Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
“I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic . . . something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Mark Twain included this remark in a speech given at the Nineteenth Century Club in New York on November 20, 1900. His intent was not to shame modern readers for being disinterested in Milton’s retelling of Adam and Eve—an epic that expands excessively on the size and scope and simple text of the original. Instead, he meant to illustrate how fashion in literature changes with the times. Paradise Lost and other hard-to-digest relics are known more by name than by content, and remain on lists of classics because the experts make it so, not because the public demands it.
The further removed we are from the time and culture that produces a so-called classic, the less we rely on our own opinions and the more we go by scholarly consensus. If we were to read Paradise Lost, we might enjoy it or we might not; we might be enthralled or we might wonder what all the fuss is about. But its status is predetermined, and our view of it is irreversibly tainted. It is great whether we like it or not, and we tend to blame ourselves—not the book—if it fails to capture our interest. For that reason, it is often safer to trust a work’s pre-established classic-ness than to delve into it oneself.
Literary canons do, of course, serve practical purposes. If they did not exist, works like Paradise Lost would meet the same fate as “lesser” contributions of their day: extinction. Isolating a few works as “great” also helps keep track of history, since many more words are published than can be remembered or preserved. Furthermore, pantheons of greatness—whatever criteria they use—are valuable cultural inventories, cataloging how tastes and trends alter over time. These pragmatic considerations aside, there is something odd about accepting works as classics (or anything else) without actually experiencing them.
Art is made to be experienced. Whether it takes the form of literature, painting, music, theater, food, architecture or something else, art is not just the self-expression of its creator or even the creation itself. It also includes all that occurs when a person sees, touches, smells, tastes or hears it. In this sense, art is not complete (or even really art) unless and until it is interacted with.
In the moment of interaction, the work goes through a multilayered process of impulsive evaluation, informed by the experiencer’s background, education, affiliation, disposition, etc. This is how we decide if we like it, hate it, or feel something in between. And whatever we feel is open to debate with others and subject to revision within ourselves.
Getting back to Twain’s point, an artwork is most alive when it is fashionable (meaning current). Reactions are freely felt, opinions are freely expressed, merits and demerits are freely discussed. By the time the experts give their appraisals, it is almost too late for us to have a pure response. This is especially so when the art in question is decades or centuries old. But the process is even skewed when critics review recent albums, movies, gallery shows and the like. The work is handed to us with a label, which we either accept or weigh against our feelings. But at least we have our own experience to draw from.
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