What I Did For Love: Taste, Evaluation, and Aesthetics in American Culture
“I don’t know art, but I know what I like,” goes the disclaimer. In this writing-intensive part-workshop, part-seminar, we will seek to unpack the relationship between “art” and “what I like” by examining a variety of cultural objects together with accounts of “taste.” What are the uses of an art that nobody likes? Could “annoyance” be an aesthetic principle? What is the role of money in taste? What are the ethics of aesthetics? Under what circumstances is an aesthetic pleasure “guilty”? When should the appreciation of art works be a matter of disinterested judgment, and when a matter of passionate engagement? Does “love” blind? What is the difference between a “fan” and a “critic”? What are the affordances and limits of the “formulaic” and the “generic”?
Four weeks of this course will be devoted to workshopping students’ critical writing, examining the roles of description, praise, blame, analysis, and enthusiasm in writing about culture. Students will also maintain a course blog. For the final assignment, students are encouraged to pitch their writing to an appropriately chosen publication.
John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Peter Coviello, “Talk, Talk”
Beauty and the sublime
Immanuel Kant, from Critique of the Power of Judgment
Thomas Nagel, from The View from Nowhere
Short exercise: choose a cultural object to describe as plainly as possible. About 500 words.
Taste and class
Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”
Pierre Bourdieu, from Distinction
Thorstein Veblen, from The Theory of the Leisure Class
Barbara Herrnstein Smith, from Contingencies of Value
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; selections from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Andrew Lloyd Webber et al., selections from CATS
Essay 1: Describe some piece of culture (novel, film, painting, poem, music video, etc.) that you love, and that you also think is good. (These are two different things.) Explain why it is that you love the piece, what it is that makes it good, and how you can tell the difference (and under what circumstances you can’t). Be sure to explain what it is that makes art good in general—you don’t need to advance a fully developed theory of aesthetics, but you do need to unpack your assumptions as much as you can. Have an argument. This should be around 3000 words.
William Butler Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Dissolving/vanishing (1951)
Marianne Moore, “An Octopus”
Sianne Ngai, “Merely Interesting”
Leonard Diepeveen, from The Difficulties of Modernism
Lawrence Levine, from Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”
“Guilty pleasures,” pop culture, and authenticity
Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love (1997)
Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Sarah Blackwood, “Dance Dance Revelation: On So You Think You Can Dance”
“I'm Not Here To Make Friends” supercut [YouTube video]
Mallory Ortberg, “Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman Probably Had Sex Once”
Abigail De Kosnik, “Fandom as Free Labor,” in The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Scholz
Popular culture, popular criticism
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry”
Caleb Smith, “Say Hello to My Little Friend”
Mary Oliver, selected poems
Short exercise: write a piece of fanfiction, about 1000 words, in the setting of your choice.
Gender and “the popular”
Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman”
Rebecca Black, “Friday” [YouTube video]
Dana Vachon, “Arms So Freezy: Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ as Radical Text”
Rae Armantrout, “Why Don’t Women Write Language-Centered Poetry?”
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”; "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"
Eve Kosofsky, “Curl Up and Read” (Seventeen, 1964)
Short exercise: Make the case that some cultural object is a “remake” of another, earlier one (for example, that Pixar’s Toy Story is a remake of Disney’s Pinocchio). Be honest about the ways in which the claim does not hold up. In addition to noting similarities or lines of influence, you should explain what we gain from understanding the later object as a remake of the earlier one. 500–1,000 words.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”; “The Raven”
Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”
Janice Radway, from Reading the Romance
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reviews: "The RealDeal by Lucy Monroe”; “Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie”; “Skies of Gold by Zoe Archer”
Tvtropes.org, “Elves versus Dwarves”; “As You Know”
Lili Loofbourow, “Just Another Princess Movie” [rev of Brave]
Christian Bök, Eunoia
Essay 2: Choose a piece of art and viciously pan it. Your critique should be utterly devastating, which is to say that you should be able to persuade your reader that this piece is a blight on humanity, and not merely that you are a mean-spirited person. This will be more effective if you resist choosing an easy target. 2,000–3,000 words.
Cuteness and commodification
Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”
Gary Cross, from The Cute and the Cool
“Many too small boxes and Maru” [YouTube video]
“Nyan Cat [original]” [YouTube video]
Essay 3: Review some piece of culture that was recently produced—say, since January 2012. Give your reader a fairly thickly textured sense of what this piece is like, and explain what its successes and failures are. Once again, be sure to unpack what it means for something to “succeed” (in any register). What is the historical, cultural, or aesthetic milieu in which this piece is ideally legible? Make a point. This should be around 3,000 words.
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
Alan Liu, from The Laws of Cool
Michael Szalay, from Hip Figures
Janelle Monáe, “Tightrope” [YouTube video]
Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”
Justine Larbalestier, “Ain’t That a Shame”
Fanlore Wiki: “Race and Fandom”
Mitali Perkins, “Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books”
Malcolm Harris, “The White Market”
Nancy Sommers, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers”
Essay 4: Revise your review for publication in a venue of your choice. It may be print or online. When you submit this assignment to me, you should also submit a copy of the submission guidelines for this venue (to which your revised review should adhere) and a rationale (about 500 words) for choosing this publication. You are encouraged to actually submit the review to the publication you have chosen. (You might be interested in this.)