Sorry for chiming in late on a particular portion of this thread from
the end of last month, but it has been percolating in my head and something
finally occurred to me to say. I was struck by this exchange between
two listmembers, Steve Schwartz responding to Mike Leghorn:
>>I confess, I don't know Richard Wilbur, Robert Hayden, Jane Kenyon, ...
>>I'm not embarrassed about this....
>....of course you're not embarrassed by it. But then neither is anyone
>else. But there was a time, a few decades ago when people would have
>been embarrassed and would have done something to find out.
>>It's not every individual's duty to appreciate every work of genius
>>in every medium and field.
>I disagree. Everything I don't know is my lack.
The point of these quotations is not to stir up ill feelings between the
posters. But I was intrigued by the notion that one should be *embarrassed"
by ignorance, and that it is one's *duty* to appreciate genius. Personally,
I would *like* to know everything, to have experienced everything. But
I can't decide whether I *ought* to know everything. Duty, to me, usually
implies a duty to someone or something external to oneself. Unless,
perhaps, Mr. Schwartz meant, "It's your duty *to yourself*."
Part of the problem, of course, is that there are not enough hours in
the day, enough length to a life, to know everything. Each of us has
to choose, "what do I want to hear/read/see/think about next?" How to
decide? Is the generalist who is familiar with all periods of music,
art, literature in some way better off than the impassioned specialist
in Mahler who has never sought out a single note of Stockhausen or a
word of Merwin? The easiest answer is, do what you want. Sure. But
how do we decide what we want? Is it some innate, subconscious reaction
beyond our control, or do we have a way of intelligently discussing where
and why we focus our energies?
This leads to a pet philosophical question of mine: is there objective
value in art? Does it make any sense to say that Beethoven is "better"
(in an encompassing sense) than Britney Spears, or that "Karamazov" is
a "better" book than "The Firm"? Does Beethoven make me a better person,
happier, more able to contribute to society, than Britney? I feel like
telling people to see "Casablanca" and avoid "Titanic", but why? If
they enjoy "Titanic" immensely, is there anything unfortunate in that?
Or should I rather be embarrassed by a lack of attendance history at
monster-truck rallies? Also, what about science and other fields of
knowledge? Should one be embarrassed by lack of familiarity with quantum
chromodynamics? With Hilbert space? How to transplant a kidney? Urdu?
Zoroastrianism? The history of the World Series? Is there something
that makes us feel that the arts contribute to humanity in a more generally
applicable way than other fields?
My own vague opinion (which I realize is, ultimately, completely
unsupportable), is currently something along these lines: humans have
evolved biologically as well as culturally to be capable of discerning and
enjoying great complexity. Therefore, the enjoyment of complex things is
in some way true to or even extending the nature of what makes us human.
The broader the spectrum of complex art that we are exposed to, the more
comprehensive a picture of humanity we thereby obtain. (It may even make
us better equipped to navigate the complexities and subtleties of modern
life, but that opening up a whole different discussion.) Ergo, it is
"better" to cultivate the enjoyment of the broadest possible range of
complex art (even with a seemingly associated loss of ability to enjoy
things like pro-wrestling) than to spend time in narrower, simpler, more
primitive forms of entertainment. Either that, or I'm just a snob, it's
all completely subjective and cannot be usefully discussed. I don't know.