While taking my third daughter to school recently, she said to me, “Ug. I have a test in Language Arts today. We have to read poems and then try to guess what the poet meant. I hate that. What if I like the poem for a different reason than the poet intended?”
When she said this, I wanted to cheer. Does that sound like a strange reaction to you? Let me explain.
As I’ve studied literature, I’ve discovered that there are two basic schools of thought.
First, there are those who are convinced that the only way to truly appreciate a poem or story or work of art of any kind is to learn about the person who created it, there social-economic conditions, their political views, what they had for breakfast, their favorite day of the week, and which toe on their left foot they find most adorable.
Second, there are those who experience art (by reading, listening, viewing, or a combination of any of the senses) and then determine for themselves whether or not they like it. Often, the reason someone likes or doesn’t like something is based on their personal experiences at the moment they experience the art.
I’m firmly in the second camp.
Here’s an example of why: A person can play for me a rap song that is widely acknowledged as being influential and even revolutionary. I can learn about the rapper and what drove him to create the work. I can study how this particular song impacted not only other rappers, but also people of a certain culture. I’m pretty darn sure at the end of all of this, I’m still not going to like the song. I don’t like rap music. Period.
Okay, still not convinced? How about a true example. I read the book 1984 by George Orwell. It’s considered a classic. It is studied in schools. Papers have been written about the book’s importance. From an intellectual and academic point of view, I recognize how 1984 is significant in the history of literature. But, I didn’t like it.
Keep in mind that I noted that whether or not a person likes something can be influenced by their personal experiences. And guess what? People gain more experiences as they get older.
What this means to me is that there are things I loved when I was younger that I don’t like now and vice-versa.
The most evident of these is music. There were certain songs I hated in the 1980’s, but now when I hear them, I find that I like them. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s maturity. Maybe I’ve finally gotten enough experiences to appreciate music I didn’t like before.
In the end, I told my daughter, “In real life, you don’t win a prize if you can guess what a person meant when they created art. If you connect with it on an emotional, spiritual, or even an intellectual level, and it means something to you, then who cares what the person meant?”