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Old-Fashioned Appreciation

I wondered what people even mean when they say something “took them out of a story.” J.W. Hastings explains what they mean:

Now, saying “X took me out of the story” doesn’t mean that “Until X I thought that the story was real and then all of a sudden I got dumped back into reality”, which is what both Steven and Dave are arguing, but rather that “X broke the mood” or that “X broke the rules”. […] saying “X took me out of the story” isn’t so much about breaking “suspension of disbelief” or puncturing an illusionist surface as it is about an audience member feeling that the art maker has broken the rules of a game they were playing or that the art maker has failed to properly set up or cue a change in these rules.

In fact, I have witnessed people use the phrase to mean, “Until X I thought that the story was real and then all of a sudden I got dumped back into reality.” (Not that I can point to specific examples of people using the phrase with such a connotation, so take my claim with a grain of salt if you don’t have your own anecdotal evidence to back it up.) On the other hand, J.W. is correct in suggesting that I should not have yoked the phrase so securely to the illusionist school of experiencing art implied in the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.” J.W.’s explanation of the phrase probably applies more often than not.

But I think what is underlying what both Steven and Dave are saying is their belief that being truly engaged with a work of art means analyzing and interpreting it. I even get a sense that they feel that an audience has a kind of moral imperative to analyze and interpret a work of art, or that this kind of analysis and interpretation is morally superior to old-fashioned “appreciation” of art works. […] Steven and Dave, of course, aren’t alone. Their kind of analytical criticism is practiced throughout academia. Personally, I think that this almost obsessive focus on analysis and interpretation has led to a whole bunch of “art critics” who don????????t have anything resembling traditional aesthetic sense. By approaching works of art merely as a group of symbols that need to be decoded in order to discover their “meaning”, these critics have cut themselves off from being able to appreciate the beauty of, to take pleasure in, or to be moved by a work of art. In fact, it becomes impossible for them to differentiate between, say, a Willem De Kooning painting and an advertisement for toothpaste. After all, both the painting and the advertisement are equally suitable objects for critical analysis and interpretation.

Ooh. A De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad? In my defense, I’ve never done critical analysis of a toothpaste ad—nor a De Kooning painting, for that matter. A De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad, equally suitable objects for critical analysis? Hardly! (Which is not to say a toothpaste ad isn’t suitable for critical analysis—maybe it is sometimes.)

But I’m not talking about paintings or toothpaste ads, I’m talking about works of narrative art which, more often than not, have large verbal components. So what does constitute “old-fashioned ‘appreciation’” of narrative art, if it doesn’t include interepretation and analysis—however informal and schematic?


  1. David Fiore says:

    So what does constitute ???????old-fashioned ???????appreciation?????????????? of narrative art, if it doesn????????t include interepretation and analysis????????however informal and schematic?

    My question exactly Steven!!!! (it’s somewhere in the middle of that post)


    — 23 November 2004 at 1:19 am (Permalink)

  2. dave intermittent says:


    I’m not certain that J.W. is arguing that analysis has no place; rather, that analysis shouldn’t crowd a purely emotional engagement with the work in question.

    Of course, this begs the question as to how/why a work engages, emotionally, which suggests some analysis might be in order….

    — 23 November 2004 at 4:17 am (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    Hmm, purity. I suppose I don’t believe in purity. I think emotional engagement is entirely mixed up with aesthetic appreciation and understanding. (Understanding which comes from analysis—again, no matter how informal and schematic. I’m not arguing that everybody has some moral obligation, e.g., to write ten-page essays on the philosophical and political implications in The Incredibles.) I’ve just returned home after seeing The Incredibles, and there several lovely moments of joy (only a little adulterated by the heroes’ cavalier attitudes toward killing off bad guys), rising from the interaction of my emotional engagement, taking aesthetic pleasure (in the construction of the narrative as well as the visual and verbal style), and thinking about the thematic threads running through the narrative. It’s very interesting to me that some people seem to want to separate emotion from aesthetic from interpretation, or to avoid some of those responses to texts.

    — 23 November 2004 at 6:41 am (Permalink)

  4. J.W. Hastings says:

    Well then, instead of a De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad, lets say a Krazy Kat page and one of those inserts you get in an airplane showing you how to get out in case of an emergency.

    But, more generally, “old fashioned appreciation” of “narrative art” would seem to include engagement with the story (and the storytelling techniques) on their own terms and for their own sake. That is, engagement with the story without always being concerned what it means. For example, I know that The Shining is, kind of, about the psychology of an abuser and I also know that it’s a riff on a whole tradition of haunted house stories. However, when I’m reading it, I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen next not what does all this mean or what does feminist theory have to say about what Stephen King is doing here. And this isn’t just about suspense. When I read The Magic Mountain I’m more enagaged with exploring all the various characters with their own philosophical p.o.v.s than I am with figuring out what Mann is saying about Europe. This is not to say that Mann isn’t saying something about Europe or that interpretation should never take place, but I think when its the #1 priority it makes old-fashioned engagement impossible. Incidentally, most people have always (and still do) engage with stories in the old-fashioned, non-analytical way (which is one of the reasons Plato had such a problem with poets).

    — 23 November 2004 at 2:29 pm (Permalink)

  5. Steven says:

    OK. I’m not seeing the boundary between ‘engagement’ on one hand and ‘interpretation’ on the other—but I’ve never believed I fit any hypothetical norm w/r/t reading, anyway. I suppose I don’t like to prioritize one over the other.

    Let me know if you think I’m talking crazy talk, of course, but it seems to me that your description of reading The Magic Mountain (which I have not read) involves two different ways of interpreting the text—neither one the whole story, but each satisifying in its own right—more than a contrast between “old-fashioned” engagement and analysis.

    — 23 November 2004 at 3:41 pm (Permalink)

  6. Dave Intermittent says:

    Let me go at the engagement/analysis distinction, from my own likely idiosyncratic perspective….

    Partially, it’s a difference between rational and irrational appreciation of the work. A work that really grabs me by the throat grabs me in ways that I can’t even quite articulate. Analysis is by definition articulation; weighing the work against its discovered themes, implicit or explicit. There is, for me, a pretty clear distinction in these two modes of appreciation.

    Now, a really excellent work I’ll likely both analyze and enjoy. But still; likely not at the same time. When I’m looking at discrete chunks of the work, be they stylistic or symbolic, I’m not engaged with the work as a whole; and I (which may be merely a case of me being weird) find it more difficult to engage emotionally with the work. It’s missing the forest for the trees, as it were. Later, with good work I’ll want to go back and give it a good close read. But I can’t do both at the same time.

    Hopefully this helps. If not, simply chalk it up to different strokes, etc.

    — 23 November 2004 at 4:03 pm (Permalink)

  7. Amy Humrichouser says:


    I am an unergraduate student at Wittenberg University studying philosophical aesthetics. I’m in the process of expanding a paper in which I previously argued that contemporary anti-intentionalist criticism, through the logic of capitalism, has discouraged effective communication, and thus understanding, between divergent narratives by destroying a commonly used language of artistic signs, rooted in art history that can be understood universally between adherents of all language-games. Theorists like Alasdair MacIntrye and Jurgen Habermas cite a lack of real communication and consensus between conflicting narratives in contemporary society as the factor which prevents us from developing a unified societal ethical system to which we can all agree from emerging. Thus, I would side with your idea that not interpreting a work or interpreting the work without being faithful to the facts of the piece is in some sense unethical because it is resisting communication between narratives.
    I was wondering who you were since you seem to publish on this subject or if you could point me more in the way of counterarguments to my thesis. Thanks!!

    — 2 March 2005 at 11:48 pm (Permalink)

  8. Steven says:

    I’m afraid I can’t help you—I’m mostly just some guy who writes on his blog. I’ve definitely never published other than on this blog.

    Your argument sounds interesting, but I’m suspicious of the idea of universally understood signs. That universalism, along with the utopian idea of a “unified societal ethical system,” seem like a likely place to begin a counterargument, although I don’t really have enough information to consider possible counterarguments.

    — 4 March 2005 at 4:36 pm (Permalink)