It’s about ten years now since I was a student proper, and I’ve gradually noticed a change in my sensibilities as I focus more on the creative side of the arts rather than criticism.
It’s been an interesting experience. I find that the muscles that you use to create art are totally different to those you use when critiquing it, especially at Uni. A lot of the essays I wrote were criticisms of the perceived ideology of a particular work. You know the kind of thing; you can read hundreds of similar style essays on the blogosphere every day. This is how this work of art perpetuates this ideology. In a lot of ways essays at Uni were about drawing a long bow; the longer the better, in many ways, because that way nobody else would have written it first.
So a lot of literary/drama criticism at Uni was about finding sexist/racist/classist/otherwise dodgy undertones in books or plays and drawing that out. And in a lot of ways we punished ambiguity. Works which reflected certain characters or certain mindsets were expected to comment on or critique those mindsets or else they were read as reinforcing them. The student/critic as essay writer was frustrated by ambivalence and rewarded black and white delineation, nailing one’s ideological colours to the mast.
Looking back, as a student I would have rewarded a poorly written book whose ideology conformed clearly with my own, over a well written book whose ideology was unclear.
Now I have spent more time on the “art” side of the line I realise that what I thought of as rendering a work of art good was actually the opposite of really interesting art, which kind of exists in grey areas, ambiguities, nuance and allows space for the reader to think and make their own way forward.
That’s not to say that good art can’t be political, or ideologically powerful. But the art that I like now tends to do it in a less blunt-instrument kind of way than the art I would have praised as an undergraduate.
Has my taste matured, or have I just become old?
I don’t know. I look at the criticism, for instance, that a writer like Margo Lanagan often gets, and I think the undergraduate me would have been able to find ways to critique her work, because her writing refuses to lead the reader. We’re given characters who often represent thoughts and ideals that we don’t agree with. Dodgy people and dodgy thoughts. And a lot of the criticism Lanagan cops seems to be because she doesn’t telegraph her intent; she stands behind the work and fills it with nuance and complexity rather than making the lines clear and the politics obvious. There are a lot of other great authors who fall into the same category; Irvine Welsh is another of my favourites.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed now, by my undergraduate self, and the expectations I brought to how culture should be viewed. Truth be told, I learned that ideological critique was rewarded, and I learned how to mimic that. I learned how to draw things out of texts that were barely there, and magnify them into something bigger. Until it barely even commented on the work itself; it was more about my skills of argument and my ideological purity. And the ideological lens enabled me to feel superior to the writers, to everyone who liked and read them and wallowed in clear ignorance and conservatism. It was a comfortable place of moral high ground that I shared with other undergrads where we could all slam writers we viewed as ideologically suspect without ever having to create anything ourselves.
The irony is that when I was a younger person I knew there were people like the future me that is Now Me. I viewed them as ideologically suspect. I knew that they looked at me in a patronising way and sighed at my idealism and laughed at the excesses of undergraduate politics, and I thought well, that’s just because you’re old, you git. You’ve gotten old and life has beaten the fire out of your belly. You used to believe in things and now you’re settling into this comfortable aestheticism that privileges “art” over politics, that tries to deny the implicit ideology in everything we do. You’ve become a glazed, forgiving apologist for the status quo. And here I am, looking back at myself patronisingly, thinking how oversimplistic my interpretations of the books I read were, how unforgiving my analysis of ideologies, how lacking in nuance my readings. How much more do you have to learn, I think to my old self. About compassion and depth and realising that you don’t know it all.
But that’s exactly what that Old Person bloody well would say, isn’t it?
So which me is right? Young me shouting at Old me or Old me looking back and shaking my head? Or, if scientists are right and time is an illusion, are we both just always there, looking at one another across the years, unable to understand how we could ever have become the way we are…