How Colleges Mangle Literature and Art

I am currently reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by the fabulous Ariel Levy. Her 2005 book chronicles the raunchy tendencies of modern self-described feminists (which I very much want to call “raunch dressing”). Levy is a fellow Wesleyan alum, and she uses some examples of her time in college to discuss the problems in academia that not only enable porn to exist on the same plane as Flaubert, but also to spread the Ivory Tower anti-art agenda.

The modish line of academic thinking was to do away with ‘works’ of literature or art and focus instead on ‘texts,’ which were always the products of the social conditions in which they were produced. We were trained to look at the supposedly all-powerful troika of race, class and gender and how they were dealt with in narrative–and that narrative could be anywhere, in Madame Bovary or Debbie Does Dallas–rather than to analyze the artistic quality, which we were told was really just code for the ideals of the dominant class.

This sums up every English class I took at the school. We were not allowed to have visceral reactions to literature–we were to see books as archeological evidence of oppression. And if one buys this rationale, there would be very little point in studying that which academia has deemed oppressive, as evidenced here:

I remember a meeting we once had, as members of the English majors committee, with the department of faculty: We are there to tell them about a survey we’d given out to English majors, the majority of whom said they wanted at least one classics course to be offered at our college…It seemed like a pretty reasonable request to me. After I made my pitch for it, the woman who was the head of the department at that time looked at me icily and said, “I would never teach at a school that offered a course like that.”

This subject was taken up by Zadie Smith in the same year (2005). In her wonderful novel On Beauty, Smith has some fun at academia’s expense as she traces the moral, intellectual and personal failings of Howard–an art professor who hates art. In a short but moving passage in the book we see Howard’s class from the point of view of his most earnest student, a young woman who loves Rembrandt and is having a very difficult time not finding his work to be beautiful. Howard uses the language of academia (oh how I do not miss words with “ization” tacked on the end) to bully his class into his mode of thinking, and in many cases it works.

For anyone still in college reading this, you are allowed to love books and paintings and music–even ones created by white men! Yes, it is deeply important to understand how race class and gender work in art (Zadie Smith makes them the major themes in On BeautyMadame Bovary is all about the latter) but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand the meaning, soak in the context, AND love the work.

Alex Leo

Alex Leo is an alumna of Wesleyan.

3 thoughts on “How Colleges Mangle Literature and Art

  1. As a fellow recent Wes alum, I wonder if the writers here aren’t a bit too quick to judge–not only because they’ve allowed the retrograde academic context that gave urgency and meaning to the turns to critical theory and contextualization to become invisible to them, but also because they’re being deeply unfair to all of the faculty members at Wesleyan, as everywhere, who teach precisely from a clear love of and fascination with their subjects. My own reading is that the anti-canon English professor caricatured above–if that scene ever took place at all–was clearly responding to an urging for a particular *use* or *valuing* of canonical texts.
    I think there’s a bigger problem here, but perhaps I’m just confused by the thrust of the writers’ point. Did the writers want there to be classes academically designed around “books we love and why they’re great”? Or do they merely want intellectual license to ignore one of the major things that makes literature so important–that it’s historically been an ideological building block of culture, and hence had concrete (and not always positive!) effects on real human lives?
    If that’s the goal, that’s not compatible with a liberal arts education; it’s also readily available, given that it’s we commonly call a “book club”.
    What a liberal arts education demands is something a bit trickier: it asks you to be deeply critical of the material in front of you, to understand its implications and to worry about how the text acts on people *other than yourself*, and then, if you will, to love it whole-heartedly for what you now know rather than in ignorance of the things you perhaps preferred not to see. It asks of you discomfort, perspective, and growth. And the way in which it equates pornography with Madame Bovary is that it asks you to see that they were both produced, by people with particular perspectives and agendas, and consumed by audiences who participated in making their meanings. It might ask you to consider that Madame Bovary has something in common with certain kinds of pornography, in how each positions women. It might suggest just the opposite. The point is that, whether or not it’s comfortable, *both* are makers of cultural meaning, and not always in obvious ways. Race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, nationality, political orientation, and regional identity are just some of the more common categories around which not only literature, but all of us, in our everyday lives, have values imposed on us and impose values on others.
    One last point. It seems to me that the writers are implicitly advocating an intellectual environment which, in leaning on the right to love books uncritically, ultimately is built around an ethic which places individual experience at its sacred center. In contradistinction to the writers, I see *that* ethic–hyper-individuation and the uncritical celebration of unique identities–as a current major problem in intellectual thought.
    Advice to prospective Wesleroos: if you want to read the canon at Wes, join the College of Letters (as I did)! If you want to read canonical texts uncritically, then perhaps this blog post’s criticism stands: no, the contemporary university isn’t, for now, usually, a place that will readily accommodate it.

  2. I wonder if I can’t just enjoy art–literature, music, painting, et al.,–for the sake of art, as an aesthetic work, and avoid the prejudice of race/class/gender. It seems to me, when you go looking for something–if only for the power of suggestion–you’re bound to find it when you’ve arrived at a preconceived notion first, a conclusion, before you have absorbed the content of the piece of work. A so-called educated mind that looks at everything through a race/class/gender prism is rather close-minded. On the other hand, an open mind is not an uneducated mind.

  3. Thank you!
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    Thank you for writing this. I’m dealing with these crazy PoMo types at school right now and so far I’ve “learned” more about “oppression” than I have about literature. I can’t believe my parents paid for this 🙁

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