Utility vs. Aesthetics

Recently in my Senior Seminar class, we had an interesting discussion about a utilitarian approach to literature versus an aesthetic one. This was generated by a couple of assigned readings, the introduction to Derek Attridge’s The Singularity of Literature and the first chapter of The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser. Much of the discussion focused on resistance to literature and learning that was either too “fact! fact! fact!” based and resistance to the “high art” of poetry.

As the Supplemental Instructor for our school’s Intro to Film Appreciation class, I was immediately reminded of the realism/classicism/formalism spectrum we spend much of the semester discussing. Realism and formalism are at opposite ends of the spectrum. To give you the quick and dirty explanation, these terms relate to what degree cinematic elements are manipulated and how self-conscious the film is. As one may surmise, documentary film would inhabit the realism end. At realism’s extreme, a camera would be set up and simply roll, capturing whatever happens in front of it with no alterations to lighting or setting, no editing, etc. On the other end is formalism — what people would call “art films,” which tend to be abstract in their “meaning” with no discernible purpose except to exist for its own sake.

Classicism, which inhabits dead center of this spectrum, is Hollywood. It borrows from both ends to varying degrees. Manipulations to time, place, narrative, light, and focus are all made, but they are made with the intent of making the audience buy into it and believe, for the duration of the story, that what they see is really happening or at least could happen.Temporal and spatial continuity are always maintained. It’s where the average moviegoer comfortably lives.

As the discussion in class continued, I found myself hanging utilitarian literature on the realism end of the spectrum and poetry on the formalism end. I contemplated that, if Intro to Film Appreciation students are a reliable barometer (and I believe they are, albeit anecdotally), most people become uncomfortable at the extreme ends of the spectrum. For my own part, I like documentary film — now. But for so many years the term “documentary” evoked the dread of the Cold War-era films that told me I’d be safe if I hid under my desk in the event of a nuclear attack or some dry, painful educational film that was supposed to explain puberty to sixth graders but left us squeamish and horrified instead. It wasn’t until I discovered directors like Morgan Spurlock and Errol Morris that I realized how interesting and fun documentaries could be — directors who stray a little more toward the formalism side in terms of presentation and construction. For most people, “reality” TV like Jersey Shore — which is more formalistic still — is the closest they get to the realism side of the spectrum.  They are simply not comfortable with anything too fact-driven.

Conversely, the average person seems to feel that poetry, like art films, are inaccessible. If they can’t discern any obvious “meaning” from it, they become frustrated and dismissive. I’m guilty of this as well. These forms call attention to themselves, which I think translates into “pretentiousness” in the minds who are simply not fans of poetry (or art films). “What’s the point?” people ask, as though it needs to have a purpose other than existing for its own sake.

All that said, my initial reaction to these thoughts was that there needs to be some kind of balance between utility and aesthetics in order for material, be it film or literature, to be accessible to most people. People tend to shut down when confronted with either extreme. However, I question whether dead center — classicism — is necessarily a good place to be. There is too much danger of mediocrity there. (If you don’t believe me, look at Hollywood.) You find nothing risky, nothing clever in the middle, just realism and formalism in equal measure and it’s all kind of bland. Rather, I am suggesting that accessibility and innovation both occur when formalism incorporates some degree of utility and realism gives some attention to aesthetics.


~ by Shanna Gilkeson on January 18, 2013.

3 Responses to “Utility vs. Aesthetics”

  1. This is such a great way to think about the terms we use for different genres and how they overlap! I really am taken with your point that people are often uncomfortable with too much realism in film, but are most uncomfortable at the other end of the spectrum in literature. I wonder why that might be–though I take your point that the middle ground is the most comfortable place generally for most people. Perhaps it has to do with how we are taught to contemplate these forms: that visual images are now thought to be so much more accessible than words, so that it is easier to handle the “art” film or the experimental in visual images. I wonder if very early filmgoers found the medium to be so confusing that it was as deeply uncomfortable for them as poetry now is for many readers. (Especially an interesting question given that poetry in the 19th century was certainly seen to be democratic and accessible–and routinely taught in schools.) I think, for example, of the horror of many people at the first silent flim, in which a train was shown pulling into a station and many people ducked, feeling terrified that the train was coming right at them… All of this is very thought-provoking.

    • That’s interesting, about the accessibility of 19th century poetry. I wonder, though, if “accessible” is pretty subjective here. A lot of people went to school up to a certain point, but I get the impression that high school and college were for the children of the well-off, who didn’t have to stay home and help work the farm, etc. once they got old enough. I wonder if “accessibility” refers to a more elite group and not what one would consider to have been the “average” person back then?

      • This is a great question about relative notions of accessibility. While it’s true that literacy rates were lower and education was briefer for many people, it is also true that a general facility with metaphor was more widely assumed. The Bible was taken to contain stories that were allegorical or metaphorical in terms of the lessons they taught, and as the primary book from which most working-class people learned to read, it thus provided for an access to symbolism and metaphor that is far less common in an early elementary education today. Children were also asked to memorize long pieces of poetry as part of their early schooling (as soon as they could read), so poetry was, I think, more commonly part of early literacy experiences rather than something that was reserved for more experienced readers.

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