Dec 262003

A while ago Brian Micklethwait had a bit about discomfiture in art to which many bloggers linked approvingly:

As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don’t buy that. And I don’t believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda. They no more like being genuinely discomforted by art than I do.

As a psychological observation this is acute. No one ever talks this way about art that discomfits him, personally. And good art is never described in these terms — only epater le bourgeois stuff, which of course discomfits no one, certainly not the people who describe it as discomfiting, and not the people it’s supposed to discomfit either. “Discomfort” is the last-ditch argument of bad artists or their flaks, like museum directors.

So I almost agree with Brian, except I’d lop off the first sentence. Have you ever talked at length with someone who was far more intelligent than you? Such a person seems armed with all of your thoughts and experiences and much more besides; he answers objections that you have formed fuzzily or not at all. You get the most out of it by shunting aside your own prejudices, as best you can, and following him as he elaborates on his, which are more interesting. Later on you go back and reintroduce yourself, as it were, to your original prejudices, and compare and contrast. The experience is, in a word, discomfiting, not because your interlocutor tries to shock you like a cheap artist, but because he says things that have not occurred to you, and novelty is always unsettling.

Great art is like that, except that its commerce is with a mind greater than any you know personally and on a subject on which it has meditated deeply and you may not have thought at all. Henry James goes so far as to say “it is a very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the mind of the producer… No good novel ever proceeded from a superficial mind,” and he’s talking to you, Charles Dickens.

Brian discusses visual art and music mostly, and I’m talking about literature, being wary of generalizations about all arts, although I seem to make them often enough. So maybe we are talking at cross purposes. But for all arts (oops, I did it again) the ideal aesthetic attitude is receptiveness — a provisional acceptance of the author’s cultural situation, the benefit of the doubt. You have to be willing to check your damaged self at the door. Many respectable aesthetic theories, like Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” and the “pseudo-belief” of T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards, reasonably begin with the attempt to inculcate this attitude: we need to read Christians and pagans without being either. So yes, good art makes you uncomfortable, but only incidentally, and anyone who makes a big point of the fact is a bad artist.

(Update: David Fiore comments. Great artists aren’t just different, David, they’re better. Get over it.)

  11 Responses to “Discomfiture”

  1. Aaron,

    Better? Sure. Better at making their presence felt in absentia (through the medium of a created object). But able to instruct us about our own lives? No way. I’m with Emerson on this one. The ideas we respond to in a work of art are our own, returned to us with an "alienated majesty". And it the important thing is the alienation–not the thoughts.


    p.s. what do you have against Dickens, Aaron? (maybe I should make use of the search function and find out, hunh?)

  2. How about a good word for the majesty while we’re at it? And without the thoughts you get neither the majesty nor the alienation. In any case, Emerson is here, as so often, full of shit, and this remark reflects his customary animus against the intellect. Remember, this is the man who counseled not reading, the better to think your own thoughts.

    I haven’t written about Dickens yet, so search will avail you nought. I have against him what I have against all the British Victorians: that he couldn’t write a true word about sex. Stendhal and Balzac, who understood men and women, make Dickens look like the piker he is. I also object to his jejune distillations of philosophies and economic theories that he didn’t understand. Plus he couldn’t plot his way out of a wet paper bag.

  3. From David’s response on his weblog:…and I don’t believe art has anything to teach us. At least about the nature of human existence…. […] An encounter with a great work of art is nothing more than that–it doesn’t teach us anything, and it doesn’t "show us the way", it simply provides us with evidence…that there are other minds in the world….

    Oh dear. You’re in deeper trouble than even I imagined, David. I think a deprogrammer’s services are required in this case, and P.D.Q. Or perhaps it’s already too late.

    More concerned than ever,


  4. Ah, but you see, that’s what I’m saying–of course Dickens has nothing to offer us in the way of political theory (even if he imagined he did). Neither does Frank Capra. It’s a mistake to go to these people for those reasons (and–especially in the case of Capra–everyone makes this mistake, a fact which invalidates 99% of the criticism that’s been written about his films.. throw out everything by anyone other than Carney and Cavell–especially Robert Sklar)

    However, I think that if you approach Dickens without expectations of this kind, you’ll find yourself in the presence of perhaps the greatest pure narrator in the history of the novel (although lately–i.e. for the last five years or so–I’m even more taken with Hawthorne–also a terrible plotter). Do you require a novelist to tell us about sex? I’d rather figure that out for myself thanks! (not that I have a problem with explorations of sexual relationships, if they grow naturally out of the situations which preoccupy the writer) All I ask from novelists is that they put as much of themselves into their work as they can. I’ll base my judgment of the finished product on how compelling I find that self to be!


  5. "The ideas we respond to in a work of art are our own, returned to us with an "alienated majesty".

    For some, though not for all. Great art works require an accepting of more than merely the content, but the pattern. It is the pattern of thought which makes a great artist over others. Almost anyone trained in the craft of an art can, from time to time, generate a striking effect. It is the great artist who has formed a method and a habit of thought which allows them to spin effects out consistently, and in a pattern which defies simple explanation.

    If one is looking merely for confirmation that greater minds have had the same thought, one is very likely to end up finding greater minds who have made the same mistake.

  6. Why always this preoccupation with greatness anyway? Can’t simply "good enough" be good enough? (The only Dickens I ever read was A Tale of Two Cities, in high school, and at that time it seemed good enough.)

  7. David F.: I agree that you ought to take artists as you find them, and nobody reads Dickens for his plots or should. Sex is just an illustration of the many ways in which his understanding of people is inferior to that of his great French predecessors. I have no idea what a "pure narrator" is, but when I can bring myself to read Dickens it’s for the incidentals, like his many unforgettable minor characters. His constant social moralizing grates on me though. Is it his defect as an author or mine as a reader? I suspect it’s his, but I’m not entirely sure.

    David N.: Good enough for what? Time is limited, and wouldn’t you rather spend it on better than worse? Criticism is ultimately evaluative or it’s a waste of breath.

  8. "Why always this preoccupation with greatness anyway? "

    Actually, most of our cultural life can be described as an obsession with kitsch. Thinking on what makes greatness is out of the mainstream almost immediately. People spend a great deal of money compiling top ten albums lists, and following the rise and fall of mediocre corporations in business. Sorting through various grades of drivel is, unfortunately, the bulk of the life of a critic or writer.

    The chance to see the higher genius, whose heat we feel even if we do not see their light, is, then, as going to the cote d’azure for holiday after a dismal winter in greyer climes.

  9. " I suspect it’s his, but I’m not entirely sure. "

    No one who blogs should complain about the moralizing of Balzac or Dickens – I wouldn’t have either author without their asides and complaints, because I could easily see either writing their diatribes on "" and then writing a chapter to have an excuse to publish it.

  10. Henry James talking about you, Charles Dickens, for reference.

    Insight is, perhaps, too strong a word; for we are convinced that it is one of the chief conditions of his genius not to see beneath the surface of things. If we might hazard a definition of his literary character, we should, accordingly, call him the greatest of superficial novelists. We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank in the department of letters which he adorns; but we accept this consequence of our proposition. It were, in our opinion, an offence against humanity to place Mr Dickens among the greatest novelists. For, to repeat what we have already intimated, he has created nothing but figure. He has added nothing to our understanding of human character. He is master of but two alternatives: he reconciles us to what is commonplace, and he reconciles us to what is odd.

  11. One could fill a rather thick book with the ugly things that artists say about each other.

    Dicken’s pervasive gift is to show people acting out of a shallow understanding of themselves, and paying the consequences. To say that he does not have depth, because most of his characters do not understand depth is a mistake.

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