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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Bob Dylan And The Nobel Prize–What Is Art Anyway?

Ever since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, traditional naysayers have been in lockstep.  How could the committee honor Dylan when prize-winners have included Faulkner, T.S.Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Yeats, and Tagore, artists of transcendent genius?



There are of course those who say that Dylan’s lyrics are poetry, and as lyrical, profound and lasting as those of any poet in the pantheon. 

Here is the opening stanza of Dylan’s most popular song:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind…
Compare them with  these verses from T.S.Eliot:
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom (The Hollow Men)


From the point of view of classical literary criticism, there is no comparison.  Eliot’s poetry is complex, interior, intellectually challenging, and chilling in its commentary on death, despair, reality and life itself.
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Dylan’s poetry in contrast  is simple, folk, and derivative.
Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
By further contrast, here is an excerpt from Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium’, a poem like The Hollow Men, which expresses man’s universal concern with mortality.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


And finally from Dylan:
Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
Accept it soon, you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin', you could sink like a stone
For the times, they are a-changin' (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
There can be no comparison.  Dylan is a popular songwriter, the 60s version of Moss Hart, Hoagie Carmichael, and Cole Porter.  Porter, whose lyrics have been criticized for their silly lightheartedness, their celebration of fantasy, high times, and inconsequential love affairs, was a genius at capturing the sentiment of the nation at a particular moment of history – a moment between the wars where silly sentimentality and escapism was embraced.



Dylan wrote in a more conflicted age and was concerned with more weighty matters; but he was as rooted in zeitgeist as Porter.  Both  Porter nor Dylan chose to write about the times, the moment, the cultural event of an era.  They did not try to address the human condition, its brevity, meaning, and import as did Eliot and Yeats.

One of Picasso’s most popular works is Guernica, a depiction of the brutality of the Spanish civil war.  He departed from his more essential themes of human nature and being to be political.  Although in the painting he did not take sides he, like Dylan, expressed a political sentiment and diverged from his focus on more fundamental issues.



Should Dylan be given extra credit for political awareness?  Is being tuned in to popular political sentiment and zeitgeist an additional criteria for the Nobel Prize?  Should one put aside a more critical assessment of the art itself and judge the work on its social and political influence?

The answer is no.  Churchill never received a Nobel Prize for his war speeches, although without them and their call to patriotism, national h0nor, and moral principle the Battle of Britain might never have been won.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender…
His words are inspirational, heroic, and powerful; but they – by any standards – do not achieve the existential power and sublimity of those of Eliot or Yeats.



The issue of Dylan’s prize raises an important question.  What is art, after all?  Are there as conservative critic aver, universal standards of literary or artistic greatness.  Should one revere Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Joyce, Blake, and Faulkner above all?  Are their works on a higher plane than Dickens, Dreiser, Hardy, and DuMaurier because they distilled the human experience rather than narrate it?

Are the works of Picasso, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Michelangelo more enduring, more insightful, and more expressive than Dale Chilhuly or Normal Rockwell?

Deconstructionists have for no other reason served an important purpose in forcing us to define excellence, artistry, and genius.  The most radical of them have contended that there is no such thing – that car manuals are no different than the King James Version of the Bible or Hamlet.
Although their critics would insist that there are such things as universal criteria – that a great work of art must be transcendent, expressing central human concerns in unique and powerful ways – is there no room in the canon for the immediate and the temporal?

The answer is ‘No’. The best contemporary writers such as Richard Ford and Hilary Mantel are cut from the cloth of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.  They display the modern human condition as the human condition. Marriage, divorce, family dysfunction, jealousy, inheritance, rivalry are all part of a human desperation for meaning and purpose.

The painter Anselm Kiefer shares nothing whatsoever with Dale Chihuly, a craftsman glassblower.  Kiefer’s over-sized tableaux are inescapably frightening, almost impossible to look at.  They are dark and brooding, reminiscent of Armageddon, Holocaust, and the end of days. 



Chihuly’s works are fanciful, colorful, delightful, and meaningless.  He and Kiefer should never be included in the same discussion.



Wagner’s The Ring Cycle has been praised as a monumental operatic work and dismissed as proto-Nazi glorification of the Aryan race.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his Ode to Joy have been acclaimed as among the highest achievement of symphonic works and as a powerful religious and political statement:
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über'm Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such' ihn über'm Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
So, Dylan gets high marks for incisive zeitgeist. Perhaps not so  demanding and enduring as Guernica or War and Peace but at least representative or a type of current, temporal art.

He gets low marks for language, complexity, and philosophical sophistication.  His verses, taken out of their social and cultural context, are trifles – lyrics of popular songs which will be hummed and sung but never enshrined.


Should he have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature? No.  Should he be internationally recognized for having been a lyrical voice in popular revolution? Yes.

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