The Great Debate

By Julie. H. Fraser.


Copyright 1998 Julie. H. Fraser.

It doesn't seem to matter what media I am listening to these days, the great debate of what is good art. what is good literature and what is good broadcasting seems to be everywhere. The only medium that seems to have been left out of this debate is radio - except by the BBC's Radio 4. I do not seem to be able to locate a medium without being confronted with - often heated - discussion of whether one is superior to the other and what constitutes a quality product.

Art is probably the most challenging subject as it not only raises the question of what is good or bad art, it also poses the more fundamental question of what 'art' is in itself, a controversial entity. The question of what art actually is will never be settled as it is - no matter how much it is denied - a subjective area.

There are those who believed that art has a social or political function, that it has a statement to make and that, that is what defines art. There are others who believe that art has an aesthetic function and those who believe that art can be or is both. I was discussing this very matter with a friend recently and she raised the point that once an artistic medium has become politically passe, it then becomes a craft. Each generation and each artistic medium she argued, has a language, a set of political connotations which are not always understood when they first appear. This accounts for the initial lack of likeing and understanding when a new, radical form of art appears ( such as Henry Moor's sculpture ). The immediate generation usually finds it difficult to relate to until it is explained and put into its social context. As we grow to understand the new language it becomes part of accepted art history. We may even grow to like it. She also argued that art forms outgrow their usefulness: what, she asked, can painting tell us now that hasn't already been said? Has painting become a redundant art form, and if it has, why keep painting ? When an art form does become just another part of the establishment, the new generation of radicals need to find a new antagonistic way to express their political beliefs and perceptions.

And that is really what it comes down to - perception. The source of our perceptions however seems to be debatable. It can ( and has been ) argued that we are products of our environment and are not, therefore, as in control of our identities as we believe we are. Though I agree with this to some extent, I refused to believe that we have no originality at all, that all our likes and dislikes, are the product of someone or something else. Of course, we relate to things within the context of our lives but just because a certain sect or being has their opinion, it does not mean that I will change my opinion to agree with theirs. It is true that they can make me understand the language of the artwork better and make me appreciate and see things that I may not have seen before, but I am still not necessarily going to grow to like the piece.

There are, as their always has been, the art circle elite who believe that there opinions and conclusions are superior to those of the average person. These elite spread across all generations and all locations, from the art critic in the gallery to the art groupie in the cafe bar. It does seem however, that art snobbery and intolerance is a particularly well established phenomena. Whether it is the artwork in the Tate Gallery in London or the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, there are those who believe that this domain of art is beyond the comprehension of the general public. The fact that these are just two of the galleries in Britain that do not charge an entrance fee is testament to the more grounded view than art is for everyone and not just the elite.

It is a great shame then that the length of time that art snobbery has existed has already alienated the majority of the general public who have either become uninterested or too terrified to set foot in a gallery. It is a good thing then, I feel, that art is slowly coming out of the galleries and into the streets were everyone can see it, watch it, and even interact with it. Here, it can integrate with the undervalued street arts, such as the performance,computer and graffiti arts. We can now see sculptures of anything from mundane, everyday items to the highly unusual and crafted from all kinds of materials. Whether or not we like these works of art is, to a degree, irrelevant. For every ten people that dislike a piece, there will be one or two that do admire it. In time ,as our understanding of the piece develops we may grow to like it, or at least, appreciate it. At last we are being given that option. As we are not going to the galleries, the galleries are coming to us.

As the popularity of other media formats, such as television and computers, continue to increase, the survival of the written word continues to be debated. Just as art is coming into the streets, literature has been on our London Underground tube network for some time. National Poetry Day has also been attempting to gain newer and younger audiences for poetry - arguably the most elite form of literature.

But again, the question of what is good literature can not be answered until the question of what the purpose of literature is has been examined. Why do we read? Obviously, there are several different forms of literature, from historical commentary to drama to horror fiction. The main reasons for literary pursuit seem to be escapism, entertainment and social or political commentary. However, even here, the boundaries are not as distinct as they may seem: a novel can be historically accurate or may set out to educate us on current affairs, and to a history buff a Simon Schama book can be as exciting as a crime novel.

There are so many different factors that constitute a novel - such as convincing characters, stylish prose and accurate content - that they would need another article and another study. Literature, like art, is notoriously impossible to define as 'good' or 'bad'. And just as there is pretentiousness within the art circles, there is just as much within the literary world. Mary Swann, a novel written a few years ago by the now popular author Carol Shields, is a satire upon the egoistic art of biography writing.

Biography / autobiography are one of the largest selling genre - why ? Auto biography sets out to inform us of the facts about a person's life and if you have seen the biography sections in book shops lately, our thirst seems to be for the common as well as the famous folk's life stories. Surely though our common sense warns us that not all that is set out amongst the pages of a biography are solid truths ? Whether the story is being told by a complete stranger or the subject themselves, surely we realise that everything we experience is to some degree silted by our own subjectivity ?

I was listening to a radio programme recently which was discussing the literary worth of the best selling Bridget Jone's diary, which is the culmination of a column by Helen Fielding. Various women were asked there opinions of the book which they were comparing with the television series Ally McBeal, both being fictitious accounts of the lives of two thirty something women struggling with contemporary lifestyles. There was much talk of feminism, literary styles, social validity and so on. The programme I thought concluded on a rather open-ended but negative note about how the portrayal of today's women was lacking in feminist girlpowre. These discussions are stimulating and always add to he interest of the subject but I felt as if the point had been missed somewhere along the debating line. Isn't Bridget Jone's diary ment to be fun? I am not saying that it does not have valid comments to make about women, society, men and families but at the end of the day, it is a comic romp through a fictitious character's year and it is good entertainment. Helen Fielding I am sure is not claiming Bridget Jones to be Tom Jones and she is not claiming to be Henry Fielding.

The public's appetite for insight into the lives of others has also raised the question of quality with regard to television. It seems that our lives are so dull and unforefilling that we crave docudramas ( as they have come to be known ) about the lives of anything from traffic wardens to veterinarians and even warring neighbours. The mass of these ( conveniently cheap ) programmes has critics up in arms, ranting on about "quality" programming and the funding of television. At this year's Edinburgh Festival there was a public debate about the future of British television and the consequences of multi-channel broadcasting.

Although television is the most popular and easily accessible media, it can not escape that unrelating question: what is good TV ? Again, the answer is not simple. Television is many things to many people and during our lifetime, we will watch it for many and varied reasons. As with literature, we will watch television for escapism and entertainment just as we will for current affairs. The idiosyncrasy of television is the fact that it is just so much easier to watch it than it is to read a text. No one knows whether it will get worse or get better when we have a choice of over a hundred channels to choose from. Like art, the broadcasting industry must adapt or die - times and society are changing, moving on, and so must our sources of knowledge and entertainment.

At the end of the day, who is to say if something is good or bad ? There is no one group who can decide for a nation or a populace what is good television, what is bad literature or what is or isn't art. It is a sign of our competitive and materialistic society that we have to judge one thing to be more worthy than another, one thing superior to another. Why can we not just accept that our world is made up of many different cultures and individuals, all of whom will have there own interests and standards. What has validity to one of us doesn't have to have value for all of us. Without this personality and variety society would be a very dull place indeed.

Julie. H. Fraser.

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