The American Culture Books James Bowman Denies Denying Artistic Standing to Tolkien and Lewis

James Bowman Denies Denying Artistic Standing to Tolkien and Lewis

James Bowman Denies Denying Artistic Standing to Tolkien and Lewis

James Bowman has kindly responded to my comments on his assertion that “fantasy is not Art.” ‘Kindly,’ on second thought, might be stretching things a bit, given that he begins by marginalizing those who disagree with him as nothing more than blog-dwelling trolls*:

You can imagine the reaction in the blogosphere— which, as you may or may not know, has way more Lewis and Tolkien fans in it than the population at large. I wonder why that is, by the way? [Emphasis in original.]

I’ll bet there are far more readers of Mr. Bowman’s latest blog entry in the blogosphere than in the population at large, but I digress. After establishing a suitably dismissive tone with those lines, Mr. Bowman begins his defense with the following:

I wonder if it is too late to protest that I did not say what Mr Crandall says I said. What I did say was that fantasy — by which I meant the fantasy actually being produced in our culture today, the fantasy of Avatar or The Dark Knight or that which is, in one way or another, merely derivative from Tolkien or Lewis — represents a break with the Western mimetic tradition to which the fantasies of yesteryear still, more or less, belonged.

Mr. Bowman did far more than attack fantasy “produced in our culture today.” Allow me to remind you of exactly what he wrote in his New Atlantis article:

But those who, like Hawthorne’s clockmaker, carry over the ambition to produce a new creation in traditional art forms should not continue to call those forms “art.” We may call this fantasy-art “art” as a courtesy to a tradition coterminous with humanity itself, but fantasy is not art, at least not in the sense that the term has been understood within the Western mimetic tradition going back to Homer. Indeed, Western culture is so intimately bound up with the tradition of imitation in art — the tradition of making things that are like reality precisely so as to make claims to know reality and thus to distinguish it from fantasy — that the now more than century-long vogue for fantasy art, beginning with George MacDonald, J.M. Barrie, and Kenneth Grahame and continuing through Lewis and Tolkien to the more unrestrained science-fiction and fantasy cinema of our own time, should be seen as a repudiation, conscious or unconscious, of that Western tradition. [Emphasis added]

I will grant that the majority of Mr. Bowman’s article focused on Avatar, but he went far beyond that film with the paragraph above.

His self-defense continues:

I am accused of by Mr Crandall and his supporters on The American Culture website … [as] if I had attempted to claim that Lewis or Tolkien or anybody else, for that matter was not a “real” artist. But I didn’t. I don’t even know what it means to be a real artist — as opposed, presumably, to an unreal one. I believe the question to be an unprofitable one, even if I knew how to answer it.

He not only does not “know what it means to be a real artist” but also claims that he would never “make such a crude generalization as to say that anything fantastical in a work of art disqualifies it as art.” Yet he writes that fantasy resides outside “the Western mimetic tradition” and that anything outside that tradition is “not art.” I wish he’d make up his mind. Either that or have the courage to stand with his assertion that fantasy-art is “not art,” and, therefore, fantasy-artists, by definition, are not artists.

Mr. Bowman’s response displays a longing for the good ole days. I can’t help but sense a certain wistfulness when he writes this:

“When Lewis and Tolkien were writing, fantasy literature was a largely unvalued cultural sideline, an out-of-the-way corner of literature that, if it was recognized at all, was quite likely to be despised or condescended to. It existed in a ghetto and was assessed not with respect to “serious” literature but with respect to other S-F and fantasy lit.”

Oh, for those happy days when fantasy artists were confined to the fringes! A rather amusing moment, in Mr. Bowman’s diary entry, came in response to my query about whether Shakespeare believed in magicians who manipulate weather and donkey-headed men:

The answer is that we can’t possibly know what Shakespeare himself believed in or didn’t believe in, but we can know that he wrote in a cultural context that was characterized by belief in many more fantastical things as they now seem—than these, and that this fact cannot be irrelevant to the meanings of these and others of his plays.…

This was a world in which magic was only beginning to be distinguished from science. Fairies were believed in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as recently as a hundred years ago, and I would not take my oath that Lewis and Tolkien did not believe in them too.

Let me see if I can get my blog-dwelling troll head around that: according to Mr. Bowman’s argument, if some people believed stupid, crazy things during the time an artist was working, that person can be a artist even if he or she wrote about people with donkey heads. OK, then, but that would surely exonerate Lewis and Tolkien as well, unless Mr. Bowman believes that the premises of Nazism and Communism were terrific ideas. And it would of course exonerate the current day purveyors of movies Mr. Bowman doesn’t enjoy.

I find the analyses of such fiction by Lewis and Tolkien themselves much more convincing, literate, and useful. There is much, for example, in Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories” that responds to Mr. Bowman’s point that a general cultural belief in a story’s fantastical elements is necessary in order for that work to be considered “art.” These sentences, I think, are quite instructive:

But when we have done all that research—collection and comparison of the tales of many lands—can do; when we have explained many of the elements commonly found embedded in fairy-stories (such as step-mothers, enchanted bears and bulls, cannibal witches, taboos on names, and the like) as relics of ancient customs once practised in daily life, or of beliefs once held as beliefs and not as “fancies”— there remains still a point too often forgotten: that is the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are.…

Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect, an effect quite independent of the findings of Comparative Folklore, and one which it cannot spoil or explain; they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe. [Emphasis added]

*For the record, I do believe that blog dwelling trolls exist. Therefore, by Bowman’s definition, these comments do not qualify as fantasy.

  • CJ Evans

    Heck, some people probably believe in faeries today. They certainly believe in spiritualism, like Conan Doyle did, and reincarnation–just ask Shirley Maclaine. Does that make Avatar art after all? That seems a pretty lame evasion on Bowman’s part. The Hobbit, I believe, was published in 1936, the first Lord of the Rings book in the mid-1950s. I think it’s safe to say the faerie fad was in serious decline by that time! As far as C. S. Lewis goes, Bowman does know Narnia’s Christian allegory, right? I’ve heard tell there’s allegory in Tolkien too. How does he feel about allegory? What would he say of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death or Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown?

  • http://stkarnick.com/culture Daniel Crandall

    The original article is quite clear in its condemnation of all fantasy going back, “more than [a] century,” to MacDonald through Tolkien to the modern day. When I pointed this out, Bowman, in his “Diary” response, backed off a bit from the charge of lumping Tolkien, Lewis, and maybe a few others with those working in the genre today. But there remains a whiff of fondness, in what he writes, for the day when fantasy literature was tolerated as a pastime for children but never taken seriously and certainly not considered art by the educated class.

    I’m sorry, Tory, but he and I are not in agreement at all. And that’s not what I’m looking for. What I’m looking for is clarity. If he doesn’t believe fantasy qualifies is art, which is exactly what he wrote, than let him stand by the argument. He wouldn’t be the first and he won’t be the last. Colleges and universities are full of academics who believe serious literature does not include fantasy and science fiction. But his response makes him appear just a bit wobbly on the point by allowing for the possibility that Lewis and Tolkien and many more were artists in “the Western mimetic tradition” because they very likely could have believed in faeries, wizards, and talking beavers.

  • Toryhere

    Al Bowman was saying is that modern fantasy is not as gooda as that of the classic era because it doesn’t relate to our emotional experience. That is exactly what Tolkein alludes to in the quotation you so kindly provide.

    So you and Bowman are in agreement: a magical element in a work of fiction does not, in itself, disqualify that work from being great art, as long as that work succeeds in holding up a mirrot to life, even if it is only reflecting what a human would do in a fantastical situation. Much modern fantasy, Avatar being a classic example, does not achieve this level of mimesis.

  • James Kabala

    I actually haven’t even seen Avatar and am not particularly a fan of science fiction in general, but isn’t a flaw in Bowman’s argument, at least as it applies to science fiction (he has a better case with Tolkienesque elves-and-dwarves fantasy or comic book superheroes) that many people do believe in extraterrestial life and believe it will some day be discovered, and thus Cameron (like Roddenberry or Lucas before him) is in fact feeding this belief? Personally I believe the existence of life on other planets is very unlikely and think that even if it does exist we will never make contact, but many people believe otherwise, and how is their attitude toward Avatar distinguishable from that of an Elizabethan A Midsummer Night’s Dream audience that (equally incorrectly) really did believe in fairies?

  • Troels Forchhammer

    Despite John’s reservations, I am tempted to bring up also the views related in Hohn Rateliff’s blog today[*] that the Greeks did not actually believe their own myths (well, kinda, I guess, but not really . . .), which would — at least according to the original article in “The New Atlantis” — disqualify also Homer and all the Greek plays on mythical subjects.

    [*] http://sacnoths.blogspot.com/2010/03/did-greeks-believe-their-myths.html