Well, that’s pretty obvious, you might say. Nothing in this world is perfect, so why should we expect any piece of art to be? Yet you point out faults in something that everyone accepts as ‘genius,’ and people wonder who you are to criticize the work of such a great artist. This is despite the fact that some flaws in great works of art are so glaringly obvious you can’t help but point them out. Pointing them out doesn’t mean it isn’t a great work of art, or that you think you’re better than whoever made the work. It’s just facing up to the fact that every work is going to have faults in it, no matter how ‘genius,’ and that the true measure of a work is how well it overcomes its own defects.
Here’s the quote that started me on this train of thought. Jan Swafford is talking about he loves Mozart’s The Magic Flute despite its flaws – a piece of music I know nothing about, but his main thought is pretty applicable anywhere:
“When I first heard the opera in my mid-20s, I hadn’t yet learned, among many other things, that the greatest art is not necessarily the most perfect. Bach wrote tremendous vocal music but was strangely oblivious to the fact that singers have to breathe. He wrote vocal lines as if they were for violin. The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth is clunky and episodic in its form—enough so that Beethoven talked about replacing it. Shakespeare is notoriously weak in dramatic construction and often didn’t know when to shut up. I once sat through a reading of The Tempest with a playwright who bitched all the way through, saying that Shakespeare isn’t any good because his dramatic arc is so bad. Today I’d argue that among other things a great work is one that has the power to make its faults, even the obvious ones, irrelevant to the experience of the work.” (Slate)
Don’t even start me on Shakespeare! His plots drive me up the wall, because they are so contrived and unrealistic. Yet it’s true, no matter how much I complain about him, there’s something in Romeo and Juliet, and even Hamlet, that draws me in. I don’t know what it is, because I’ve never experienced star-crossed love, or being told by a ghost to avenge my father. I guess it’s just that in his endless lines of iambic pentameter, there is a gem or two of a line that perfectly encapsulates a human experience. I complain about him because so often people present his works as if they’re genius, and don’t have any flaws. But there’s still something to Shakespeare, despite his flaws.
(Truly, every time I read Romeo and Juliet I get this urge to fix it by re-writing it, but you’d have to be a pretty brave author to try to re-write Shakespeare.)
Another ‘classic’ I recently read is Dracula. Reading classics is a supposed to be a good thing, so I added it to my reading list. And I found it vastly entertaining – despite hating most of the characters, laughing at the ridiculousness of the plot, and being irritated at the immense number of inspirational speeches sprinkled throughout. The work as a whole was engaging. On a more individual level, well, it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. You’ve got several cardboard stereotypes for characters, such as the brave hero (Jonathan Harker), the devoted lover (Arthur Holmwood – I was suspicious of his devotion at first, but no, he was actually that true and devoted for all three hundred and thirty-six pages), and the pinnacle of American manhood stereotypes (Quincey Morris – oh, I hoped he’d spent more time in the novel doing the stereotypical American hero things, but he really was a rather minor character). Oh, and a ‘Dutch’ professor that talks far too much in a difficult accent, and does the typical mentor thing of requiring characters to do dangerous deeds without providing any preparatory information whatsoever. The female characters are so absolutely helpless, though Mina Harker is slightly better than Lucy. No one tells anyone else anything until it’s too late, because they’re all afraid other people’s nerves can’t handle the truth. The men don’t tell the women, because the women are fragile creatures, of course. The women don’t tell the men, because they don’t want the men to worry about them (and the men have so much stress already, the poor things!) So the vampire can run around doing what he wishes for half the novel, just because communication is so bad. Yet the novel is still regarded as a classic. And I was certainly entertained by it – almost too entertained, because you think of classics as dull, difficult things to read.
My last example: Pygmalion, or as its better known in its musical version, My Fair Lady. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it (the movie version, with Audrey Hepburn), because I didn’t understand it. The ending was so open-ended. The actual written play, by Bernard Shaw, is even worse, ending-wise at least. It was only later that I re-watched and was entranced by the power of the characters, Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, and realized there couldn’t be any realistic happy ending. To do so would be to destroy the vibrancy of either one of the other of the characters. To be open-ended, as the movie is, is the best way to leave the characters in my opinion, because you know their story will go on as long as their life without ever truly resolving itself. You know, kind of like real life.
I could go on, include my favourite topics such as Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen, and argue that they overcome weak characterization (a complaint about Lord of the Rings) or a lack of exciting narrative events (a charge levelled at Jane Austen). But I’ll leave that for now. I’m sure you could list a whole ton of works you love despite glaring faults. In fact, feel free to discuss them below.
In the end, I think we have here what may be the source of disagreement over classic works, and why some people can’t understand why something is considered ‘classic.’ (There certainly are some I can’t understand.)
If you hate a work, its flaws are all you can see, and you can’t get past them.
If you love a work, it could be more flawed than it already is, and you’d still love it anyway.
Because maybe true art is something that has the power to speak to your soul in spite of its flaws, not something that lacks them.