“For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
John Ruskin, 1877
This famous quote is from the 19th century art critic John Ruskin, who was stating his personal opinion of James Whistler's contributions to the Grovesnor Gallery, an alternative showing to the Royal Academy. Whistler responded to Ruskin's remarks by suing him for libel. What followed was a historic two-day trial that put art appreciation on the stand. Whistler won, but Ruskin was required to only pay him one pound.
The aftereffects of the trial, though, were substantial. It revealed a huge split in the criticism of art. What Whistler did was inject the artist into the art and by defending his paintings, he won the right to tell the public what the art means. In other words, he changed the way art was appreciated up to that time - the artist was very present in the art and as Ridgeback writes, it is his interpretation of it that matters. John Ruskin can go home.
Our topic here is "Two Degrees of Separation." The question though for me is that if JK Rowling comments on her work - does that constitute canon? Whistler would say yes. What the artist says matters the most in the interpretation of the work. Whistler in fact might say it's 1st Degree. But I disagree. I believe the work stands for itself and the artist's interpretation is a 3rd Degree. The artist view carries a greater weight when understanding the work (why else do I check JKRowling.com so much?) - perhaps more than most other critics. But I believe that if the work is superior, the artist is in subjection to the work, not over the work. Art is more than just communication on a human scale, but can be the doorway to a larger world, the Undiscovered Country, what lies behind the veil.
Now Harry Potter may not become such art - it's too soon to tell. Tolkien does seem to be heading into that world, what we call a masterpiece, though he certainly has his critics amongst the higher schooled. But I do believe that great art, the masterpiece, ultimately must stand on its own, with the artist in the shadows. The two-degree rule is a brilliant way of judging the work - if the argument cannot be made from the text alone (even with conflicting arguments which is when it really gets fun) - than I think its either an indication of the weakness in the text or laziness on the part of the critic to examine the text carefully. That is not always simple to discern. The argument could be made that Tolkien was unappreciated by the critics for so long not because of the weakness of the text, but because of the laziness of the critics. Ultimately, it wasn't Tolkien who made the case for his work - it was the work itself.
The "Two Degrees" rule does call into question the role of the critic and the role of literary criticism. It is an excellent way of examining critical review of the work (as well as fan fiction) by how well they stick to this rule. If they inject their own opinion without citing the text sufficiently, then it seems that the literary criticism or the fan fiction is more about the egos of the critic and the fan than it is about their own work - in other words, we will follow Whistler and Ruskin into the courtroom. When we reach that point, it becomes virtually impossible to actually discuss the text because the conflict is now centered onto the personal opinions of the critic or the fan than on the actual work. The artist becomes first degree. This is what happened, I think, between Ruskin and Whistler. Then art - be it a painting, a poem, or prose - suffers because it becomes indistiguishable from the artist or the critic, a conflict we live with today.
Just ask Bob Dylan.