The tragedy of the snob

Sunday, October 18, 2020 - 2:09pm

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Design by Yassmine El-Rewini

In his 1988 poem “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins laments the way his students have been taught to read poetry. Rather than “hold it up to the light like a color slide,” or “press an ear against its hive,” he writes that the students torture a confession — in this case meaning or significance — out of the poem. Once they have found its meaning, analyzed its metaphors and discussed its themes, they leave. 

Collins hates this; he wants the experience of art appreciation to be as ongoing as the admiration of nature in everyday life. 

I agree with him. As one learns more about a subject — in this instance, art — the less one seems to appreciate it. This is the paradox of the snob. Critics and experts’ knowledge about art ultimately lead to bitterness and disillusionment about the direction of that particular art form. Slowly, the initial passion for the form is replaced with unending criticism. 

We are taught to approach art in this paradoxical manner. In my creative writing classes, I’ve learned to employ the syntax of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver and Alice Walker; we read the words and then tear them apart and put them back together in carefully crafted academic prose of analysis. But I don’t want to tear the story into shreds of clever sentence turns, front versus backstory and particular verb usages.

I wonder when I’ll start seeing writing as work. Perhaps that’s what the best artists do — they have routine and practice, what outsiders conflate with divine inspiration. Walking the line between creating a writing routine while also giving in to the whims of inspiration is tricky. 

Perhaps therein lies my question: Why does art criticism exist if it turns us, the art critics and consumers, into cynical curmudgeons, ready to attack any artist, musician or writer? 

In one of my English classes, we’re learning about Romantic-era literature. At the peak of 19th-century Romanticism, nature and emotion became art’s purpose. And, for the first time in literary history, art’s purpose became oppositional from societal, morality and value systems.  

We just finished reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the 1774 German novel about a young man’s infatuation with an unavailable girl that leads to his suicide. Werther’s foray into the reality of unrequited love is painful to watch, even with Goethe’s beautiful prose. And yet, the epistolary novel is flooded with reasons to continue loving the world, despite the trials and pain that they bring. Though Werther is no exemplar on how to handle romantic rejection, his youthful intensity and sensitivity are highly admirable. He writes to his best friend, “I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.” This vulnerability to the world is enjoyable and interesting to watch unfold, but it’s also a virtue that us art consumers can — and should — learn. 

As an English major, I live in constant fear of becoming this snob. I worry I will approach every piece of literature I pick up ready to annotate the margins and always keeping the essay prompt at the forefront of my mind. But, I agree with Collins when he writes that he would rather “walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch” than beat a meaning or significance out of a poem.  

It seems some art enthusiasts find comfort in that they are the few “chosen” followers who are enlightened enough to have better taste. I’ve encountered people who correct the way you say Van Gogh. They are the ones who gasp at you for not knowing that the drummer of Nirvana was the lead singer of the Foo Fighters and book-shame you for not having read “Fahrenheit 451,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Frankenstein” or any Oscar Wilde. But I have yet to find joy in being the “select” few. 

In some ways, this makes me excited to have space away from this kind of analysis after my formal education. I’m determined to never let go of that excited, playful state of being enraptured in a novel. Like Werther, I’d be sorry to lose the beauty of nature in the name of art.

Daily Arts Writer Nina Molina can be reached at ninamolina@umich.edu.

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