Reading Lionel Trilling’s THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION

The opening essay, on how American critics value an ugly, plodding style over a highly refined one is pretty fascinating. Basically, it compares the reception of Theodore Dreiser and Henry James. The book was a good find for me. It talks about a lot of things I’ve been thinking about re: art. Primarily about how we don’t yet seem to understand the ways in which the artyness of art–its aesthetic qualities–can advance social aims. Instead, we tend to view the social impact of art in the grossest possible way: we ask if it represents some aspect of reality that’s underrepresented, or if the author is an underprivileged person, or if the art has some explicit social aim in mind. Sometimes I’m a bit repelled by the way that high art gets dismissed by activist types, as if we don’t have anything to learn from Proust and Henry James and James Joyce. As if the things that they did and thought about are the frosting on the cake of life, and that it’s silly to eat that cake when there are people in the world who have no bread. That doesn’t seem right though. All of those authors were radical in their own way. And there’s something in their vision of life that’s profoundly challenging to the status quo. Conversely, a work of art might ostensibly be about underprivileged people, but if it’s conventional on an aesthetic level, then it might end up serving to uphold the status quo. These ideas, amongst others, are what is elaborated upon, in much more detail, in Trilling’s book.

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