Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reading Comprehension: Primary Purpose

This is another post describing the classification system Zen of 180 uses for the reading comprehension section; if you're not sure how to approach studying for the LSAT, our 19 reading comprehension standards break it down into manageable chunks; also, our free online LSAT analyzer will let you know which types of passage structures give you the most trouble.

We'll be moving on to a new passage today, so we'll also go over how to break it down and analyze its structure. For more help with how to read the passages overall, check out the main idea explanation.

John Tartaglia reminds us in Avenue Q that finding your own purpose, let alone someone else's, can be quite difficult.
Primary purpose questions are one of the easiest tasks to recognize on the LSAT, and the example question we pulled from the sample questions LSAC provides on its website is a good representative.

Before we can even get to the question, though, we of course need to go over the passage:
       The painter Roy Lichtenstein helped to define pop
       art—the movement that incorporated commonplace
       objects and commercial-art techniques into paintings
       by paraphrasing the style of comic books in his work.
(5)   His merger of a popular genre with the forms and
       intentions of fine art generated a complex result: while
       poking fun at the pretensions of the art world,
       Lichtenstein’s work also managed to convey a
       seriousness of theme that enabled it to transcend mere
(10) parody.

This first paragraph clearly has a lot going on, despite only being 10 lines long. The author introduces the main topic (Lichtenstein and pop art in yellow), the complexity of his aesthetic (orange), and the author's opinion that this complexity makes his art transcend parody (purple). The dark blue highlights are positive definitions of their respective topics, and the green "also" helps to connect the specific complexity that the author finds so transcendental.

Note that from the beginning, we know that this passage is not only the arts and humanities passage, but also that its structure is almost certainly an argument--i.e., in the Zen classification, an opinion passage. This structural categorization has special importance to correctly answering primary purpose questions, as we'll see later when we can quickly eliminating distractors because they implicate other structures. Moving on with the passage:
       That Lichtenstein’s images were fine art was at
       first difficult to see, because, with their word balloons
       and highly stylized figures, they looked like nothing
       more than the comic book panels from which they were
(15) copied. Standard art history holds that pop art emerged
       as an impersonal alternative to the histrionics of
       abstract expressionism, a movement in which painters
       conveyed their private attitudes and emotions using
       nonrepresentational techniques. The truth is that by the
(20) time pop art first appeared in the early 1960s, abstract
       expressionism had already lost much of its force. Pop
       art painters weren’t quarreling with the powerful early
       abstract expressionist work of the late 1940s but with a
       second generation of abstract expressionists whose
(25) work seemed airy, high-minded, and overly lyrical.
       Pop art paintings were full of simple black lines and
       large areas of primary color. Lichtenstein’s work was
       part of a general rebellion against the fading emotional
       power of abstract expressionism, rather than an aloof
(30) attempt to ignore it.
This paragraph presents a ton of specific information, both positive (blue) and negative (cyan) definitions for both pop art and its aesthetic counterpart, abstract expressionism. While these details are not helpful for answering primary purpose questions, you should of course still note them during reading. More useful for today's purposes, the author also expresses an opinion on which works Lichtenstein was directly opposing (the second generation of abstract expressionism), and that he was part of a general, purposeful retreat from that aesthetic's high-mindedness. Moving on with the passage:
       But if rebellion against previous art by means of
       the careful imitation of a popular genre were all that
       characterized Lichtenstein’s work, it would possess
       only the reflective power that parodies have in relation
(35) to their subjects. Beneath its cartoonish methods, his
       work displayed an impulse toward realism, an urge to
       say that what was missing from contemporary painting
       was the depiction of contemporary life. The stilted
       romances and war stories portrayed in the comic books
(40) on which he based his canvases, the stylized
       automobiles, hot dogs, and table lamps that appeared in
       his pictures, were reflections of the culture Lichtenstein
       inhabited. But, in contrast to some pop art,
       Lichtenstein’s work exuded not a jaded cynicism about
(45) consumer culture, but a kind of deliberate naivete,
       intended as a response to the excess of sophistication
       he observed not only in the later abstract expressionists
       but in some other pop artists. With the comics
       typically the domain of youth and innocenceas his
(50) reference point, a nostalgia fills his paintings that gives
       them, for all their surface bravado, an inner sweetness.
       His persistent use of comic-art conventions
       demonstrates a faith in reconciliation, not only between
       cartoons and fine art, but between parody and true
(55) feeling.
This paragraph builds on previous paragraph, but focuses more on  Lichtenstein’s work rather than the more general differences between pop art and abstract expression. The author further elaborates the opinion that the cartoonish methods were purposefully counterpoint to stuffy expressionism, but that Lichtenstein did far more with the medium than comic books. The author cites this use of conflicting innocence, naivete, and nostalgia with serious topics allowed him to better comment on contemporary American life.

Thus, this paragraph simply builds on the basic opinion from the first paragraph that Lichtenstein’s work uses a complex blend of simple aesthetic and purposeful appropriation of pop culture to fight against abstract expressionism. Once you see a primary purpose question, you should try to prephrase the passage's structure and content at a such a high level of generality. With this prephrase, we should be able to answer the primary purpose question:
The primary purpose of the passage is most likely to
A) express curiosity about an artist’s work
B) clarify the motivation behind an artist’s work
C) contrast two opposing theories about an artist’s work
D) describe the evolution of an artist’s work
E) refute a previous overestimation of an artist’s work

Answer choice B nicely presents an opinion phrase that matches the author's goals: convince the reader of why Lichtenstein chose his complex aesthetic, and explain how those choices achieved that goal and made his work transcend parody into great art.

Most of the distractors exhibit a common flaw: they conflate the passage's structure. For instance, answer choice C implies that the passage is a debate structure; however, no opposing viewpoints are ever presented to the author's primary thesis. 

Similarly, D implies the passage is a transition text, i.e., that it describes how a topic developed or changed over time. The author of this passage, however, discusses Lichtenstein’s work after the fact and as a single body; it does not spend any time on how he developed his style, merely discussing why and the aesthetic's power.

Finally, answer choice A's use of the neutral phrase "express curiosity" does not have nearly enough emphasis on the opinionated tones in the passage. It probably would be referring to an expository passage, which might be appropriate if the author did not express an opinion on Lichtenstein’s work but rather had described his aesthetic in greater detail.

While answer choice E is clearly implicates an opinion structure, the author never mentions any prior valuation of Lichtenstein’s work. Clearly, then, it can't be the author's purpose to refute a point of view he or she never addresses.