We all know that words like literature and poetry are inadequate. They’re either too vague or too prescriptive. Either anything can be called literature, or only those works that fit the bounds of some narrow definition can be called literature.
Great art doesn’t just happen. It isn’t just laid down. It doesn’t just appear when or because an artist claims to have produced it. Whatever the inadequacies of the word literature, it has to keep faith with craft, it seems to me. As in, years and years of practice and study within an ever-changing but ever-present set of disciplinary constraints we label with generic terms such as poetry, literature, music, folk music and others.
As shifty as these constraints may be, and as rich the blending of artistic forms throughout media these days, if we abandon them, and the imperatives of craft they imply, we’ve dumbed ourselves down considerably. The problem for me with the Swedish Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan is that it participates in—and will no doubt propel—a retreat from these disciplinary imperatives of art.
What are we afraid of—reading a poem? Engaging with a work of literature? Paying the price to develop and recognize the craft at the base of any great art?
On Thursday night in Regina I heard an English Studies academic present a series of monologues written in the voice of a painter and his subjects. On Friday I heard an MFA visual artist’s statement about his own work that consisted of a slide show of pop-cultural images and a streetwise voice-over. Both of these presentations seemed lazy, self-satisfied. Unwilling to go deeper.
Same with the Swedish Academy.