In S/Z, a chef-d’oeuvre deconstruction of the intellect’s literary enjoyment, Roland Barthes travels deep to the inner ‘like’ in order to show us its hidden architecture and then takes it apart in a transformative analysis. In a preface found in the English translation of the work, Richard Howard begins with a quotation and says a few choice words on the ‘instinctive liking’ of literature:
“‘It will afford profit and pleasure to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature,’ writes a British reviewer of the French text of S/Z. Instinctive enjoyment of literature! Surely all of Roland Barthes’s ten books exist to unmask such an expression, to expose such a myth. It is precisely our ‘instinctive enjoyment’ which is acculturated, determined, in bondage. Only when we know – and it is a knowledge gained by taking pains, by renouncing what Freud calls instinctual gratification – what we are doing when we read, are we free to enjoy what we read. As long as our enjoyment is – or is said to be – instinctive it is not enjoyment, it is terrorism.” (Richard Howard, “An Introductory Note”, in: Roland Barthes, S/Z. An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974, p. ix.)
In recent history, serious art has not exactly been subject to ‘liking’ by the so-called great minds, such as Barthes’ – rather, it was created and forged, loved and hated, interrogated and ignored, bought and stolen, championed and undermined. While my contemporaries disagree to an increasing degree, my natural tendency tells me to think that there is much more in good art than what can simply be liked. In its usual application, ‘liking’ is appropriate for something that could be described as ‘nice’, and normally, one would be hard pressed to successfully apply it to anything that holds a lesser, but also a higher value.
As a teenager I wrote a rebellious poem for an English class assignment, and a day after handing it in, the piece came back with the professor’s red mark around one word – ‘nice’. On the margin he wrote: “this word doesn’t say much”. I admit I slipped a little in one stanza. For a moment, there was no symbolic dagger to chew on, no one telling you that you won’t get out of here alive, no youthful anger that breaks through the Wall. For a moment, things were okay. From high school I also remember the Good News Bible, which we used in religion class. It was illustrated with peaceful, conventionalized, single-line drawings, and all of the people’s faces were presented as simple, empty ovals. Naturally, the choice of means was meant to express humanity in general, and to imbue it with a calm, likeable quality. Most of us didn’t love religion class. But it wasn’t unlikeable.
In a curious analogy to the Good News Bible, the Sherbrooke subway station in Montreal features an enormous mosaic with a quasi-Biblical scene showing the origins of Quebec and its people with the same empty, symbolic, oval faces. This public piece of art is clearly meant for everyone, and we all know the artist couldn’t fit everyone’s face into the image, however grand. But a more critical writer could make the remark that the image is fitting because in the subway we also feel faceless. To me, the mosaic makes anonymity and mass membership more acceptable, and even more likeable. While this is also what makes me ambivalent about this dwarfing image, and what reminds me of ‘likeable’ art’s mildly numbing, ‘affirmative’ function, I will soon be setting out on my own quest for art that presses my mind’s ‘like button’.