|Art and Literature (1867)
Is there good literature? Is there bad literature? How do we make the determination, and do we even have the criteria to judge? In his essay, Different Tastes in Literature, if Lewis does not directly answer these questions, he at least gives the reader criteria that makes it easier to judge, and challenges us to examine our reading experiences.
First, Lewis investigates the notion of “tastes” and indicates a determination between good and bad literature is complicated by the fact that there are no objective tests. But the error people make is in assuming that people like bad art in the same way that they like good art. Instead, Lewis proposes, bad art does not succeed with anyone.
Lewis defines bad art as very low art, such as novels, and popular music that are read or sung and then forgotten soon after. When it goes out of fashion, it is never thought of afterward.
|Geniuses of Art (1761)
Yet while bad art itself is not so easy to describe, the consumer of bad art is more easily targeted:
“He (or she) may want her weekly ration of fiction very badly indeed, may be miserable if denied it. But he never re-reads. There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary. It is infallible. The literary man re-reads, other men simply read. A novel once read is to them like yesterday’s newspaper …… It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk. Whether the bad poetry is re-read or not …. I do not know. But the very fact that we do not know is significant. It does not creep into the conversation of those who buy it. One never finds two of its lovers capping quotations and settling down to a good evening’s talk about their favourite. So with the bad picture. The purchaser says, no doubt sincerely, that he finds it lovely, sweet, beautiful, charming or (more probably) ‘nice’. But he hangs it where it cannot be seen and never looks at it again.”
With bad art, there is no question of the ‘joy’ that good art brings. “The desire for bad art is the desire bred of habit: like the smoker’s desire for tobacco, more marked by the extreme malaise of denial than by any very strong delight in fruition.”
On experiencing good art, it is not like moving from one type to the next, but more like “when you opened the door, to lead to the garden of the Hesperides ….” However, we must not say that some men like good art and some bad, rather that the term “like” is not the proper word for good art, and the response towards good art, has never been produced in bad.
Is it too simple to say that bad art does not ever have the same effect on a person as good art? What about those books that captured our imagination in youth but that we now consider bad? Might this simply mean that the reader’s imagination was superior to the author’s, but lacking both maturity and discernment? In effect, we would not have been enjoying the book for what it was, but for what it was not. But this “mirage” is quite different from the actual liking of bad art. Bad art is “tepid, trivial, marginal, habitual. It does not trouble them, nor haunt them ….. No one cares about bad art in the same way as some care about good.” It is only when we eliminate the bad art that the discussions about the superiority of one work of art to another can have some value.
|The Disquieting Muses (1916-18)
Giorgio di Chirico
In this essay, Lewis more distinguishes what is not good art than what is, however his insights, as always, are invaluable. We have so little time on this earth. Life comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Don’t we want to be discerning about our literary choices and choose to read works that add perspective, wisdom and purpose to our lives, instead of reading words that pass through us in the blink of an eye? I do.
Deal Me In Challenge #10