Dec 312002

I hate to distract AC Douglas from his battle with the benighted Elvish forces with a flank attack, but I haven’t quite finished with the Jabberwocky yet. AC’s argument, to review, was in two parts. First he argued that the criterion of art is that it fills the heads of its auditors with ideas. (The ideas are supposed to be vague.) I objected that this definition is impressionist — it depends on the auditor, different auditors react differently, and sooner or later we arrive at rank subjectivism. Later AC elaborated, or clarified, or amended his position as follows:

The J Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it 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.

“Personally appealing” is a bit of a red herring. The Jabberwocky test relies on the evocation of a response in the auditor, and its nature is beside the point. All such theories are impressionist. But in the meat of this passage AC argues, against accusations of subjectivism, that even to apply the Jabberwocky test one must be a qualified auditor. Now let’s imagine two qualified auditors, both with deep domain knowledge and the ability to set aside their personal preferences. What happens when these auditors disagree? According to AC this never happens; as he writes in his comments to my first post:

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.

His experience must be different from mine. Certainly in English and American poetry, a field I know pretty well, distinguished scholars disagree radically on evalulation. As best I can tell, AC would mediate such disputes by presentation of scholarly credentials; yet scholarship has little to do with talent, and judging art takes talent. C.S. Lewis read more 16th century English poetry than I ever hope to, yet he misevaulates it generally, by elevating the “Golden” style (Spenser, Sidney) over the “Drab” (Ralegh, Gascoigne, Jonson), and as a result consistently fails to find the best poems. This failure is not of scholarship but of taste.

AC may reply that Lewis never errs on the “binary” matter of distinguishing art from non-art. Since there appears to be no room in AC’s categories for “bad art,” I can’t be sure, although I doubt it. (If I am wrong about this I would find an example of “bad art” helpful.) In any case, calling a criterion binary does not make it so. The Jabberwocky test, to be useful, must be capable of finer distinctions than “art” or “non-art.” If we are to use Jabberwocky strictly to eliminate the non-art, and then substitute some new criteria for evaluation once we’ve pared down the field, then what are these new criteria, and why weren’t we using them in the first place?

  3 Responses to “And Shun the Frumious Bandersnatch”

  1. Oh, Jeez. Give it a rest, Alan. You’re taking an extremely useful rule of thumb test to quickly and accurately distinguish art from non-art, and trying to make it into an entire aesthetic system. The J Test is strictly a first-pass, binary (art or non-art) test. If a work passes then the evaluation of the work (a difficult and involved process) proceeds from there.

    You want an example of bad art (i.e., the work in question passes the J Test, but it’s sucky art)? Anything by Wharhol.

    And a Happy New Year! to you.


  2. I don’t want to make more out of your test than you intended, but you made some grandiose claims for it, notably infallibility. I examined it in no doubt tiresome detail because I find the question of general aesthetic criteria interesting, and your test is a lot like a whole group of impressionist theories about art that are especially popular, for some reason, with artists themselves.

    I agree with you that Warhol is bad art, although I’m not sure why Warhol is bad art and the Sherlock Holmes stories are non-art. The ideas with which most Warhol pictures, say the silk-screened electric chairs, fill my head are quite specific, along the lines of, "What’s he getting paid for this?"

    Happy New Year to you too. (I’m Aaron, by the way.)

  3. Apologies, Aaron. I’ve no idea what Freudian wall that Alan slip came off of.

    Wharhol’s work provokes Jabberwocky-class ideas because of his clever tricks in the manipulation of color, scale, and temporal elements against what would ordinarily be expected. That it’s merely a trick, and nothing more, is what makes it bad art. SH is non-art because it provokes no Jabberwocky-class ideas at all.


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