James Michener on Forming Opinions About the Arts

While reading Michener’s memoir, The World Is My Home, I came across this passage where Michener describes his feelings about the arts, criticism, and how he formed his opinions:

I had always had the habit, which I adhered to in my response to the arts, of trying to look or listen with an unprejudiced intellect. For example, whenever I entered a museum I would walk to the center of each room, from where I could see no labels, and ask myself: What is worth noting here? By taking this approach I note only discovered some excellent art but also gained confidence in my artistic judgement so that I have never had any hesitancy in relying upon my own taste. I have consistently fortified it with the opinions of others–I read a great deal of criticism–but I have never allowed critics to dissuade me from making my own evaluations. As a result my appreciation of the arts has been nothing but positive, and it has been one of the best parts of my life. I doubt I would have felt this way had I been overawed by the opinions of others.

This resonated with me because my approach to reading has been similar for many years. A quick scan through the list of books I’ve read over the last 20 years will show something of a diversity of subject matter, fiction and nonfiction. Some of the books that I have read have been panned by critics, but I only considered the criticism after first plowing through the book out of some curiosity on my part. I read P. G. Wodehouse for this reason, and while I found his writing amusing, I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary. On the other hand, I found odd books like Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road to be an unexpected joy.

With two young children, it has made me consider how they will appreciate art. Art, for them, may very well be in terms of video games. I can go on and on about what joy Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV was for me, but ultimately, I want to instill in them the idea that they need to walk to the center of the room, so that they they can’t read the labels, ask themselves, “What is worth noting here?”


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