After visiting an art museum recently, I began to wonder about the similarities between art and writing. Fine art, as in a painting, can be considered subjective in terms of good vs. bad. What’s pleasing for one individual is not necessarily for another. You might adore Renoir, I might love Kandinsky. Artists and art critics, however, do have their own standards about good art. These revolve around color, texture, line, impasto and chiaroscuro (shadows and light) among other qualities. But in general, most people would agree that art is subjective. (I might fail to see how a large canvas simply painted red is art, but if you like it, well . . .)
History proves this subjectivity. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis not only murdered people, they exterminated art, artifacts, and literature. Hitler and his comrades (Goebbels, in particular) decided which pieces of art were good and which were bad. To them, the old masters, artists that portrayed life as it really was, like Rembrandt, were worthy. The modernists, impressionists and post-impressionists were entartete kunst – degenerate and despicable, destined for flames. (It is worth noting that in 1937, an exhibition titled Entartete Kunst opened in Munich. The exhibition was designed to ridicule creative works by such artists as Picasso, because it insulted German womanhood. Ironically, it turned out to be one of the most popular museum exhibitions ever displayed, with queues out the door from opening to closing, every day. )
Beyond art, the Nazis attacked literature. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser, considered socialists and “corrupting foreign influences,” were among the authors whose books were burned. In the eyes of Hitler, it was the social impacts of the writing that condemned them to the fire.
So, what about prose? Is it subjective like art? Are there standards for quality writing? What are those standards, then, and who determines them? Is it merely the telling of a good story in a compelling manner? What about proper grammar and spelling? Sentence structure? Dialogue, description, character development? Is it a function of the time period in which they are written? How does Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” hold up to Anne Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire” today? Is one objectively “better” than the other? What about classics like “Ulysses” by James Joyce where grammar, sentence structure, et al, are lost in a stream of consciousness?
Bottom line: Is writing simply subjective? Can books, like art, be judged good or bad . . . based on the eye of the beholder?
What do you think?