Artistic merit is the perceived artistic quality or value of any given work of art, music, film, literature, sculpture or painting. The term can be applied to a classic or masterpiece which has stood the test of time and is part of the Western canon.
Measures of merit
In Western Europe from around 1500 to 1870, artistic merit was closely related to faithfulness to nature—though not always as literal, precise transcription but certainly as an interest in some aspect of the physical world—and sometimes narrative coherence (in many cases history painting was considered the highest form of art) and obedience to classical precepts. Such criteria, however, waned with the rise of modernism and later postmodernism.
There is no correlation between literary merit and product sales. The erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 125 million copies worldwide despite being poorly written according to literary critics. In comparison, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath has been critically acclaimed for its symbolism, plot, and character development, and has sold only approximately 14 million copies.
Obscenity and literary merit
At the trial of James Joyce's novel Ulysses in 1921, though not required to do so by law, Quinn the lawyer for the defence decided to produce three literary experts to attest to the literary merits of Ulysses, as well as The Little Review’s broader reputation. The first expert witness was Philip Moeller, of the Theatre Guild, who interpreted Ulysses using the Freudian method of unveiling the subconscious mind, which prompted one of the judges to ask him to "speak in a language that the court could understand". The next witness was Scofield Thayer, editor of The Dial, another literary magazine of the time, who "was forced to admit that if he had had the desire to publish Ulysses he would have consulted a lawyer first—and not published it". The final witness was English novelist, lecturer, and critic John Cowper Powys, who declared that Ulysses was a "beautiful piece of work in no way capable of corrupting the minds of young girls".
There was another important obscenity trial in 1960 Britain, when the full unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was published by Penguin Books. The trial of Penguin under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was a major public event and a test of the new obscenity law. The 1959 act (introduced by Roy Jenkins) had made it possible for publishers to escape conviction if they could show that a work was of literary merit. Several academic critics and experts of diverse kinds, including E. M. Forster, Helen Gardner, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Norman St John-Stevas, were called as witnesses, and the verdict, delivered on 2 November 1960, was "not guilty". This resulted in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing explicit sexual material in the United Kingdom.
- Stedman, Alex. "'Fifty Shades' Spinoff 'Grey' Copy Reportedly Stolen From Publisher". Variety. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- Chilton, Martin. "The Grapes of Wrath: 10 surprising facts about John Steinbeck's novel". Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- de Grazia 10
- Anderson 220
- Feather, John. A History Of British Publishing. p. 205; Rolph, C. H, ed. (1990). The Trial of Lady Chatterley (2nd ed.