There are probably as many current schools of esthetics as there are schools of art, but all of them fall into two phyla: highbrow and middlebrow.*
Highbrow esthetic schools, despite their differences, share the common assumption that a work should at the very least be considered as a given whole. Middlebrow esthetic schools seek to isolate one aspect of a work and designate that aspect as the work’s essence. Because the middlebrow have isolated this essence, they are free to transfer or modify the accidental properties of the artwork, while still preserving all that is valuable in art. Unlike other critics, who speak of essence in airy or vague terms, the middlebrow critic, and this is the daring part, is quite open about where the essence lies.
- For fiction, it is the plot
- For music, it is the tune
- For the visual arts, it is something I don’t know the word for, but is a combination of subject matter and basic positioning of the main elements—not quite “composition” but close.
This may all be cryptic, but I think some examples will show what I mean.
The educational aspect of Classics Illustrated comics have long been sneered at by highbrows. Melville’s Shakespearean prose and careful juggling of Hawthornean symbols (for example) could possibly be translated into a comic form, but the feat was not even attempted by the good folks at Gilberton publishing.
What does get translated, and pretty successfully, is Ahab’s Miltonic-mad quest; ship-smashing action; [spoiler] the lonely image of a shipwrecked sailor on a coffin.
Whether or not these panels capture the essence of Melville’s tale is precisely what is at stake here. A highbrow accepts some degree of modification of a text: a translation of Ibsen oror Kawabata, for example, because no one can be expected to read everything in the original. But the highbrow balks at reducing Moby Dick to a series of static images of harpooners and full-sail long shots. To the middlebrow, though, this comic is Moby Dick.
The Dell comic adaptation of Moby Dick (on the other hand) is unsuccessful because it changes the ending.** The John Huston film its cover references is successful because it is faithful to the main plot points, all the way through.
Movie adaptations, although sometimes successful with all comers, get greater leniency from the middlebrow. They are, after all, educational. There’s something to be said for the efficiency of watching two hours of Ivanhoe instead of trudging through 600 pages of Scott (although Noel Langley bollixes the ending, too).
More educational than even the most faithful movie adaptation, though, are those banes of highbrow teachers everywhere: Cliffs, Monarch, their brand-X knockoffs, and now a proliferation of study-guide websites. The point here (from a middlebrow POV) is that any faithful trot is a legitimate educational device because it delivers the essence of the work. Maybe the book Moby Dick contains more than these summaries do—it’s longer, after all—but the extras are like bonus features or marginalia. They’re nice, or even beneficial, but they are optional when compared to the essential, literally essential, nature of the plot.
Fine literature is educational (possibly also “uplifiting”?); also educational, the highbrow and middlebrow will agree, is classical music (“‘Classical’ is just an era…” the highbrow starts to say, but is ignored). Transformation, in the form of frequent reinterpretations by various musicians, conductors, or even arrangers, is part and parcel of the classical experience; but the middlebrow, audaciously, latches onto the essence and runs with it.
A friend of mine once had, in his [parents’] car, a tape called Pachelbel’s Greatest Hit, which was just the “Canon in D” played again and again, seamlessly stitched together, into one twenty-minute piece per side of tape. Traditionally the “Canon” is around five minutes long, give or take one for speed. The highbrow is reeling from the idea that you can take a piece and make it four times as long as it “should” be; the middlebrow sees the essence preserved.
Excerpts or snippets from classical pieces? Essence preserved. Mozart played on wine glasses and saw? Essence preserved. “What’s Opera, Doc?“? Essence preserved. Carmen on Ice? Oh, heck, yes!
The idea that the “good part” of Beethoven’s ninth symphony should only be heard after an hour of “other parts” is to the middlebrow naive; to the highbrow as unalterable a law of esthetics as, say, not skipping right to “the horror, the horror” every time you read Heart of Darkness.
The highbrow has a certain amount of anxiety about the reproduction of most visual art. As Gloria points out, this anxiety is often resolved by pretending an art print is a souvenir of a particular gallery or event, like a concert poster. One of the essential properties of great art is an aura that can never be reproduced; less superstitiously, even the finest reproductions tend to miss small details, brush strokes, the awe a huge painting can inspire.*** Any reproduction, even with the anodyne of gallery information, is a compromise at best.
To the middlebrow, great art is easily transformed not only into posters but also into magnets or ash trays, no anxiety required. And why stop there?
Do you want a hand-painted “museum quality” oil reproduction of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring? No problem! Do you want a 500-piece Mona Lisa puzzle? It’s (and I quote here) “educational“! Do you want pens “inspired by” Starry Night, the same way Bon Jovi’s soundtrack album was inspired by Young Guns II? Etc. Just make sure you keep the essence!
Most of all, do you want new and improved versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper? In Travels in Hyperreality, which everyone should read (psst! on the dl, it’s here), Umberto Eco writes about the seven wax-museum iterations of the Last Supper he found “between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” an impressive density even for a long drive.
But you can also find the Last Supper in stained glass, in ice, carved from a single block of wood, etc. And if you like wax, it’s worth browsing these photos from the Palace of Living Art, where the essence of the masterpieces is either celebrated or tortured, depending on your brow.
The Mona Lisa‘s familiar framing, the cropping of her image, I mean, is not preserved at the Palace of Living Art, which is why I didn’t want to call the essential part of the visual arts “composition.” But you see what remains: a woman smiling in a certain way, her hands folded in a certain way. This is what must remain.
Between highbrow and the middlebrow esthetics yawns an unbridgeable gulf. The very existence of the term “piece,” which I have not been able to avoid employing throughout this essay and which is a highbrow shibboleth (the middlebrow term would be “work”), implies that the artwork is not made of pieces, but is itself a piece, atomic and indivisible.
(*I’m hoping I can use these words neutrally, but I’m aware that “middlebrow” has pejorative connotations. I considered calling the phyla “middlebrow” and “artsy-fartsy,” so as to insult everyone, but that drives the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, and perhaps “highbrow” is now as pejorative as “middlebrow” long has been, so I’m letting it stand in a hope for clarity.)
(**They kill Moby Dick and return to town where everyone celebrates the death of that evil whale. In Felix Sutton’s young person’s adaptation, in contrast, Ahab and the whale battle to the death, and neither survives; the Pequod, with Queequeg on board, sinks, and only Ishmael survives, but he just clings to some timber, which is much less satisfying than what “really” happened.)
(***Of all paintings I’ve seen “in real life,” the two that for whatever reason have suffered the most from reproduction are Gainsborough’s portrait of the Linleys and Ridgway Knight’s Hailing the Ferry.
They look okay here, I guess. But they melted my mind when I saw them, and I will admit these online versions, whatever their successes, fail to capture either work’s essence.)