If someone had told me while I was sitting at the breakfast table Thursday morning that I would be spending much of that day defending the decision to award Bob Dylan this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, I suspect I would have done a spit take and blew Raisin Bran all over the room…

Every year when the Nobels are announced, there is always at least one recipient who becomes the subject of some form of controversy. This year that recipient was Mr. Dylan; a lot of people agreed with the choice and a lot of others did not, and one individual in particular - a gentleman whose opinions I greatly respect (and, more often than not, agree with wholeheartedly) - seemed especially offended by the Nobel Committee’s decision. His argument, as I understood it, was not that Dylan wasn’t worthy of recognition for his contributions to popular culture; rather, it centered around his own heartfelt belief that song lyrics do not constitute poetry, and therefore do not qualify as literature.

The two of us had posted individual - and contradictory - posts on Facebook about the Dylan Nobel. Mine was congratulatory in nature, while his was anything but. And the next thing I knew we were neck-deep in the kind of debate one might expect regarding Trump vs. Clinton.

My friend argued that giving Dylan the Nobel “is an insult to true literary poets,” and that “Dylan's song lyrics would not stand up as legitimate poetry without the music.” I countered that we studied some of Dylan's lyrics - along with some of Lennon & McCartney's, Paul Simon's and Johnny Cash's - in my college poetry classes, and that well-written lyrics do indeed have a legitimate place in literature, just as well-written poetry does. 

Well, it was one of those situations where neither of us were going to come anywhere close to finding any kind of middle ground (although I think it bears noting that more of those who also weighed in on the discussion seemed to side with my point of view), and so we eventually agreed to disagree and let it go at that. (Well, I did, anyway; for all I know he may still be sitting in front of his laptop muttering about me under his breath...)

But the debate put me in mind of a column I wrote for my college newspaper years ago, which centered around the question of “What is art?” So when I got home from work that night I looked up that old column and found that my feelings on the matter have not changed in the years that have passed since I wrote it. 

So in the interest of trying to further explain just where I was coming from during the Great Dylan Debate of October 13, 2016 - though I fully realize that it will be no more successful in swaying my friendly opponent than anything I had to say yesterday - I respectfully present the aforementioned column from 1989. (And please keep in mind that I do not consider my friend with whom I was debating yesterday to be the sort of “artistic snob” that I was referring to all those years ago; this is in no way intended to be an attack on him or his point of view on that particular subject, but rather an editorial comment in general regarding a specific sub-species of human beings who have come to the mistaken conclusion that they are better than the rest of us… something I certainly do not think is true of my friend.)

And so anyway, without further ado:

*      *      *


Somebody told me not too long ago that I could never be a true art lover because I don’t have any culture.

The conversation started as a result of my having said that I didn’t care for a particular painting that my wife and I came across in one of Chicago’s many art galleries. To be honest, it didn’t seem like much of a painting to me; it looked as if someone had used a spare canvas to clean his paintbrushes on, and then stuck it in a frame to amuse himself.

When I mentioned this to my wife, however, I suddenly found myself being chastised by a rather distinguished looking older fellow who stood a few feet away.

“Some people just don’t have any appreciation for art,” he muttered just loud enough so I could hear.

I turned in his direction and asked, “You mean you really like this horror?”

“It is MAG-NIF-I-CENT,” he replied, enunciating each syllable in that endearing way all zealots do. “Of course, one must understand it before he can appreciate it – and one must be properly educated before he can understand it.”

The he proceeded to show everyone in the gallery just how educated he really was. He spoke about how the thing’s inert mass was so obvious (but in a subtle manner), and told us that the spatial concept and cosmic flow of the piece were just so grandiose that it took his breath away.

Then he spun around and looked me square in the eye. “But the most important thing is the MESSAGE. What does it say?”

“It doesn’t say anything,” I responded. “It just sorta hangs there, giving me retina burn.”

That’s when he lost control. Though I’d said nothing about him as an individual because of his taste, the man called me “uncouth” and an “artistic illiterate” and said that I have no culture. He also suggested that I’ll never amount to anything in my life unless I bring myself up to his level of sophistication. 

To which I’d like to make the following rebuttal, even though I know he isn’t reading this:

Back in 1864, a fair-to-middling English poet named Matthew Arnold described “culture” as being the qualities of an open-minded intelligence, a capacity to enjoy the best works of art, literature, history and philosophy that have been handed down through the ages.

The dictionary sitting here on my desk, on the other hand, defines “culture” as “knowledge and enlightenment with regards to artistic endeavors acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.”

Now I have only one real problem with either of these definitions – neither takes into account the tastes of the individual. Somewhere down the road, the word “culture” has come to suggest a certain sense of snobbishness among those who feel that they have it and the rest of us don’t.

And, boy, I REALLY hate that.

I don’t mean to suggest that all art lovers are snobs, because they aren’t. I’ve known some very down-to-earth, uncouth, socially unacceptable art lovers in my day.  And I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t like art, because I do. There are quite a few pieces that I really enjoy.

But art is different things to different people. Everybody has his or her own idea of what art really is - even young hoods who paint the sides of train cars. Art is one of those intangibles that there can be no one set definition for.

And anybody who says or implies that another person is “not cultured” simply because they happen to disagree on what is and is not good art does not have an open mind.

And according to Arnold’s definition, you’ve got to have an open mind in order to possess culture.

I happen to think that Frank Frazetta, famed painter of great science fiction paperback book covers, is every bit as talented as any of the so-called “Masters.” Given the choice between listening to the musical compositions of movie maestro John Williams or those of Mozart, I’ll take Williams every time. And I’d much rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip José Farmer or Louis L’Amour than William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Truman Capote any day. 

I can almost feel the collective shudder of every art, music and literature professor as I say that. But as much as I love the classics (most of them, anyway), I have to be honest and say that I enjoy the other works I cited much better.

And so that’s what I choose to surround myself with. Not because I think that Frazetta, Williams or Burroughs are better than de Vinci, Mozart or Faulkner, but simply because I enjoy them more. And what is the point of art - great or otherwise - if we don’t enjoy it?

When you get right down to it, that’s what has always bothered me the most about those who claim to have more culture than I do. I haven’t met one yet who looked like he or she knew how to have a good time. They’re all so somber and dried-up looking, and what fun is that?

If being “cultured” means I can’t take part in the things I enjoy, then I’d just as soon remain the uncultured slob, thank you very much. While all the critics and the literati are busy trying to impress one another other with their crustiness and their “spatial inertness” and their pretentious gobbledygook, I’ll be off in my own little corner of the room having a good time.

So don’t talk to me about how I don’t have any culture, brother, because I don’t care. I know what I like. 

And “culture” is just a bowl of yogurt…

(Copyright © 2016 by John Allen Small)