art from a privileged perspective

While reading the introduction to Dorothy Wang’s Thinking It’s Presence when she discusses Perloff, Izenberg, and Gourouris’s views on how poetry needs to be a more interdisciplinary field of study, I just kept getting concerned about what kind of audience this poetry would be getting if authors had to have a thorough knowledge about scientific, historical, and philosophical disciplines. I think it would make for some really interesting work to write/create poetry with that kind of extensive knowledge, but I question who that work is really for. Does the audience have to have the same kind of academic knowledge to be able to dissect and fully understand a piece of poetry, or would that kind of knowledge that went into creating the poem function on a more subconscious level and have just as much as an effect on someone who was not an ‘academic.’ I was kind of stuck on this idea of audience and reading poetry in an academic setting, because it’s an art form, and I also think about this a lot in the field of visual arts and what it means to make art for artists or academics where its true meaning requires some sort of inside information, and art that can be appreciated by many outside of that field. I don’t think it is always one or the other, a poem could have differently levels of meaning, depending on your knowledge of poetry, like any work of art, but it feels weird to have that kind of exclusive information only accessible by a few.

For example, if you were to see Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” without having any historical context, it may be incredibly underwhelming, whereas having that knowledge about its significance and role in readymade art might be a really cool experience. But, I think you could also have that knowledge and still find the piece, as a piece of art… underwhelming. But that would be isolating the piece in a weird way that maybe you aren’t supposed to do. Not that you are “supposed” to do anything with art, but context is everything. I just think there is something really strong about being able to look at a painting, read a poem, hear a song and just think, wow, nice, or feel any sort of emotion, even if you are not sure why right away. Not to say that spending more time with a poem or work of art, or finally understanding the lyrics of a song, would eventually get you to that point of appreciation, or any level of appreciation. There can always be some sort of takeaway. But I think there is something cool about the arts and one of its strengths, is being able to say something in a way that goes beyond that privileged academic realm and reach people in a more human kind of way. When the work can stay cool and effective no matter what kind of information that person is approaching it with, something special is happening. I think anyone can look at Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and connect with it, age, gender, location, time period, and context aside. I think that’s what really drew me to the arts in the first place, but maybe that is naïve. But art can, and does, do that all that time. Especially in literary works.

My question is how much do you have to know about the academic side of poetry to be able to appreciate it as a literary art form? If you aren’t well versed in these fields does it mean that some of it is not written for you? Is it only from my privileged position that I am able to decide that I don’t necessarily require all of that information to appreciate the work?

Making visual art in an academic setting is strange because you learn technical skills which makes sense, but then the  conceptual side of things get a little hazy for me, and I get wary about making art in a bubble that only gets discussed and critiqued by other artists on an academic level. I feel that this is similar with poetry. This is probably just comes down to  personal preference, but is a piece of art still cool if the audience is such a specific, privileged group? A group that has that access to historical and other interdisciplinary information. Is Duchamp’s “Fountain” actually cool, or is it only cool from a privileged perspective. Is there a difference?

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One Response to art from a privileged perspective

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes, great! I think you’re absolutely right, that art functions on multiple levels, and works differently for different audiences. Someone might read Li-young Lee’s Persimmons and have a deep emotional response to it, a feeling of being seen or being visible, of beauty and intense sorrow as well, and that response and reading is a perfectly legitimate and important one. And someone like us, scholars of poetry, might have that response, and then additionally interrogate it further, see what is at work that evokes that response, see what tools he is using to create the art. So when you say: “But I think there is something cool about the arts and one of its strengths, is being able to say something in a way that goes beyond that privileged academic realm and reach people in a more human kind of way.” I think yes, of course, but is that a contradiction, or are we engaged in a process of validating and understanding the different and individual (contextual) responses to a work of art? Do you think those have to be mutually exclusive, or is there room for both?

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