Evaluating Art

Evaluating Art - An Introduction of Sorts to How We Should...

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An Introduction of Sorts to How We Should Enter into the Material for this Course ---------- What should we look for in a piece of art? Anything and everything in the body of the text itself. I was discussing the epic poem Beowulf with an English 221 class a couple semesters ago, and I asked the group, “What do you have to say about the women in this poem?” Most responded with something along the lines of, “We don’t remember any.” (They ARE there, of course, but they’re nearly invisible, reduced to playing barmaids, servants, and sexual partners to the various important male characters.) So the class began to discuss these roles and their implication. One frustrated student spoke up: “The women are not what this poem is about. We shouldn’t be talking about them. We’re doing damage to this poem (his exact words) by talking about the women.” He continued: “This is a poem about men, about warriors, about warfare, about camaraderie, about fighting monsters and dragons, about treasure, and weapons. We have no business discussing the women.” I first reassured the class that we can’t “damage” any work of literature by discussing it or writing about it. The works we discuss are flexible, pliable, bendable, and most of all sturdy and time-tested. Most have been subjected to years and years of critical hacks with all kinds of axes to grind, so we mustn’t worry about hurting them. Then someone asked the critical question: “Is it ever fair to say that a poem (any work of art for that matter) is about ONE thing and nothing else?” Of course not. We went on to discuss how anything that’s in the text is fair game for discussion, for exploration, for argument. Someone then asked a wonderful question: “All well and good, but isn’t a duck ever just a duck?” The student who asked this was of course skeptical of wild literary criticism that makes outlandish arguments about art (and unfortunately there is a lot of this). My response was that “sure, a duck is a duck, but we can look at the duck from the side, from above, from below; we can pick the duck up and feel its webbed feet, its feathers.” You probably get the point by now: Don’t be shy about your opinions of something you read. Now this doesn’t mean that anything goes in a discussion of literature. Any claim you make about a work must be supportable by direct evidence from the text itself. You may see me write, “don’t go ‘extra-textual’” if you try to speculate about a world outside the text. 1
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It’s tempting, of course, to speculate, to ask, “What happens in the lives of the main characters after the story’s conclusion?” But if we go in that direction, we’re no longer discussing the original story, are we? We’ve invented a new story, one of our own making, and that can lead to all kinds of critical problems when it comes to literary analysis. Why discuss literature?
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This note was uploaded on 03/24/2011 for the course ENG 329 taught by Professor Pitts during the Spring '11 term at ASU.

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Evaluating Art - An Introduction of Sorts to How We Should...

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