Friday, October 24, 2008

On The Criticism of Art

I once pissed off the entire WRITERS forum on Compuserve by comparing the output of art critics to bowel movements.

I was young, and a lot more honest back then.

Althouse's thread on Ebert made me think of this incident, which was rather hard for me at the time, since I liked the people there, even if an inordinate number of them seemed to work writing reviews for porno. It was in that general area I "met" Mike Resnick and Diana Gabaldon. (They were in LITFORUM, as I recall, which WRITERS was split off from.)

Basically, a guy came in asking about why art critics are reviled, and my observation was that it was warranted. I was surprised at how lonely it got real fast. For me, it goes without saying that criticism, as a rule, is parasitic. Most people, I think, feel this way. I think because it's mostly true.

What I got wrong, in retrospect, was thinking that criticism can't be better than the thing it's criticizing. That's at least arguable, though I still think this Twain takedown of James Fenimore Cooper is pretty pissy. (Then again, I've never read Cooper.) On the other hand, this Richard Jeni bit on Jaws IV is hysterical.

MST3K and Cinematic Titanic could be seen as film criticism, though, as I've said, Citizen Kane would be a great movie to riff on, as Mike Nelson's RiffTrax demonstrates. Art relies on certain conventions that are not logical, comprehensive or literal, and so it's easy to make fun of. (This applies to paintings and sculpture, as well as music, literature and movies.)

But now, I suppose, we must confront The Big H: Hypocrisy. For example, this is pretty pissy. How many reviews of stuff, some of it in the category of "art", have I done just here on this blog? The linked tag shows about 20 items, going back to late August. (I guess I haven't been very good at tagging stuff.) I'm hypocriting at about 2-3 items a week, here.

Or am I?

When I review something, I'm trying to make it very idiosyncratic. I'm not on some lofty plane contrasting Gone Baby Gone with Proust's Rememberance of Things Past. I'm not really concerned about Art-with-a-capital-A. (I learned in my music study days that such concerns tend to be constipating.)

What I try to do when I review anything, even a non-fiction work, is give you, the reader, an idea of where I'm at. Everything is viewed and evaluated from a particular point-of-view. Unlike science, where it's required to eliminate the baggage that might come from that point-of-view, in art, the baggage is required.

You're being presented with a series of images and words designed to create an emotional effect. Without the baggage that is your language, culture, upbringing, aesthetic, sensibility and so on, any work of art is going to fail to resonate. (Indeed, where does the resonance come from if not sympathetic strings of your own experience?)

For non-fiction, it's a little simpler. If a book on how to make ice cream is 90% on how to calve and raise a particular kind of cow whose milk is especially good for ice cream, and I'm sitting in my one room apartmen tin the city, with the Alta Dena carton in my lap, I'm probably gonna be a little pissed. But it's important you know that's where I am.

And, in the end, even the guy who writes the bad book or makes the bad movie has done more than I have in my review. No matter how good the review (and the critical ones are the best, right?), making the art--however bad--is harder, braver and more worthy of respect.

Now, I think it's perfectly respectable to walk out of a movie after eight minutes if, like Ebert--who I kind-of think is an idiot, adrift between what he knows he's supposed to think versus what he actually thinks--you can make a shopping list of reasons why.

That list in his first review is brutal, perhaps, but probably fair: Moviemakers are required to present us with a minimum of technique to get us to stay in the chair. You can't really violate all the rules with amateurism and shoddy craftsmanship and expect people to invest their time. The idea that even a critic is obliged to sit there subject to an insult of this caliber is pointless torture.

And you may (and should!) apply this bit of reasoning to my nanowrimo effort. Or any of my other efforts, if you can find them.


  1. The hardest thing for a reviewer in my mind is to couch his review in terms and references that his audience will understand. The most egregious example of the wrong way to do it is John Leonard in New York Magazine. He is the TV critic and compares TV shows to Russian Lit and Shakespeare. When most of his readers don't know what he is talking about. But worst of all he displays contempt for and lack of knowledge of the history of TV. I mean what the hell. If you have any knowledge of TV there is always a comparison to make that doesn't have to drag in Proust and Tolstoy. Stick with Jack and Crissy and Mr. Roper for crying out loud.

  2. I hate pretentious people. You may have noticed that.

  3. Indeed I have. We've even discussed it before.


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