Tuesday 7 February 2017

The arts, literature, purpose, feelings, critical thoughts

1. What are the arts? 
Traditionally they are activities and outcomes ('things') or ('productions') like:
film and TV drama and dramatic series, soaps and serials
musicals and opera

2. What are they for? Many different things including
To entertain and amuse
to show us aspects of life and 'nature' (ie the world as seen by us)
to help us think about aspects of ourselves
to draw us into thinking and wondering about materials
to draw us into thinking and wondering about how we communicate with each other
to show us possibilities for thought and action through inviting us to think about how others do things, say things, feel things...(empathy)
to offer us a 'safe place' (sometimes called 'containing' us) in which we give vent to feelings or witness feelings, we find difficult to voice or admit.
to offer us hope

3. Is there anything particular about literature?
Literature, traditionally, is poetry, drama and fiction but clearly overlaps with such things as film and TV drama.
Because these are so wordy, they have the possibility of exploring many different ways in which we talk to each other, think, have emotions, and write.
This doesn't make literature better or more significant than other arts.

4. What do we do with literature?
Primarily we read it, or we 'spectate' it if it's performed.
The reading process is complicated and involves many aspects of our minds and faculties:
our feelings
our willingness to be convinced by the creatures, beings and people and their interactions
our willingness to be affected by these
our ability and willingness to 'gather up' whatever precedes the moment we are reading or spectating. This enables us to 'follow' what's going on.
Some of this is to do with language - how words stick together (and of course individual words themselves)
Some of this is to do with recognition of motifs - that is scenes and interactions that exist in other parts of literature and in other arts
Some of this is to do with a willingness to find several meanings at once in 'figurative' language such as metaphors, metonymy, similes, allusions.
Some of this is to do with our willingness to allow our own experience to help us find parallels with moments in the literate which are similar or analogous with our own.
A willingness to reflect on any or all of this, either on our own or with others.

5. It is quite possible to construct very different means of getting young people to explore some or all of this. For over a hundred years, there have been a variety of methods of getting  young people to answer questions about the literature they've been asked to read.
This may include questions about:
what the author intends
what is the meaning of very small parts of the text (words, phrases, single sentences)
how a text is constructed
what are the effects of different parts of the piece of literature
what is the overall meaning of the text
how the text fits (or doesn't fit) a given 'genre'
how the text is 'in conversation' with some other texts that precede it ('influence')
how the text has 'used' texts which precede it ('intertextuality')

It may include questions of
what the text has to do with the time and place in which it is written ('context')
how the text has been interpreted differently by different people at different times

6. The problem with some of the previous types of question is that they assume a generalised 'reader' who does indeed know what the author intends, what the 'effects' are on readers, what symbols or metaphors 'mean'.

7. In schools we have the problem of wanting children and young people to enjoy literature whilst having to fulfil some very specific demands given to us by questions in exams. There is a 'correct' way to respond to literature and an 'incorrect' way. This may well run counter to some of the reasons in my number 2 (above).

8. One key way in which we respond to literature is create literature (and other arts). We may well find out a good deal about a piece of literature by trying to write something 'like it'. There isn't much room for this in school curricula because it isn't 'critical'. However, it may well be something that can feed into critical approaches. It may well clarify a good deal of things to do with structure, purpose, how to create effects, and generalised views (see 11 below).

9. It may well be that in the limited time available there isn't time for young people to explore fully what kind of effect a piece of literature is having on them. The critical approach has to kick in very early on. It may turn out that the young people hardly have a chance to explore 'affect' ie how the piece really does produce emotional effects.

10. Some of the categories that occur in the critical approaches may run counter to how literature works. One of these is 'character'. I would argue that we are not first and foremost affected by 'character'. We are affected by interactions between characters and the outcomes of those interactions. This means we are affected by parts of scenes in a 'dynamic' way. . It's what characters do with each other in the piece or say to each other or about each other (or what the narrator tells) that causes the effects. Again, if we examine things in too small pieces - too much on single words -  we may not notice that it's the comparisons and contrasts across a whole piece that do the work.

11. An interesting part of how we talk about the arts is that when we select things to talk about or when we make comparisons between something in a piece of literature with another piece of literature, or between a piece of literature and something that happened in our own lives, we are in fact 'generalising'. In other words, we don't need to make a general comment or an abstract comment in order to generalise! When we select one 'event' and compare it to another 'event' that we've selected, we are creating a 'set' or a 'series'. We have noticed some common characteristics. Even very young children can do this. It may well be that in order to help young people make generalised comments, that we can first elicit the comparisons ('what were you reminded of?' In your life? In other pieces of literature? In the arts in general? On TV?) and then ask them to reflect why? The generalised or abstract or evaluative/reflective comment may well flow after.  General, abstract, evaluative, reflective thought may be reached this way.

12. There are some key aspects of how a piece of literature is told ('narratology') . There are key differences in narration, in how we know what we're being told, how things are revealed and concealed, how we are given specific and selective viewpoints, whether characters' and or narrators' views are 'reliable', 'true' or 'ironic', how we know (or not know) what characters think.

13. Even if we know how to talk about literature it doesn't follow that we can write about it. This is one of the hardest things to learn how to do. This blog does not address 'how to write an essay'!