Friday, December 30, 2011

CSL on "using" and "receiving" art

The following excerpts are from one of C.S. Lewis's lesser known books An Experiment in Criticism, and are as quoted by Ken Myers in All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture, a book I'll be returning to. This is Lewis at his provocative best.

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life." (p. 2)

On the difference between using and receiving art.

A work of (whatever) art can be either "received" or "used." When we "receive" it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we "use" it we treat it as assistance for our own activities. The one, to use an old-fashioned image, is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know roads we have never yet explored. The other is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides. These rides may in themselves be good, bad, or indifferent. The "uses" which the many make of the arts may or may not be intrinsically vulgar, depraved, or morbid. That's as it may be. "Using" is inferior to "reception" because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it. (p. 88)

Are we receiving art when it's reduced to instantly-downloadable "content" to be used and then thrown away (or stored on a hard drive)? What happens to us when we begin to see books, music, and movies as mere commodities?

Receiving art is not the same thing as agreeing with it. Here Lewis argues for the value of surrendering to works of art that may contain opinions, attitudes and feelings that we don't agree with.

In good reading there ought to be no "problem of belief." I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either. A true lover of literature should be in one way like a honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates. (p. 85)

Lewis could say those things because he believed that "good" was more than a moral category when it comes to literature. Which raises the question whether that's true of other mediums as well. I'm still thinking through that one.

1 comment:

redeyespy said...

Well cited and I agree with Lewis' thoughts on lit. (and the other mediums). We can certainly appreciate Hitchens' prose w/o agreeing with it.