Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Western Canon and the Politically Correct

In the past people educated in the West were confronted by the "classics," whether painting, music, literature and told that the critical consensus of the past declared them to be "good art, great art, works of genius" and the like. I spent a lot of time in my early years determining for myself whether I agreed with this assessment, and while I took exception to a novelist here and a poet there, I took the Western "Standard" seriously. Harold Bloom and others argue that ongoing art must measure up to the standards of the past. His Western Canon is in pursuit of that goal. He presents his view as to which works of art are good enough. He disparages, as do some of the rest of us, writings that modern-day students are being subjected to because someone considers them politically relevant, important, and therefore in a sense that doesn't correspond to "good art" good.

Bloom and others (Thomas Hart being among them) have examined some of this Politically relevant (and therefore "correct" and "good") art and argues that students are being "brain-washed" into thinking these writings are "good" because someone argues that they are "relevant to modern circumstances and that "right and wrong" need to be addressed, and, it goes without saying "right" is good and "wrong" is bad. And "art" can be anything anyone says it is (all of us being equal and no one better than anyone else). Therefore, What "right," do narrow-minded, bigoted, white-Anglo-Saxon male authority figures of the past have to tell us that Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Milton, Rembrandt, Bach, Beethoven, or anyone else in their "canon" has created "good art"? We will decide for ourselves what good art is. And so they do. They emphasize Women's Rights, Gay Rights, Minority Rights, and teach students about the value of representative writers in each of these categories.

In case someone reading this has already been brain-washed, we (Thomas Hart, Harold & Alan Bloom & I) aren't saying that Women's Rights, Minority Rights, and Gay Rights shouldn't be argued. We just don't think they should be argued under the heading of Literature, Poetry, Painting, Music, etc. If they can't measure up to, or at least approach the great artists of the past, then they shouldn't be presented to present-day students as artists worthy of consideration. Edmund Wilson's essay on "Marxism and Literature" addresses this principle.

In the days when I was taking issue with everything anyone said, I didn't automatically accept the Western "Canon" as being as exclusive as some said it was. I wanted to find writers that weren't in it that I thought should be. I recall spending a lot of time reading Jack London. I came across his Iron Heel, which lived up to the Marxist "politically correct" standards favored by Stalin and Granville Hicks. It was indeed Politically Correct. It held to the Communist "Party Line" quite well, but if we ask the question, which apparently isn't being asked as often as it once was, how does "The Iron Heel" measure up as a work of art, even if we are Marxists, if we are also honest we will admit that it is pretty poor.

Better than London's The Iron Heel and Weatherwax's Marching, Marching, were some of the "Muckrakers." My time was a little past theirs, but I could appreciate the "political correctness" of them nonetheless. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Frank Norris' The Octopus were perhaps the best. I very much agreed with the sentiments expressed, but couldn't argue that they were great or even good novels, although Bloom includes The Octopus in his Western Canon collection.

If the Western Canon excluded women, gay, and minority writers because they were not Anglo-Saxon-White males, that would be unjust and no credit to artistic excellence. On the other hand if artists are being erased from the Western Canon because they are Anglo-Saxon-White males, then surely that is equally unjust.

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