Arguing Genre

The Haunting (1999 film)

When it comes to hunger, people often desire particular types of food. For example, suppose a person finds she has a craving for something sweet. Conveniently, the aisles of her local grocery store are organized so that she can find her sweets. It is, of course, easy to imagine her disappointment if she buys a box promising a “crispy chocolate taste sensation” and instead gets a “mushy broccoli taste sensation”. When it comes to aesthetic appetite, people often desire a particular type of aesthetic experience. For example, imagine someone gets a craving for horror. Conveniently, the aisles of her local book store and video shop are organized so she can find works of horror. It is, of course, easy to imagine her disappointment if she buys a book whose jacket speaks of “ mind-blasting cosmic horror” but actually delivers an insipid romance set in Dayton, Ohio.

The point of this is to illustrate and argue that genre distinctions matter because they make it significantly easier for people to satisfy their aesthetic desires.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, genre classifications are needed so that it is possible to assess and criticize works fairly. While a developed argument for this is beyond the scope of this work, it seems reasonable to hold that art, like competitive sports, is a purposeful activity. It also seems reasonable that works of art, like athletic performances, can be assessed on how well they fulfill their intended purpose. Naturally, a fair assessment of a performance requires knowing the nature of the intended purpose. For example, during one track and field competition a paper plate blew into the area where the javelin throw was taking place. The plate landed in such a way as to appear to be a target and this confused a bystander. After one extremely long throw, the bystander commented that the throw was terrible, since the javelin landed no where near the plate. Of course, he had gotten it all wrong. Once it was explained that the javelin was thrown for distance, not accuracy, he realized why what he had thought was a terrible throw had been an excellent through after all. The same is true of the arts. For example, it would be an obvious mistake to claim that The Haunting [i]is a poor film because it does not cause the reader to laugh. This is because The Haunting is not intended to be a comedy. Hence, its failure to be a comedy is not a mark against it.

Thus, genre classifications are important because without them it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fairly and justly criticize and assess works, including cases in which the creator of a work is assessing his work in progress.


[i] The original film, not the remake. The remake was much more a horrible work than a work of horror.

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  1. The problem I see is that often the ‘genre’ is decided by the critic not the artist, who may not want to pigeon-hole their work. In a way, this would be giving (in my mind undue) influence to the critic over the reception of the artist’s work.

    To take an example: The Trial by Franz Kafka. I find the book funny in its absurdism, so I’d be tempted to put it as a ‘comedy’, but someone with a different sense of humour to me may not see what I see and just find it chilling, so put it as a ‘thriller’. By ‘genre-defining’ like this we are unwittingly projecting our own prejudices/feelings into the character of the author, and letting this influence our conclusions about his intentions.

  2. When I consider genre, I am less concerned with critical assessment and more concerned with tracing cultural association.

    Most artistic works are expressed in a cultural context, which includes drawing not only from the immediate culture but the history of the culture. And, it is not unusual for a work to be influenced by multiple historical threads.

    There is often much to say about what is being expressed in a work by examining the these various cultural influences. A great deal of feeling can be communicated by referencing bygone eras. We might even find that with the World events of one time we will reminisce about World events of the past, by way of art that draws from various past genres.

    While I agree that the most sophisticated artists will not want to be bound by genre, I think that any artist that expresses some degree of variety will sometimes draw from one or more genres, while at other times will avoid drawing from any genre, or at least, pay little or no attention to the culture around them.

    And, sometimes, it’s fun to see if you can trace the history behind the feelings evoked by a work of art.

  3. sanil malikapurath neelakandan

    Genre becomes foregrounded only when it is emerged in a superior-intellectual-space.Their epistemic priority,i mean,those who have the cultural capital and social capital,in the Bourdieuian sense, acquires the recognition.Thus,the acceptance of something as genre also is determined with in the field of cultural production of the intellectual elites.

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