There’s a sentiment going around yet again that certain works of art, called “the classics,” which presumably means the Western canon, were not created for people like the non-European individual making this statement:
The usual suspects came out to offer the usual platitudes about how great art is transcendent and crosses all cultural barriers and so on, but the amazing thing is that so few mentioned that the original statement was correct.
The classics were not made for her or people like her. The Iliad and The Odyssey were not told or written with Bantu tribesmen or Nordic barbarians in mind. Fyodor Dostoevsky was not writing for Hindu Indians or Muslim Arabs or Anglican Englishmen. William Shakespeare was not writing plays for Meso-American natives or Chinese farmers. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Yukio Mishima and Chinua Achebe were not writing for me in mind. Neither were the tellers of the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Now, the intended audience of a given work is a completely different matter than whether those not of the intended audience can still enjoy such works. Very often, what makes a classic a classic is that it contains imparts some sort of universal human truth that anybody can enjoy and get value from by simple virtue of being a thinking, feeling human.
Anybody with sufficient intelligence and emotional maturity can enjoy any work even if they don’t “see themselves in it” or feel “loved back” by the book. The level of narcissism and, let’s be real, ethno-narcissism, on display is stunning only if you haven’t been paying attention.
This is the prevalent attitude among many who create art now. I cannot tell how many times I have heard it be told that something or other was not made for people like me. Therefore, I guess, I’m not supposed to buy it or read it or watch it or listen to it, which is weird because then these same individuals blame people like me for their given creative endeavor being a financial bust. But nobody said narcissism had to make sense.
A creator has the absolute right to choose their audience. However, once a work is out there, a creator has no real say in who gets to enjoy their work unless they somehow restrict access. I suppose one could go so far as to deliberately alienate certain swaths of the population and dissuade them from wanting to voluntarily give you money for your work, which seems silly to me, but it’s a free country so knock yourself out.
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On Halloween night a few weeks back, a young white boy in our neighborhood was dressed up as Black Panther. To far too many pop-culture saturated brains, this should be punishable by death. Who is to say this young white boy cannot enjoy the character of Black Panther, despite the movie Black Panther not being made for him? We know this movie was not made for him, since its creators said so, so what gives? Should he have been prevented from buying this costume, let alone wearing it? Is this little boy more intelligent and emotionally mature than the originator of the statement which sparked this entire discussion?
Viewing “the classics,” or anything older than yesterday through the lens of current and ever-shifting moral fashions is a recipe for constant erasure. Once again, we see it wasn’t the “theocons” (theocratic conservatives) trying to rewrite history, but progressives, who are really just Puritans without the Jesus.
To insist that you cannot enjoy something if the people either making it or in it don’t “look like you” is stupid, but it is not stupid to admit that stuff written way before your time in a specific time and a specific place for a specific audience was not made for you. However, I cannot fathom the self-centeredness required to think that this is somehow an issue. I would have to bludgeon myself in the head with a blunt object several times to maybe kill off enough brain cells to understand this point of view, and while I’m no genius, I’m too smart to do that.
One of the most probable causes of this is seething resentment and jealousy directed at better men. You can never rule that out. Envy is the coin of the realm in the modern West. Unmoored as we are by any objective truths, personal feelings are all we’ve got.
“Back and forth, I sway with the wind . . . resolution slips away again . . .”
Universalism is not a de facto bad, and universalizing the particular is often what artists strive to do. And some things are universal. I have a hard time believing Beethoven wrote music strictly for Austrians. J.S. Bach wrote tons of music for the church, and if there’s one thing Christianity is known for is precisely its universal message. Yes, the Old Testament was written by ancient Hebrews and Israelites. Yes, the New Testament was written by mostly Jews. But the message the Bible conveys is particular to a place in time because everything has to come from SOMEWHERE, yet applicable to all those with ears to hear regardless of their chromatic disposition or land of origin.
This is why I write for everybody. Number one, my message is universal. Number two, the world is so small that even a nobody writer like me can have his works read by people in exotic locations like India and Singapore and Zimbabwe and Ecuador and Saskatchewan.
I may be the Leading Hellenic Voice in Fiction, but much like Greek festivals where we love having everybody join in, the spirit of philoxenia (“love of outsiders”) is alive and well in my work, and I give everybody permission to read what I wrote. Whether you enjoy it is a different story.
This also bleeds into political as well as ethnic narcissism. For pop-culture damaged minds, only those of a certain political bent are allowed to enjoy certain pop culture artifacts. Worse, it is implied that consumption (oink, oink!) of certain pop culture necessitates that one have a certain politics. I leave it to you to guess which direction this is supposed to go.
It’s all mind cancer, of course. Trying to segregate what people think from what culture they enjoy is prima facie nuts, but in a way it is rational because it recognizes the very real indoctrination and propaganda power of arts and culture. You ignore this at your own peril. The issue is that many of us are just sick of Marvel movies, comic books, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Handmaid’s Tale, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars being the only cultural touchstones.
Politics is downstream from culture, sure, but culture is downstream from power. Yes, as some may argue, culture is downstream from religion and philosophy, but very often the ruling religion and philosophy come from the guys in charge. When the guys in charge are fanatical death cultists, you get the culture that we have and hence the mindset that we have.
Marvel movies become religious text. People actually become Jedis like it’s an actual religion. The human soul abhors a vacuum. And so this viewpoint permeates the minds of modern creatures as they vainly attempt to enjoy the classics of the Western world. They simply don’t have what it takes to take the universal aspects out of that which wasn’t tailor-made for them and them alone. It’s really quite sad, because it implies that there’s a fundamental component of humanity which is glaring in its absence.