Egoism gets in the way of truly appreciating a work of art
By Timothy Hankins (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Recently I was conducting an interview for a future project. As we talked, the conversation became a discussion of the role of text in the theater arts. Texts and the interpretation thereof are subjects near and dear to my heart, as both a reader and a writer.
Sometimes it seems to me that modern cultural thought is centered around intellectual egoism. Books, film and other art forms are berated into conformity with a worldview they were never meant to share. Sometimes when critics twist the themes and plot of works to fit their agenda, they undercut creators’ original intent; other times, these critical machinations reward vagaries and complexity with an unearned assignation of greatness.
Egoism lies at the root of both these types of misreading.
When a critic interjects their own preconceptions and beliefs into the world of a text, it corrupts the author’s vision and original intentions. What remains is intellectually and emotionally dishonest. I believe this has important implications beyond the so called ivory tower of academic or literary reading and writing.
This morning, I heard a report on the presidential campaign. Both camps are going on the offensive against each others’ attack ads. (The best defense is a good offense, I suppose?) Both Obama and Romney accuse each other of misquoting — using sound bites out of context to essentially lie about their adversary’s position on everything from the economy to the war in Afghanistan. Apparently anything a candidate says in public is fair game to be recut into any narrative a politico wants to spin.
The question the NPR report was exploring was essentially whether or not the truth even mattered in this type of political context. The alarming (but unfortunately unsurprising) answer was “Not a whit.” Voters are unconcerned with the truthfulness (or even truthiness) candidates exhibit; rather they want to hear presidential hopefuls articulate positions that align with their own beliefs.
We contemporary Americans have become obsessed with “i” (pod, phone and otherwise). Personal interpretation has jumped the line from its proper place at the end of the creation assembly line to the very front. No longer is a statement, a film, a book considered for its own objective worth — almost immediately it’s digested and excreted back into the world as yet another “original” thought.
We’ve done ourselves a disservice by forgetting John Keats’ elegant and simple ars poetica: “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.” The result is a society that is both less truthful and less beautiful.
Timothy Hankins is a writer and musician based in Knoxville. Contact him at (email@example.com) or follow him on Twitter: @hnkns.