Packing for Paradise: What to Bring?

Now, moving from the ridiculous to the sublime: I mentioned last week that we were due to engage the question of the Desert Island Test in class, as a way of backing into a discussion of criteria of worth. Students submitted a variety of choices. Among the first to be discussed were a pair of pictorial designers par excellence: Alphonse Mucha, the Czech master of Art Nouveau, and his American admirer and imitator, J.C. Leyendecker.

The arguments offered in defense of these choices were aesthetic: these works offer formal pleasure, or the intellectual stimulation afforded by the well-made thing. It was also suggested, if less forcefully, that formal pleasure entails an emotional experience, by definition.

By contrast, another student submitted the example of Banksy, the British street artist who responds to social conditions with grafittish gestures. Here the argument was based on social relevance and currency, in addition to the skill and visual power of the work. It was observed that acutely social work–like up-to-the-minute popular music, stirring via the thrill of now,exactly now!–might well lose its force on a desert island. The solitude of such a setting might well argue against relevance as typically understood. Even so, to formal pleasure we may add social relevance as a criterion of record.

One student, who did not attend the session, had offered Hokusai as an exemplar. Another, pinch-hitting, stepped in to argue that a View of Mt. Fuji offered formal pleasure as well as spiritual value.

We looked at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, offered by another student as an unlikely item to get in a suitcase, but nonetheless desirable if transportation could be managed. Discussion of the sculpture (among the small number who had been its presence, at the Borghese Palace in Rome) focused on the transcendent power of the object, which I can well vouch for. A totally astonishing thing; breathtaking. Bernini–an artist and architect of fantastic skill and range–raised the question of ambition. Perhaps the most nourishing works (or sets of them attributed to a single creator, as per the coffee table book) were likely to be those of high ambition.

Finally Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" received a vote for the sense of recognition his work creates in the viewer. That is, the evocation of "universal" childhood experiences warms the heart and creates a connection between artist and audience member. In addition, this image shows Watterson engaging the history of his own medium, by quoting Thomas Nast. Such signalling of self-awareness, known as intertextuality, is often cited as a marker of big-time art.

When you write them all down, the criteria established in our discussion were:

formal pleasure
social relevance
spiritual value
creative ambition
human resonance

These criteria give us a good start toward establishing a critical method for engaging and evaluating works, projects, careers, even schools and eras.


Does this summary correctly record your sense of our discussion?

Is there a missing criterion, one we didn't come across or recognize?

Emotional power is not explicitly included in these criteria. Is it implicit within others?

Think of an unambiguously important figure. Does s/he embody a value that isn't listed?

Please provide your thoughts in the comment section. And stay tuned for an opportunity to apply these criteria in another post...