Friday, May 6, 2011

The Sentimental Human

I always say that I don't want to be sentimental, that the photographs shouldn't be sentimental, and yet, I am conscious of my sentimentality.
Robert Frank

Sentimentality —that's what we call the sentiment we don't share.
Graham Greene

Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.
Norman Mailer

Sentimentality is considered by many fine critics, notably of art and literature, as a cheap affected emotion largely displayed in disproportion to the literary scene depicted. Terms like mawkish and maudlin usually accompany such criticism. Capturing that spirit is Oscar Wilde, who said that a sentimentalist "is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it."

For such high priests and priestesses, buying on the cheap is not only considered bad literature or art, but in poor taste. In today's parlance it would be called "making a scene," and calling undue attention to one's self. Sentimentality became a pejorative term in the nineteenth century, and a century later, by the time of the late Victorians, it was done. To be considered sentimental was to be considered irrational and foolish. Such were the pronouncements of the gatekeepers of high art and culture.

The literary master of parodying such manifestations of self-pity was, of course, Anton Chekhov, who drew a bead on the aristocratic society of Russia during its waning days. It was also the waning days of the Victorian Era, which died when her matriarch died in 1901. Some long for its renaissance; I don't.

The Critic's Chair

Despite the Victorians bringing such gifts to bear, it wasn't the Victorians who invented the standard. That courtesy goes to the ancient Greeks and Romans whose Greco-Roman ideas of rectitude, restraint and correctness toward art and the human enterprise developed more than two thousand years ago.

As did reason, one of the foundational tenets of secular humanism. It seized hold of the Europeans after the Dark Ages, who began an renewed interest in Greco-Roman classicism during the Renaissance, and hence was born English neoclassicism of the late seventeenth century. (There are many fine works defining this period. One I would recommend is The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949) by Gilbert Highet.)

Sentiment, to put it simply, is considered the opposite of reason. It allows feelings, emotions, and memory to influence a decision. While sentiments might have no place is science and medicine, to name two fields of practical study, it does have a place in human affairs. Sentimental thoughts bind humans together, and make one's approach to another easier.

For example grieving has for long been considered an emotion that should only be displayed privately, tucked away out of sight. Or that overt expressions of joy are considered in bad taste, regulated for certain times and places. Yes, such still prevails in some circles, hence the need for alcohol to give license or be the excuse for poor behavior, resulting from a circumscribed code of conduct.

So, what does this have to do with today? While academics distinguish between sentimentality, an unearned emotion; and sentimental, a sign of tenderness and affection, I sense that the average person doesn't really care about such fine distinctions. That's the role of the professional critic, who reads books, attends performances and writes reviews, and has secured a place in society by offering his views and criticism of a work of art.

But their collective influence has waned and is less important today in the age of social media, where a bad review in a major newspaper is not necessary a death sentence. Word of mouth through social media can have more importance than a single critic.

No doubt, critics might have their place, but not a honorable or esteemed one. It's often manned by bitter and untalented individuals full of pettiness and jealousies of the talented."Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to a critic," said Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer.

Drowning Girl: (67 5/8 x 66 3/4" (171.6 x 169.5 cm): Roy Lichtenstein lifted the image from a romance story in DC Comics' "Run for Love!" published by DC Comics in 1962, and transformed it. "In addition to appropriating the melodramatic content of comics, Lichtenstein manually simulated the Benday dots used in the mechanical reproduction of images," it says on the MoMA website. It is one of the first examples of pop art, or art drawn from popular culture, the antithesis of high culture and classical arts, which had clearly defined rules of form. I suspect Lichtenstein used the comics form for its universal appeal.
Artist & Credit: Roy Lichtenstein, 1963. The painting hangs at the Modern Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
Hollywood Meets High Culture

Truly, it makes people uncomfortable to see another person cry or in pain. But that might be the emotion, sentimental or not, that brings a little humanity to us. Or at least calls attention to it. Despite the many criticism, some merited, leveled at Hollywood, it has as an institution made many fine films, both critically and commercially in its long history. And they have it right in the emotion department. Films don't have to be dark, or sarcastic or so full or irony that few understand it. Look at the films that have been commercially successful.

That is why men cry, often covertly under the cover of darkness, at movie scenes that depict the early death of a dog, or a major character, as in Love Story, a 1970 film starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw. I cried when I first saw it as a teenager, and I cried when it I viewed it many years later as a mature adult. There is no shame in admitting that you value human emotions, and in displaying the full range of them.

With all due respect to Oscar Wilde, Norman Mailer and others who share the sentiment of anti-sentimentality, I suspect they have it wrong. (I am closer to the views that Graham Greene and Robert Frank expressed.) So, at the risk of being overly analytical, their discomfort might stem from something more basic, a distorted response to life lived without love and hope.

Their views have been refined and distilled to an unhealthy aesthetic or worldview. It is easy to see how such happens. In search of truth and beauty, life experiences, messy and complicated by their own hand, in many ways, become a conduit to misery and unhappiness. In short, the unhappy, sometimes bitter, authors of their own misfortunes.

To be sure,they might have produced notable art, but at a cost. An examined life offers many clues, thus explaining the popularity of biographies of the famous, and the infamous. The angry, hurt and misunderstood artists of any age, no matter the popularity they and their works have attained, are often deeply unhappy and unsettled, and transfer such emotions into their art. People are fascinated and intrigued by their ability to look into the abyss and survive.

The works produced have, at times, universal appeal. "So, this is what it looks like," they say. Few would want to duplicate that existence, but to dwell in it vicariously for a brief moment, without much cost, is within the realm of the possible for many.

The language of their art is communicated. A complicated life is a full life, or vice-versa, and its rewards, though meager, are found in the language of truth and beauty. Perhaps so. Their art, often critically praised, reflects a human condition, no doubt, but one crippled and mutilated, often devoid of hope—again reflecting their (truthful) view of the world. The critically appraised art, in all its forms and genres, comes with a high price. An unhappy existence. It's not a life that many can live.

Humans Are Social Beings

The high arts often mean a solitary life of hard and disciplined work; it's certainly so for writers, painters and composers. Most humans are social beings and desire social contact on a regular basis. The solitary life might lead to great art; it also might lead to misanthropic, anti-human behavior, and a discomfort with sentiment on the personal level. That explains why few people attempt it, or why some give it up after achieving some measure of success.

There are other views less critically accepted. Persons who are happy and comfortable in their own skin form different views, typically, not so full of criticism, sarcasm and bitterness. Such people are content, happy and not grasping, more settled and stable, despite the often harsh reality of theirs and others existence. Therein lies the difference, and it's worth examining it for yourself. There is only so much bile one can ingest and absorb before it eats your insides.

So, although the artist works assiduously and devotedly to avoid sentimentality like the plague, and by doing so create great art, aptly describing the human condition, the individual cost is great. Most persons don't enjoy living on the margins, concerned about the small world of professional criticism. More so, the artist cannot control what emotion or set of emotions a particular work will evoke. All he knows is that the work will produce some emotion, and it might not be what he initially intended—if there was any intent at all.

Most persons, including this writer, want to live within general society, and have average thoughts and sentiments, which unite them with others. We are, that is most of us if we admit it, a sentimental lot, and often prone to sentimentality. I suspect that's the human condition, that humans are meant to be sentimental as a unifying force.

So, here's the rub. And the professional critics won't like this. Having a sentiment, even at times overwrought, is far better than to have only the right ones, controlled to such a degree, that you are a devotee to societal fashion and the mores of the high culture. And although it another topic for another time, one can also be a slave to Reason and its inherent tendency to reshape humans against their will, all with good intentions but disastrous consequences. That's not really human freedom. At least not the kind that I want.