How do we judge literary value and artistic value?


Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. The author is a principal organizer for a Brisbane, Australia, discussion group whose members come from diverse backgrounds, and which deals with an eclectic collection of topics. Where a topic is of broad general interest I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.












 1.  Introduction

Art emerges from the hand of the creator, and the mind of the beholder. Art as discussed in this article is taken very broadly. The broad meaning can encompass not merely painting and sculpture, but literature, music, dance, film, syntheses made possible by electronic technology, and so on. It can be a little confusing, at least in English, as to how all of these enterprises might be collected under a single heading. We do have an expression in English though about any activity which requires mysterious but sophisticated human abilities: “It is more art than science”. The suggestion is that some human activities depend upon a dynamic synthesis of skills, experience and judgement which is too complex to analyse, yet which yields outcomes of high quality. “More art than science” certainly underlies our understanding of what artistic creators have been able to achieve.

When it comes to particular judgements however, art, whatever its form, has no single criterion of interpretation. Depending upon the time and the place, the circumstance and the human actors involved, the status of art (or its rejection) is resolved through a multitude of prisms. Here are some, but not all, of contexts for considering art and literature:

§  the skill of the creator

§  the motivation of the creator

§  the uniqueness of the creation

§  originality – a singular synthesis of perception and experience

§  the aesthetic unity and proportion of simple and complex creations

§  the narrative or perceptual impact of the creation

§  the resonance the creation achieves in other minds

§  the role of creation in the tapestry of human myth

§  the durability of the creation’s reputation

§  the status of the creation as a cultural marker

§  the creation as a marketable artefact

§  the creation as a social class marker

§  the creation as a tool of projection for other agendas

§ do humans have some inherent capacity for appreciating literature and art generally?

§ judging literary and artistic value – can it be done?


2. The Skill of the Creator


Where artistic or literary worth is in contention, the technical skill of the creator is usually a necessary but not sufficient condition for such worth to be  accepted. The margin distinguishing technical skill from other kinds of skill (e.g. psychological manipulation) is often blurred. By technical skill here I am referring (roughly) to those abilities required of all members of a craft. For example, novelists, journalists, technical writers, report writers and personal letter writers may all be perfectly competent scribes, yet few will be recognized as literary masters.

There may be exceptions to the general assumption of high technical skill. For example, cave paintings or artefacts from antiquity might or might not have represented the highest technical mastery of their age, yet acquire great value for contemporary connoisseurs. Some artistic or written work by children might be powerfully effective partly as a result of precocious insight shining through an obviously limited technical ability. Myth in its nature has no single author (see the discussion on myth to follow), yet may be beloved by a whole culture. Some self-proclaimed modern artists might deny technical skill itself as any part of their creation. Some technologically assisted creation, such as photography, might almost eliminate a need for special technical skill on the part of the creator.  

In spite of the preceding caveats, we generally expect that art and literature which is widely recognized for exceptional worth will also embody an exceptional level of technical skill by the creator. In fact, we expect this in all fields of human activity, whether it be sport or industry or research, and so on. By the same token, we recognize that the technically perfect only occasionally achieves greatness. Again, this is a general observation. For example, I have worked amongst automotive mechanics, where extremely tight tolerances of engineering manufacture are absolutely required. Yet usually those mechanics will share a consensus that some particular engine has qualities of design and function which they find quite beautiful (.. yes, this is incomprehensible to technophobes!).


3. The Motivation of the Creator


Motivation is a slippery concept. Humans typically have complex motivations, and when asked their attempts to articulate motivation are often inadequate. We might, for example, hate a work environment but like the actual job and be motivated to do it well, even though the monetary reward is poor.

Primary motivations may be money, or fame, or status, curiosity, or a sense of duty, or a dozen other things. Most literary and artistic activity is poorly rewarded, yet there can be extravagant rewards for a few, not necessarily the most worthy by other criteria. A Nobel Prize certainly helps with marketing, yet few winners of the literary award are millionaires. Wealth, or even fame, for literary and artistic creators is often accidental when it does occur. As with the lottery, those few successes might be enough to fuel the dream and succour motivation.

Those artists or authors who do pitch successfully to a mass audience might be denigrated in more exclusive cultural circles (e.g. academia) for prostituting their gifts regardless of other intrinsic qualities. This then becomes an almost unresolvable choice of values between sub-cultures. Sometimes history overcomes these debates. For example, Charles Dickens is now an undisputed member of the English academic literary canon, regardless of his origins in Grub Street journalism. In the medium of film, very large and risky investments of money are usually required, so a “great” director has, almost by definition, somehow managed to juggle mass audience appeal without excessively compromising a unique artistic production.

In spite of the many conflicting motivations which might drive a creator at the margins, respect does accrue to the individual who is centrally inspired (or even obsessed) by the intrinsic satisfaction which comes from the act of creation itself. It is felt by the wider community that a genuine artist would seek to practice and master his or her art however discouraging the surrounding environment. Indeed, given the paltry rewards generally available to creative writers and artists, this public assumption seems to have some justification. If accountants or process workers were persecuted social groups, there might be few accountants or process workers. Although creative writers and artists have often been persecuted they have never vanished. (I must say personally though, as an entirely unrecognized occasional and probably bad poet who only does it for personal satisfaction, a throwaway word of praise here and there from strangers over the years has been extremely satisfying!).


4. The Uniqueness of the Creation


A modern motor car is an extraordinary artefact, comprised of some 3,000 perfectly interlocking and interacting parts, designed and manufactured with the utmost care by professionals at the top of their field. The enthusiasts for various models of cars are legion, yet most would be puzzled by any claim to place such vehicles in a gallery alongside the unique creations of recognized artists. Cars are mass produced items, so that no matter how perfect, they somehow lack the cachet of being only one of a kind. In some sense, mass production might make them too perfect, almost inhuman. After all, there remains a difference between a piano sonata executed by commands from a digital computer and the same sonata performed by a gifted pianist.

Although art (taken broadly) is a unique creation by an artist, or sometimes a team (as in film),  uniqueness, as with skill, is not enough to make it art. A building collapsed by an earthquake may be entirely unique in its form, yet rarely seen as art. Further, a paradox of art is that once it is conceived and executed by the artist it may often be reproduced endlessly by others and even improved upon. I recalled looking upon the excavated Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China. Each soldier was carved as an individual, and the whole constituted a remarkable artistic achievement for its time. However, some of the replicas sold by vendors at the gates of the museum seemed to be superior to the originals both in execution and materials. Some of the endless reproductions of classical paintings – I don’t mean mere photographs – have been achieved with such skill that they might eclipse the original. Even in literature we now have the phenomenon of fan fiction, extending and developing original novels. Most fan fiction is rather amateur, but some achieves great professional polish. Again, it is not inconceivable that some fan fiction could outshine the original author.  

In the world of art marketing, the concept of unique creation is often blurred with rarity. The few surviving artefacts from an era, while well done, might not have been the supreme artistic creations of that era, yet they acquire great value through rarity, and are sometimes assigned an exaggerated lustre as “unique and priceless works”. Of course, great artistic achievement is possible in any era, even if its survival is accidental. Geoffrey Chaucer’s England at the end of the 14th Century was a small and unimportant country of a few million people, most of them illiterate, yet as a literary achievement his Canterbury Tales can stand tall in any company.


5. Originality – a singular synthesis of perception and experience


Sometimes extraordinary events overtake ordinary people. Their later accounts of those events rarely become recognized literature. Daily life, for most people, is, well, very ordinary. Their anecdotes to friends tend to be highly predictable, and for the most part their friends find the predictability comforting. The artist, the author, finds extraordinary things in the ordinary. Many people find this discomforting.

A few years ago I tried to put my finger on the distinguishing mark of artistic originality (May 1998). The next couple of paragraphs quote directly from that:

Every writer creates a pattern from disproportions. The proportionate is that checkerboard of nights and days within which our lives are governed, the routine of sleep, how you part your hair, when you check for your mail, the trips to the shop that you make when bread or vegetables run out, the people you encounter at the bus stop, what you say to the lady you see on Thursdays. Words, though, in their nature are disproportionate against the proportion of experience. This note itself is a caricature.

So how does a writer differ from the language makers all around him, the cacophony of chatterers? By writing a symphony. The disproportions of our conversation are artless, for where there are patterns they are unconscious, and where there is significance, it is selfish. The writer is able to create patterns from disproportion, patterns which create newly defined significance, a fresh reality. He marshals the trivia of random occurrence into an enterprise with purpose and direction, just as a musician marshals noise into music.

Well, such a proposal is fine as a brave statement of ideals. Not all original creation has great artistic worth, even to its originator. In the actual world, the point at which writing becomes literature, or sketching becomes art, seems to be a very fluid judgement. We can no longer point to formal publishing, for example, as a clear marker of superior writing. In 2012 the number of blogs on the Internet surpassed 200 million. Housewives apparently form the largest contingent of blog writers, and no doubt a percentage of them are gifted creators, though invisible to all but a small circle of admirers. With numbers like that we will simply never know. It seems then that the importance of originality to literary or artistic worth is another one of those criteria to be evaluated in a particular time and place, a social context. It may (usually) be a necessary condition, but is certainly not sufficient for artistic worth. This is especially so where the concept of a literary canon of “great works” has become rather irrelevant (more about this in another section).  


6. The aesthetic unity and proportion of simple and complex  creations


Although aesthetic preferences vary amongst cultures, and also over time, it seems that human beings are highly sensitive to perceptions of unity or coherence, to balance and to proportion. Ideals of the human person invariably focus on these qualities, for physicality, behaviour and thinking. Sexual selection may by the biological source of such preferences, but humans sublimate aspects of sexuality to every facet of their cultures. The concept of the golden mean may be universal. In any case, this sort of thing plays a major part in our evaluation of artistically creative worth. Even the poetry or novel or painting which violates standard aesthetic perceptions derive their daring from contrast with those very standards. 

Projecting an impression of aesthetic unity and proportion in an artistic creation may be relatively simple or impressively complex. In general, the simpler that projection, the wider the available audience. The range is consciously exploited in music. A national anthem must be both available and moving to all minds. Also, the relative simplicity of much pop music is a commercial asset, spun in a web of fashion. An orchestral work as complex and initially jarring as Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring will probably never be accessible to a majority of the population, but has a greater chance of being judged (by those who consider themselves qualified to judge) as an artistic triumph compared to, say, God Save the Queen or The Marsellaise.

Thus complexity which is validated by successfully projecting an aesthetic of unity and proportion seems to play an important part in our judgements of literary and artistic worth. Note that it is artfully managed complexity which we value, not the turgid complexity of the small print in an insurance contract. In fact the deceptively simple language of, say, a novel by John Steinbeck may conceal great complexity of purpose and design. Similarly some exceptional children’s classics, while written on one level for the abilities of their young readers, might also have other levels of more subtle appeal for adults (e.g. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland).  


7. The narrative or perceptual impact of the creation


Up to this point the essay has paid primary attention to the creators of artistic things and some intrinsic properties of their creations. It is arguable however that while art and artists may sometimes claim autonomy, artistic worth implies the judgement of an audience (which may of course be displaced in time). Therefore to understand the meaning of ‘artistic worth’ we must understand at least some general qualities of those who are expected to judge.

A successful writer or an artist rarely addresses posterity, except indirectly through credible experience.  In fact one of the markers of artistic attraction, it seems to me, is the ability of the artist to explicitly address “hot button” qualities in a known audience. Where those qualities are universal, the creation may speak across eras and cultures, but that is almost accidental. I once spent a couple of years as the writings editor for a community website for expatriates in South Korea, and thus became the recipient of much earnest but appalling poetry. This extract from an article I wrote about that experience tries to identify where these wannabe poets failed in their bid for fame (Thor May 2003):

Hi S,

I have your latest poem. I will publish it if you insist. Heck, we publish almost anything ;-) . You asked for constructive criticism. O’rright. One of the nice things about Irish culture (as opposed to, say Korean culture) is that you can put it in someone’s face and still talk to them later.

Like you I can’t help writing poetry, and the sort of stuff you are doing gives me echoes of my own misspent youth (not that I’ve graduated to any finer plane). One thing I have learned is that most of the millions of unread poems in the world deserve their lousy reputation. They were desperately significant for the people who wrote them, but nobody else is interested. There is a whole category of Internet money scams trading on the vulnerability of these poor critters with fake ‘poetry competitions’.

Why is this stuff junk? 1) one because most of the poems are utterly self-absorbed; 2) the verse fraudulently trades in abstract concepts and the code words of ‘universal truths’ while the sub-text screams ME ME ME..

Now for a moment let’s get a bit abstract and boring (like we say poetry shouldn’t be)…

Most great poetry (..and great art generally) has something specific to say about a real tree, or a real man, or a real dog in a real place. Its power is in vibrantly evoking that situation in living sounds and colours and smells. Insight comes from emotion, and emotion comes from sensation. It is no good talking about the emotion and expecting readers to assume the sensation.

Emotion of a certain kind can also come from the ‘aha’ sensation of cogent logical argument which clicks, but that is not normally the territory of poetry.

Any universal truths and epiphanies which poetry readers arrive at will emerge from their *own* evoked emotions, not from the emotions that you tell them they should have.

If you can trick people into simulating some mix of sensations, and those sensations lead to emotion, then insight, well they will think you wonderfully clever. If you talk about ‘passion’s price’ and ‘sex’s greed’ or some vaguely biblical reference to ‘milk and honey’, then they’ll think you a crashing bore…

Yeah but, you say, if I put my broken soul in plastic wrap, stuff it back in the freezer, what’s there left to talk about with passion? Well, there are your toe nails, your butt and your crooked nose … but probably more interesting to everyone except you, there’s the tic on the face of that lady selling tteokbokgi on the corner.

You still want to be profound? OK, but this is heavy pudding. Take small bites. Cartoonists probably have a lot to teach wannabe poets. Your average syndicated cartoon, the Peanuts and the Blondies, do not give sermons. They scoop out tiny, wry snippets of sharp observation, and attach them to simple, memorable characters with a smile. My guess is that they have done more to educate, amuse and civilize the unwashed masses than all the turgid verse ever written.

This letter to the hapless poet, S, was a little unfair. Like most of us, I too have been guilty of projecting the personal into the universal (e.g. see my poem “Times Sixty on Frosty Gyemyeongsan”, Thor May 2006. Gyemyeongsan is a mountain in Korea where I was living). Well, editors are allowed a bit of hypocrisy, and the central plea for concrete imagery remains valid.

Formats like novels and films by nature of their length and complexity do have a licence to create fictional worlds with fantastic qualities, improbable creatures, and so on. Yet the very fact that hobbits, for example, are not met every day by readers means that to be taken seriously nothing can be assumed about them. Hobbits must be explained through explicit analogy in a way which readers understand well and can visualize. Once identified, a hobbit must be as consistent to his world as any bank clerk catching the 8am bus to the city.

The skill and subtlety of the writer in maintaining such a complex imaginary world will play a part in our evaluation of the artistic worth of the creation. As with all criteria of artistic worth however, neither credible realism nor consistent fantasy is sufficient in itself for us to arrive at a judgement of high artistic worth. Genres themselves, while understood and sought out by enthusiasts, can also become extended clichés. The ‘pot boiler’, whether Mills & Boone romance, historical fiction, crime thriller or science fiction is financial sustenance for commercial publishing companies but only sometimes quality literature.


8. The resonance the creation achieves in other minds


This category extends directly from section 6, but considers the individual reader or viewer or listener more specifically.

Some of the literature which influenced me most deeply was encountered in free moments as a 19 year old, working night shift in a dockyard. On the other hand I abandoned the university study of literature under a torrent of superficially lectured “great works” which were ruining my appreciation of reading for pleasure. The genuine impact which any artistic creation has on us depends crucially upon our own state of mind. For this reason, regardless of the societal consensus about the artistic value of a creation, it is worthless to us if we are not in a frame of mind or state of maturity to receive it.

One of the tragedies of mass education in schools and universities is that it bulk feeds students “knowledge”, including cultural experiences, on the assumption that all are ready, prepared and willing to take it in. The outcome is that large numbers of individuals are either permanently alienated from much exceptional creative work, or enter defensively into a permanent state of hypocrisy, going through the motions with an elaborate repertoire of adjectives while assuming that everyone else secretly also finds the whole thing a crashing bore. They may even build a career from going through the motions.

My personal perception is that a great deal of what goes on in universities, for example, is contaminated by elaborate and hypocritical role playing which bets on ‘winners’ in the absence of genuine insight. This can easily lead to conspiracies of mutual but fraudulent congratulation. Sometimes the whole enterprise develops a perverted sense of creative worth. Thus the recent unmasking as a plagiarist of Queensland poet and literary festival organizer, Graham Nunn (Bochenski 2013 and Wyndham 2013) is just a quick peek under the sheets illustrating (I believe) something quite widespread.


9. The role of creation in the tapestry of human myth


Every culture has a repertoire of myth which plays a large part in defining its core values. I use the word ‘myth’ here NOT in its colloquial usage of meaning “a common belief which should not be believed”. Rather myth here refers to a body of stories and sometimes oral poetry which is passed across generations. In literate cultures it may be collected and identified under the name of some author, such as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, or the Icelandic Sagas. Occasionally they are assembled and elaborated in the name of a religion, as with the Christian Bible. In purely oral cultures these stories are simply transferred by recitation, and it is in oral form that their most elemental qualities are found.

Myths have intriguing properties. They are always recognized as part of a culture’s literary canon, a common source of reference in daily life as well as in other writings. The origins of myths are usually indefinite historically, though they sometimes claim an unverifiable precision such as the origin of the world. Often they hark back to an earlier, founding age where the defining qualities, fears and hope of the culture were first identified. Above all myths, like language itself, are stripped of individuality. They have no single authors, although in the written form some compiler may claim authorship and attempt to impose a style. Whatever qualities and patterns myths share are common to all human beings. Some researchers like Claude Levi Strauss, recognizing the universal qualities of myth, have seen the study of their structure as a doorway into the organization of the human mind itself.

Critics may argue about the artistic value of creations by known authors, and even arrive at some professional consensus within their literary circle. We could still say that their judgements are essentially subjective, and indeed each generation of critics seems to produce a different consensus. Myth is above and beyond critics. We may also express a personal opinion about the value of a myth to us, but it can only be personal. Myths have been adopted, mostly without question, by most participants in entire cultures. Myths have survived because they resonate with nearly all the members of those cultures, and validate their common identity. Myths then are a special kind of literature, a substrate upon which other creations may be built. Of course, each age and subculture has other substrates of understanding, some as ephemeral as the season’s fashion, some like the works of England’s William Shakespeare trying to claim a more durable place in our common understanding.



10. The durability of the creation’s reputation


There are some kinds of artistic creation which are designed to be ephemeral. The choreography of an opera or an Olympic games ceremony might live on in urban legend for a while, but really the frisson of the achievement is that it is a singular achievement at a moment in time. This is true of performance arts in general.

I have just discussed the unique durability of myth, and noted the persistence of some literary creations like the work of William Shakespeare. There is a sense in which durability may be associated with literary and artistic worth. We may feel that the worthless may soon be abandoned, and the worthy preserved. That is certainly the hope or assumption upon which institutions like universities have promoted the notion of a literary canon, or supreme works of art. However the attachment of durability to artistic worth might be hard to defend. It is not that those works chosen to represent the canon are not worthy, or even supremely excellent. They are, and they deserved to be recognized.

However, there are now more human beings walking this planet than have existed from the combined totals of all previous generations. Amongst those who are now alive there are more who are educated, and have the opportunity and technology to express creativity than in all of prior histories. This means that not only is there more junk assaulting our senses than ever before, but for those with the time and skills to look, there are more hidden works of genius created daily than any individual can ever take account of. I mentioned 200 million blogs. That is merely one medium amongst many. Even the established authors of best sellers are rapidly crowded out as the publishing cycle spins ever faster (McCrum 2014). Our multitude creates both opportunity and tragedy. Opportunity to create, and a tragedy of anonymity. Shakespeare could mightily impress a few million Englishmen, and certainly deserved the praise. Today’s Shakespeares will mostly never be known. Heaven knows, my own talent is faint and fleeting, yet like the legion of truly gifted unknown creators out there, when I pass on and my Internet subscription expires, my scribbles will float around as space junk for a while then fade into the ether forever.

There was a time when some could credibly claim to be educated in the literary canon of their cultures (naïve academics and snobs are still prone to this). Such a concept of a literary canon no longer seems defensible, except as a property of some self-defined social club. Perhaps the concept has always been foolish. I recall that in the 1960s a supercilious literature tutor asked if I considered myself to be an educated man. I bit my lip, being a callow 20s something, then immediately wished that I’d asked if she knew how to tune the dual barrel carburettor on my motor bike.


11. The status of the creation as a cultural marker


Although I have expressed doubts about the usefulness of promoting a formal  literary canon, there is no doubt that certain artefacts, literary creations, or even films receive wide recognition as cultural icons in particular countries, and a few pan-nationally. For example, local antiques – good, bad and indifferent – are forbidden for export from many countries. They are seen as part of the cultural heritage and may be extravagantly praised.

Literary creations from earlier centuries, like antiques, may similarly achieve a veneration which would never be considered in a contemporary work of similar quality. This is especially so where earlier literary works were scarce. Some 3rd World countries with relatively new literary traditions have produced authors of world standard, but I have also seen examples where a 3rd World university, scratching for local heroes, will lionize some rather dubious candidates. It is a natural human reaction, also seen sometimes in the literature of certain social, ethnic or other minority groups. Something is better than nothing in the shop window, and at least creates a starting point for later achievements. For this kind of psychology, artistic creation is no different from sport, business enterprise, or even military adventurism. For similar reasons, in my own field, linguistics, it is probably a smart career move to write the grammar of a language with ten surviving speakers, as opposed to English.

Latecomers to the literature of a major language like English face overwhelming odds against attaining iconic cultural status. There is not only the weight of a vast preceding literary output to surpass, but also entrenched expectations from readers about genre, and a vast industry of critics vocationally wedded to one academic regime or another.


12. The creation as a marketable artefact


Like everyone else, artists, writers, musicians and creative types generally must eat. Historically the general run of these folk have needed to keep their day jobs as well. That at least yields a certain degree of creative licence, although self-indulgence itself is rarely conducive to great art. In the end there is always a discipline of catering to other tastes beyond the creator’s own. If he is exceptional the creator may lead others to see what was not previously conceived of, but this path to awakening other minds is always fraught. When medieval artists and writers depended upon patrons, their work had to be filtered through the mental and moral limitations of those persons. Nowadays the nay-sayers are more likely to be corporate committees and accountants.

Where financial reward or general public acclaim is sought for a piece of writing, the commercial publishing industry must be placated. Publishing is a high risk financial venture with a horrendous level of marketing failure. To break even from a modest but professionally edited publication, a publisher might have to sell, say, 3000 copies. Under these conditions, iron rules of conventional marketing wisdom come into play. Reputation and brand are at a premium. A known and loved author is bankable. An outsider has to sell something more than competent writing. Thus, the clichés of sex and violence, done according to cultural expectations, are the shortest route to commercial success in the minds of publishing executives and film producers.  E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, a recent entrant employing this formula, has sold 100 million copies regardless of apparently very modest literary competence. Meanwhile writers of greater literary sophistication have to wait for a Nobel Prize to boost their sales and reputation for a season before sinking into the obscurity literature department reading lists.

In the commercial world, the qualities of insight through which a great writer may change the lives of some readers take second place to mass marketing hooks of crude emotion, as do markers of a master craftsman such as plot and character development. That is, such qualities are still to be found, but they have to be shoe-horned around the marketing demands of a publishing sponsor. What is true of novels is even more true of cinema, where the initial financial investment can run into millions of dollars. Centuries ago Western literature was infused with religious iconography. More recently, over time the commercial imperative has shaped much of the literature and visual media, and hence the wider culture into other norms. It will be interesting to see if electronic book publishing (where “out of print” is unknown) and now burgeoning self-publishing eventually reshape, once again the landscape of what is generally expected and available in literature.


13. The creation as a social class marker


Just as no artistic creation ever comes to life in a cultural vacuum, all human cultures subdivide themselves into a plethora of sub-cultures. In fact, many people role switch between a variety of sub-cultures. Sub-cultures may be defined by religion, or employment, or education, or location, or interests, or fashion, or age, or ethnicity, or even self-identified levels of sophistication and intelligence.

Artistic creation of one kind or another finds a niche in all of these chameleon social identities. It can scarcely be surprising then that notions of literary and artistic worth only sometimes transcend the particular social group where an artistic creation has its origin. Just as with language use, art, music and literature can themselves be defiant badges to mark off cultural territories. That which is denigrated in one domain will be venerated in another. More or less objective qualities, when they can be found, will be selectively marshalled to subjective preferences, and the arguments amongst aficionados may be fierce. Whether it is street kids dissing a rap routine, or solemn professors shredding a novel, the process (and self-importance) is pretty much the same. Out of this stew one performance or one novel will be declared supreme by group consensus. In the worlds of science and social science (also awash with comparable psychologies) it is called confirmation bias. For the lucky writer or artist or musician, their local masterpiece may make it into a text book or school curriculum and guarantee them a year or two of fame.



14. The creation as a tool of projection for other agendas


Most writing is not done with the aim of creating something of literary value. Literary value may be a by-product, but overwhelmingly the aims of writing are to archive information, to inform, to propagandize, or to generate sales. Not surprisingly, we see most of this stuff either as ephemera (the daily newspaper), or regulation hieroglyphics which hardly anyone is ever expected to read.   

When writing is the handmaiden of other agendas, it tends to gravitate to formalism. Much writing is written according strict formulae which almost preclude imagination or attractive style. So-called technical writing is a high priced and awful example. However, where the pitch is to the widest possible audience, rather formulaic construction is also the rule, together with careful sub-editing to cater for readers of more limited ability or intelligence. In this case, the end game is usually to generate sales. Actual content tends to be predictable. In the 1960s, working for a mass circulation tabloid newspaper, I recall that the demand was to “aim for a reading age of 11 years” (average literacy in the general population declines after 14 years of age). The Reader’s Digest process of reducing famous literature to compressed and simplified summaries also falls into this tradition.

Writing by strict rules does not necessarily preclude literary worth and originality. Sonnets and haiku are rigidly controlled formats. Something similar can be found historically in music and art, both of which have also frequently been commissioned for religious purposes. Similarly propaganda creations in the spirit of heroic Communist realism may have left themselves open to satire from the ideologically opposed, but did not have to be inherently artistic trash. Within artistic creation, as in life, our most exuberant playgrounds for frolicking are often found within the safe bounds of delimited freedoms.   


15. Do Humans have some inherent capacity for appreciating literature and art generally?


The search in all social sciences is for underlying patterns which are attributable to whole societies, or even more interestingly to all human beings. Success in establishing such patterns in various disciplines has been elusive. Suggestive patterns are easy to find. If we adopt the standards of so-called hard sciences for social sciences, then pinning down clear patterns from inherited or environmental sources, or some mixture of developmental inputs, then bullet-proof scientific certainty has usually been just too hard to achieve. It is not that social science researchers are idiots. The variables are just too many and too complex to control in anything which looks like a solid experimental design. [Of course attempts at such ‘scienficism’ have been manifold, and the claims many and bold – enough to sustain countless careers].

My own core interest is cognitive linguistics (though I mostly haven’t made a living at it). From the beginning modern research linguists (i.e. not simply people who speak multiple languages) have sought to find patterns in human languages which might reveal deeper truths about the way human brains work. Since the publication of Noam Chomsky’s seminal thesis, Syntactic Structures, in 1957 large numbers of linguists have been confident that they are on a scientific track to cracking the underlying code of human thinking.

If these research linguists were indeed correct, then presumably we might also be on the threshold of major insights, even into processes as slippery as value judgements about literary and artistic achievement. For what it is worth, I  began in this research tradition, and eventually walked away from two PhD theses based on Chomskyan-type models. I became convinced that such models could not, in principle, account for the way human brains process information and create language. As templates the models were simply too crude to usefully predict outcomes, although even as poor templates they did show up many interesting regularities within and across natural languages.

I have digressed a little on matter of linguistic patterning since it at least suggests the possibility that there may be properties which all human minds share, not only when they make language, but also when they make judgements. In exploring the question of judgement, psychologists have not been any more successful that linguists in pinning outcomes down to anything approaching the certainty of, say, elementary chemical reactions like combining oxygen and hydrogen to get H2O. However, relevant to this essay, they have suggested a number of common features in human processes of perception, and the way those perceptions seem to be processed. If these features are indeed shared by all humans, then we might expect them to influence the judgements we make in common ways. Obviously individual judgements have inputs from a multitude of sources, and obviously our individual judgements vary, yet taken across whole populations the influence of common perceptual settings might be expected to show up in social patterning. I will not go into the contributing literature from research psychology here. That would take this discussion too far afield. However, in a private communication, a friend has noted some points about perceptual and cognitive patterning in a colloquial way. It may be useful to quote him here:

“I think humans share a common ability to recognize patterns that are pleasing to the eye, ear and mind (i.e. beauty), and a common ability to recognize structures that have an elaborate, fine, elegant, or skilful construction, as well as a common ability to recognize themes and ideas which are stimulating, meaningful and innovative. It may be this reason that consensus tends to appear regarding classic authors and artists.” (Bill Fryer 2014).


16. Judging literary and artistic value – can it be done?


Literary and artistic value can certainly be judged. The empirical evidence is that we make such judgements all the time. People make judgements according to their personalities, their education, their interests and their affiliations. They enthusiastically justify their choices with a selective appeal to facts and the support of other opinions. Is all of this subjective? Of course it is, but it is a subjectivity which usually leans heavily on social consensus, and that consensus comes out of the sub-cultures within which the critic is a participant. It might be the local pub, it might be a book club, or a meeting of friends who are art enthusiasts. It might be an international conference of scholars in a major university. Ce la vie. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go around. 

In the end, just as consensus amongst social groups and historical eras about the value of artistic creations is so variable, individuals themselves vary greatly in the importance they attach to artistic judgement and the sensitivities they bring to bear. For example, most opera holds no great appeal for me, but I can accept that it is important to a few people I know. No doubt some individuals may find the social milieu within which opera is presented important for their social or career needs and feign interest in the music. I hear music of some kind in all language, the written too, while for some people this is incomprehensible. In vision, the art I perceive is often accidental, not somebody else’s planned presentation. Art is a falling leaf, seen from the corner of my eye, a moment of unexpected light in shade, a whirl of colour on the street, a sudden circle of peace in the centre of a chaotic landscape. Isn't that enough?



Reading List


Abu-Zayd, Nasr (Jan 1, 2003) "The dilemma of the literary approach to the Qur'an". Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, online @

Artists Insight (2014) "Reviews and news about London's contemporary visual arts scene". Artists Insight website (London), online @

Baum, Henry (7 October 2013) "What is Literary Value?" IndieReader website, online @

Bochenski, Natalie (September 19, 2013) "Poet accused of plagiarism stood down". Brisbane Times online @

Fenner, David E. W. (20 April 2005) "Production Theories and Artistic Value". Contemporary Aesthetics website, online @

Fitzgerald, Cathy (September 2, 2013) "The Dilemma of Filming Beauty". The Earthlines Review website, online @

Flood, Alison (5 March 2014) "Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are 'a waste of time'. Buddha of Suburbia author, who teaches subject at Kingston University, added that many of his students could 'write sentences' but not tell stories". The Guardian online @

Green, Daniel (29 January 2009) "Cirteria for Literary Value". The Reading Experience website, online @

Hunter, Lynette (2000) "What Is Literary Value? | Gresham College Lectures". Gresham College website, online @

Jarrett, Christian (27 February 2014) "If an artist is eccentric we find their work more enjoyable and assume it's more valuable". Research Digest, online @

Lamond, Julieanne (24 January 2014) " Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia". Meanjin literary magazine, online @

May, Thor (1 June 2003). "So You Wanna' Write a Poem??" The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (19 December 1998) "The Art of Disproportion". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (2006) "Times Sixty on Frosty Gyemyeongsan". Youtube recitation online @ ; words of the poem at [context: Gyemyeongsan is a mountain in central Korea, at that time towering behind my apartment].

Meskin, Aaron (n.d.) "Aesthetic Value". website, online @

McCrum, Robert (2 March 2014) "From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author's life?". The Guardian newspaper, online @

Mitchell, David (23 August 2012) "Taste". David Mitchell's Soapbox channel, online @

New York Times (16 October, 1881) "The Standard of Literary Value". New York Times archive, online @

Satchidanandan, K (March 21, 2014) "Dilemmas of Indian literary criticism". Frontline website (The Hindu news group), online @

Sherwin, Brian (2/26/2011) "FineArtViews Interview: Mat Gleason -- Art Critic and Founder of Coagula Art Journal". Fine Art Views website, online @

Sötér, István (1970) "The Dilemma of Literary Science", in István Sötér and René Bonnerjea, István, New Literary History. Vol. 2, No. 1, A Symposium on Literary History (Autumn, 1970), pp. 85-100 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press online @

Taggart, Andrew J.  (Fall 2006) "The Function and Value of Literature and Literary Studies Reconsidered". Project Muse website, online @

The Guardian (15 March 2014) "So you want to be a writer …". The Guardian online @

Wan, William (9 March 2014) "Chinese officials debate why China can’t make a soap opera as good as South Korea’s". Washington Post, online @

Wiggins, Adam (11 May 2005) "Defining Artistic Value". Adam@Dusk blog, online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Archetypal literary criticism". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Art Blog". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Art Criticism". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Art". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Claude Lévi-Strauss". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Comparative Literature". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Critical Theory". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James. Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Literary Criticism". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Literary merit" Wikipedia, online @

Wyndham, Susan (September 13, 2013) "Plagiarism the word that can't be uttered". Brisbane Times online @




The source of this document:


meetup group: Gentle Thinkers

discussion topics blog (for the list of proposed topics):

topics already discussed:

 comments: Thor May -;

Thor's own websites: 1. articles at ;
2. main site:



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


academic repository: at
discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at


How do we judge literary value and artistic value? (c) Thor May 2014



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