thought the Dorment article was hilarious. According to Dorment, the whole artistic value of the Warhol silk-screens at issue is that they bear no trace of Warhol’s personal contact with them. That is, they are priceless Warhols because they are indistinguishable from objects not made by Warhol. If you don’t believe that this is a fair characterization, read the article and see.

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Maynard Handley 12.26.09 at 2:34 am

@61
“so the central complain here is:

bunyan gives us traditional christian eschatology with immortality and post-mortem salvation; the rest is not silence, our little life is not rounded by a sleep, and if we’re good little pilgrims then we get to go to the celestial city.

some of shakespeare’s characters, including a moor and an ancient athenian, do not offer us slogans of christian redemption.”

You are missing the point. (At least with respect to Shakespeare; I’ve no interest in defending Bunyan.) The point is that Shakespeare (and every high school English teacher since him) defines tragedy as *psychological* tragedy, sad stuff that is the result of particular flaws within the individual.
This viewpoint is cramped and limited insofar as it does not acknowledge that there is more to life than this, that there are *ontological* tragedies that reflect the outer world and society, that don’t result simply from the individual himself.
To draw a modern analogy, one might compare the view that racism is a disease of individuals with wicked thoughts to the view that racism is embedded in social structures.

Now there are of course those who claim that Shakespeare made a great leap forward by this move, inventing modern psychology and suchlike. I don’t know enough about the relevant history to comment on that. I will, however, say that I, personally, find discussions of structure and society to be substantially more interesting than discussion of the personality traits of individuals, so I find plenty of literature rather more interesting than Shakespeare, and it strikes me as silly and empty-headed for someone to denounce such a preference as unreasonable.

(One could, of course, throw in something here about libertarianism, but, honestly, the connections are so obvious why bother?)

99

geo 12.26.09 at 3:32 am

Joaquin @92: You have a weakness for authority

It’s possible, of course. But since the authority of literary-critical tradition (not to mention the consensus of Crooked Timber commenters) is overwhelmingly against Shaw and me on this point …

SMcG @94: The first two items on your list ["heroism, moral grandeur"] don’t seem to me to be a requirement for a great work

But isn’t a tragedy supposed to feature a hero?

Maynard @98: there are ontological tragedies that reflect the outer world and society, that don’t result simply from the individual himself

Yes, true, but isn’t that rather a description of Greek tragedy, which doesn’t involve individual moral failure so much as a violation — even an unknowing one — of Fate, the obscure, unwritten, often non-moral order of Being. Bunyan and his Hebrew forebears, if I understand Shaw correctly, were heroes because they cared little about their individual destiny, having identified themselves generously and wholeheartedly with an explicit cosmic moral order, unlike Shakespeare’s heroes, with their comparatively trivial purposes and preoccupations.

100

Maynard Handley 12.26.09 at 4:21 am

As I said, I’m not interested in defending Bunyan, or, for that matter Shaw; I’m more interested simply in dedeifying Shakespeare.

Yes, the term ontological tragedy has been used in connection with greek tragedy, but I see it as being larger than that.
You can write a play about individuals contracting AIDS; or you can write a play about the social system that led to the way AIDS was treated in the US in the 1980s. _And the Band Played On_ was not a play (and was not an especially great book or documentary) but I nonetheless found it more interesting, and moving, than Rent.

The reader may complain that it’s not possible to write drama focussed on “the system” rather than individuals, but I’m not sure that that is true. I have not yet seen many episodes of _Battlestar Galactica_, but my understanding is that that is a show that tried to make issues more important than the characters in the show. One could argue that the early _West Wing_ episodes, or _A Few Good Men_ likewise tread that path. I don’t hold any of these as perfect exemplars of what I’m saying, but I think they suggest the possibility.

Of course one difficulty is that people, for the most part, have much stronger feelings about “the system” than about individuals. Few of the audience are going to conclude, they hate it before even seeing a play about a 40 year old man struggling to deal with the fact that he truly loves his girlfriend but finds the young women he sees all around him so so desirable. But the audience, on hearing that a play is “about” (social topic of the week) will immediately view it through the lens of their opinions on the topic.
I admit this is a very real issue.

I guess my resolution to this would be that if you want to write a play that is about issues, but that is also great art, choose issues that are larger and more timeless than your current decade. eg
• Investigate the problem of how to reconcile finite resources with infinite desires, putting your play 1000 years in the past. OR
• Question how an individual, who wants to learn everything there is to know, comes to terms, in his early twenties, with the fact that he will never know anything but the tiniest fragment of the tiniest fragment of what is already known, putting your play fifty years in the future.

Just, for gods sake, don’t give us more “racism is bad”, or “abortion: it’s a tough question” or “who can fathom the mind of God? meanwhile, here’s my spin on Job” crap.

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