One must admire AC Douglas for trying to define art at all, even if the attempt is less than satisfactory:

Which brings me to my primary — and at the same time, ultimate — criterion for judging whether a work is genuine art or not, whatever its medium: The Jabberwocky Test. If a work fails that test on first and repeated apprehensions it’s unquestionably and irredeemably non-art, and to the extent it meets the test is it art of greater or lesser degree.

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky the first time. The capacity of a work to produce that feeling in the receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

As a determiner of art and non-art, I’ve found The Jabberwocky Test to be virtually infallible, and the Rowells’ spectacular landscape photographs fail the test — most resoundingly. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum said the ancient sage. But in matters as important as art, truth trumps…everything.

I, less courageous than Douglas, will not suggest a universal definition of art. Such things fall into three categories. The artist-centric view finds its apotheosis in Picasso: “Whatever I spit, that is art.” Unfortunately this view spawns many competing claims, before which we will be in the approximate position of the Internal Revenue Service evaluating the tax-exempt status of churches in California.

I used to sympathize with the art-centric view that what makes art art is some formal quality of the work itself. Finding a quality that all forms of art share is the difficulty. Art as imitation is about the best theory of this type that history has produced, but even it founders on music, which doesn’t imitate anything I can discern.

The Jabberwocky Test is an audience-centric theory, and it has distinguished company, notably Aristotle’s catharsis theory of tragedy. But all audience-centric theories are subjectivist, and the Jabberwocky Test more than most. Suppose that Wagner inspires ideas of je ne sais quoi in Douglas, while Douglas’s philistine neighbor claims that Pachelbel’s Canon does the same for him. We should trust Douglas, of course, because Douglas has shown himself to be a sensitive and acute critic, and anyway all people of sensibility know that Pachelbel’s Canon is trash. The Jabberwocky Test, however, gives us no reason to privilege Douglas’s opinions.

Oddly, bad art has disappeared here entirely, leaving only good art and non-art. There is art that Douglas loathes, such as Debussy, but if I understand him correctly, Debussy isn’t exactly bad, just out of tune, as it were, with the Douglas sensibility. And what remains after the test has been applied is all on the same footing. An aspiring work of art either passes or fails — no honors grades. Yet a proper definition of art should not only remove the chaff but distinguish among the wheat. Douglas speaks of “extents,” but I find it difficult to imagine one work of art filling the head with more ideas then another. Seeing as the ideas are all inscrutable, how would one even count?

In lieu of a definition, I propose a heuristic: The Ninth-Grade Test. In ninth grade I decided to torture my English teacher, who assigned us Romeo and Juliet, by demanding to know why, exactly, we had to read Shakespeare. Why not some current popular novel, or Led Zeppelin lyrics? Any theory of art that can’t offer a smart-ass ninth grader a reasonable answer to this question is dead on arrival.

Poor Miss Starr didn’t acquit herself very well. But I doubt the Jabberwocky Test would have helped her much.

Aaron Haspel | Posted December 17, 2002 @ 8:33 PM | General

8 Responses to “The Jaws That Bite, The Claws That Catch”

  1. 1 1. Howard Owens

    I’ve long ascribed to Matthew Arnold’s "touchstone" test.

    It works like this — over long periods of time, certain works of literature have stood the test of time. Shakespeare, for example, has been rediscovered by every generation. So, though we may not be able to fully articulate what makes art art, or makes Shakespeare great, we do have an objective standard in Shakespeare to compare contemporary work with. So Shakespeare becomes our touchstone.

    Of course, this test fails if you don’t appreciate Shakespeare, but then I would argue that you don’t appreciate art if you don’t appreciate Shakespeare. There is something to be said for why a work of art stands the test of time, and to ignore the wisdom of generations is pure egoism.

    And the next fault to confront is what if two reasonable people cannot agree whether William Golding compares favorably to Shakespeare? Then we obviously have the negative creep of subjectivism getting in the way.

    So my conclusion is that the touchstone test is only useful in the broadest, most generalized scope. Some works obviously fail and deserve profound condemnation, and others (though fewer and fewer these days) succeed, but the fast majority of work falls in between these bright lines, and that is where all good arguments about literature and art can be found.


  2. 2 2. acdouglas

    I think, Aaron, that you’ve misunderstood the J Test as your argument against it rests on premises that are in fact false. Premises such as: "The Jabberwocky Test is an audience-centric theory….," and "We should trust Douglas, of course, because Douglas has shown himself to be a sensitive and acute critic …. The Jabberwocky Test, however, gives us no reason to privilege Douglas’s opinions." And your "Any theory of art that can’t offer a smart-ass ninth grader a reasonable answer to [why Shakespeare should be read] is dead on arrival," is just plain silly. But, then, I suspect you offered that tongue-in-cheek.

    I think you need to reread this clearing-up again.

    ACD


  3. 3 3. acdouglas

    Our last two comments crossed in mid-posting.

    Your wrote in your last: "The test itself is explicitly audience-centric. I’m all for judging a work on its qualities, but I think the relationship between those qualities and its filling the head with ideas needs to be spelled out."

    The test is NOT "audience-centric." It’s based on the qualities inherent in the work itself. As to the relationship between those qualities and the work’s passing the J Test, that is the very thing that requires knowledge of the domain involved on the tester’s part.

    ACD


  4. 4 4. Jim

    I think you two are kicking around the concept of relational properties. They can be both "based on the qualities inherent in the work itself" (ACD) and "audience-centric" (Aaron). "Difficult," "delicious," and "smooth" are examples of relational properties that are subject-relational. Whether a food is delicious necessarily has to do with its intrinsic properties, but also with the effect on us subjects. It may have the effect in virtue of its instrinsic qualities, but it isn’t delicious if it doesn’t have the effect. Palates may have to be discerning and previously cleansed, but they have the ultimate say. By contrast, whether something is 1 kg in mass has nothing to do with what subjects judge about it.


  5. 5 5. Aaron Haspel

    You say in your clarification that you don’t have to like something to acknowledge it as art. This is true, but I never claimed you did. What I claimed is that you have to react to it in a certain way: that’s what makes your theory audience-centric, and I think the characterization is fair.

    I was perfectly serious when I said that you’re an excellent critic; but it is for reasons that have nothing to do with your theory. The fundamental question remains: If someone else thinks a certain thing fills the head with ideas and hence is art, and you don’t, how, using only the Jabberwocky Test, do we mediate this dispute?


  6. 6 6. acdouglas

    No sir. You’ve missed it again. Reread, please.

    ACD


  7. 7 7. Aaron Haspel

    Your second post, it is true, says, "What [the Jabberwocky Test] does depend on is the depth of the tester’s knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself." However, this is less a clarification than a position shift. The test itself is explicitly audience-centric. I’m all for judging a work on its qualities, but I think the relationship between those qualities and its filling the head with ideas needs to be spelled out.


  8. 8 8. acdouglas

    That last comment of mine was rather too petulant. Let me spell out for you what you’re missing.

    The success of the J Theory depends on the tester being *sufficiently knowledgeable* in the domain of the thing tested, as I explained in what I asked you to reread. It’s quite impossible that two persons of the same degree of knowledge, and the same capacity to distance themselves from their own prejudices, likes, and dislikes, would disagree on the binary question of art or not-art for the work under test, although they may differ in their assessments of the degree of quality of that work if determined to be art.

    Is this now more clear?

    ACD


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