Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Random thoughts on hearing the critic speak

I think there’s always an element of embarrassment in being a critic. Every time I write a review, there’s a part of me that thinks, I shouldn’t be doing this. It seems arrogant and fundamentally disrespectful to the work being evaluated. Even if I rave about something, I’m still presuming to judge, and when that judgment is published it creates a sort of smokescreen between the work in question and readers of my review who haven’t yet encountered that work. People often say they aren’t influenced by reviews, and maybe there are people who can simply jettison any criticism they’ve read, but I know I can’t. However wrongheaded or forgettable they may be, reviews always seems to be lurking in my brain when I finally get around to consuming a book, movie or perfume.

So I completely understand why a lot of people take a dim view of someone like Peter Schjeldahl, whose superstar status as a critic gives him tremendous power to influence the public’s response to art. Power like that inspires plenty of hostility, especially among people in the art world who feel they’re undervalued by the cultural establishment he represents. One of Dave’s arty pals gave him a hard time for going to hear Schjeldahl speak, and even people who admire his undeniable talent feel the need to grouse about his elitism, as in this blog post.

As that post noted, Schjeldahl is a glib as a speaker, a little too much of a showman. I don’t know what he’s like in front of a New York or L.A. crowd, but he did talk down a bit to his audience of art students here in the hinterlands—not in a pompous way, but like a comic who has to keep reminding himself not to be too fast for the room. Still, he was quick to point out that he’s from the hinterlands himself, which has got to be encouraging to any bright kid who feels stranded in this backwater. The fact that he’s a public intellectual with no college degree also makes him a good example for kids who have grown up in an era when there’s a terrible overemphasis on academic qualifications.

But the thing that was really wonderful about hearing Schjeldahl speak was the sense you got that, even after decades as a professional critic, he still finds tremendous joy in the presence of art. He’s cynical about the business of art—who wouldn’t be?—but the love of beauty still consumes him. After he’d been talking for over an hour, he latched onto the subject of Rembrandt and began to talk about Rembrandt’s two Lucretias. I won’t try to repeat what he said, but he entered the scene of each painting and interpreted every detail with the full power of his imagination. You could tell that, for him, those scenes had tremendous immediacy, full reality. He was near tears as he described the feelings of Lucretia in the later work, as she sits alone waiting to die. His emotion was not a performance; it was a glimpse he gave us of how he experiences art.

It's a cliche to say that the world is becoming increasingly soulless, that we are slaves of technology and of consumerism's stranglehold on our instincts--but it's a cliche because it's true. Humanity is being hollowed out, and the modern world hates passion. It was wonderful to see Schjeldahl's passion for those Rembrandts. It was a reminder of what human beings really are: the animals that seek beauty.

Go here to read Schjeldahl riffing on a Rembrandt show. You'll find a New York Times article about Rembrandt's two Lucretias here.


Julie H. Rose said...

The less an audience knows, the more power a critic has. This is most apparent in the art world, where the vast majority of people are thoroughly ignorant.

That being said, it's good to know that Schjeldahl is passionate about art. I often think I am not, but I have been known to get choked up in the presence of great painting, so I am mistaken.

I have to confess that I'm not sure what the purpose of criticism is. Perhaps some time you'd like to shed some light on that question for me?

jmcleod76 said...

I was watching Nova the other night. A bunch of scientists were having a pissing match over who had the right theory about why prehistoric mammals - mammoths and sabertooth cats and giant sloths, oh my - became extinct. One group, which was widely derided by the other groups for being too "out there," believed they all died out after a massive comet hit the North America. They found all of these microscopic diamonds in the layer of rock that represented that time period. They said the structure of these tiny diamonds suggested they were made by an impact, rahter than in the traditional slow-ass way. So they sent a glaciologist to Greenland to find the corresponding layer of ice. The strength of their hypothesis rested on finding those little diamonds in that layer of ice, and nowhere else. That's exactly what they found, and when they did, the scientist who was head of that team began to openly weep. It was actually difficult for me to watch, and I even made a sarcastic comment to M. about how "there's no crying in geology!" But, really, it was quite moving to see a grown man unrestrainedly crying with joy over a scientific discovery. It was as beautiful to him as anything created by Rembrandt or Mozart. It was a religious moment for him. He was in the presence of god, struck with awe and trembling.

BitterGrace said...

I can't say I know what purpose criticism has, Julie. Why does it need one? The best kind of criticism is an art in its own right. When Schjeldahl talked about the Rembrandts, he was doing that kind of criticism--interpreting and expressing his own response to art on a profoundly human level.

On a more mundane level, criticism is just part of the public discourse about the arts. It draws attention to what artists and writers are doing, and helps keep cultural life flowing.

That's a great story, Jaime. There is always a tendency to cringe in front of such emotion, but it's also beautiful to see it.

Margaret said...

As usual, I agree with almost everything you've written here, and, also as usual, I wholly admire the the way you've expressed the parts I don't agree with. But-- I know you're steeled now for the "but"-- I can't help but admit that I don't find the world an increasingly soulless place.

If anything, my experience of the world is exactly the opposite of that view. It's not that I think we're becoming more soulFULL as a species, but the older I get the more sure I become that behind the facades of consumerism and technological expansion are people who suffer and fear and love with exactly the same passion that I myself suffer and fear and love. It's harder to see this passion from the other side of the tinted glass in the SUV they're driving, or the $500 sunglasses they're wearing, and there is surely a cluelessness in such consuming that makes it tempting to believe these people are clueless about everything else, but I see now that it's there, and I never saw it until I hit middle age.

Whether this is insight or maudlin self-delusion is, of course, a matter of debate.

jmcleod76 said...

@Margaret: Good point. If anything, I think all of our superficial consumerism is just a misguided attempt to connect with our more "soulful" side. As BitterGrace has pointed out here before, spirituality and love of the material world are, at the very least, tightly intertwined, if not from the exact same source. Who says wanting $500 sunglasses doesn't arise from that same impulse? I definitely recognize a lot of life force in my own materialistic drives - past and present. I think that's what I was hinting at with my scientist story, though you came right out and said it much more clearly that I could have. Of course, there are limits, too. I think providing ourselves with everything we desire - including SUVs and $500 sunglasses - is ultimately injurious to the "soul," and to the world in general (not that you were saying it isn't, I realize).

BitterGrace said...

I vote for insight, Margaret, and I do agree with you, up to a point. People certainly feel the things they always have, and that's a really important thing to remember--but (that word again) here's the question: Can passion survive if it is shamed and unshared?

There's a sort of "tree falling in the woods" issue here. So much of our emotional energy is siphoned off by consumer culture, so many of our daily human contacts have to get past technological hurdles, that our deeper feelings are lost to one another, as you point out.

The consequence of that is that we are becoming increasingly "cool" as a culture. We are uncomfortable with passions such as Schjeldahl's, or the tears of Jaime's scientist. We actually distrust that kind of emotion. Individuals may be as passionate as ever, but the society is becoming affectless.

If people have few expressive outlets for passion, eventually they lose the ability to speak about it at all, and ultimately they lose the ability to understand it. It devolves to a kind of inchoate discomfort that we go looking to soothe with, say, $500 sunglasses.

Bozo said...

BG-- I think the word "becoming" is what I disagree with. I think that culture has always been "soul-less" to an extent. The difference in our perceptions of the past and what is happening today is that the past's popular culture-- which was probably as "soul-less" as ours-- has not survived. Rembrandt has survived because he reaches the soul of us; but he probably lived in a world-- maybe even enjoyed a world-- with a popular culture as soul-less our own. Mozart loved to play billiards, for example, and took many of his melodies from popular drinking songs; the difference is that he transformed a "soul-less" popular culture into something passionate and lasting. I think it likely that something like that is happening somewhere in the world today.

Margaret said...

Not to debate so much as to continue the discussion:

I'm not sure I agree with you that the world is becoming cooler, or even-- as both you and Jaime suggest-- that discomfort with passions, or the lack of way to express them, is at the root of our consumer culture. Has the great mass of humanity ever been comfortable with grand displays of passion? Art and poetry and science-- these are areas of endeavor for only the tiniest fraction of people the world over and throughout history.

I do agree that a culture of consumerism is a danger to passion of every kind, if only because it inevitably seems to necessitate more time at work, which in turn necessitates less time at play and reflection and communion with others. But I don't think the mercantile/technological world we live in inherently *suppresses* the expression of feeling or the impulse to communicate deeply with others, any more than any other culture in human history has done.

Look at us here, playing with this cool toy called the Internet, brought to us by way of both money and technology. And so far from suppressing the expression of passion, or preventing the communion of human souls, it's made my morning a lot more thoughtful and a lot more fun by allowing this discussion. Well, you did that, not the Internet itself, with your post. But if you'd written the post by hand and sent it to me by way of the pony express, that pleasure would still be unavailable to me. And I'd never know Julie or Jaime's thoughts on the subject at all.

BitterGrace said...

I hope you're right and I'm wrong, Bozo. I'm sure you're right that there are modern-day Mozarts out there doing wonderful things. But the "soul" I'm talking about is not just an element of high culture. It can be found anywhere human beings share--for want of a better word--their humanity.

The rise of consumer capitalism has had effects on human society that are profound. We are separated from the people around us in ways that Rembrandt could not have imagined. Playing billiards and singing songs are things you do with real flesh-and-blood fellow humans. Cell phones and the Internet do permit us to connect with people a thousand miles away, but only in a very limited, highly mediated way. Technology is taking the place of the body, and insofar as a life inside the tech bubble lets us abandon our bodies, it also lets us abandon our feelings. The fact that we don't own or control the technology makes it all the more disturbing.

BitterGrace said...

Speaking of the limits of technology: Margaret, your comment came through while I was replying to Bozo. I wish I could turn off the damn moderator, but that would allow certain trollish characters to fuck with me long distance--which I suppose supports your point!

I can't deny that there are avenues of creativity and communication that didn't exist even 50 years ago, but we've paid a price for them. Daily life seems much colder to me than it did 30 or 40 years ago. Granted, I grew up in a very small, very rural place, but there was a degree of connection to other people then that I don't see in most of America now. Oddly enough, the one place you do still see it is in big cities, where people are forced to live literally on top of each other, and they can't deny what's going on immediately around them.

I believe my current thinking on this subject has been shaped by a recent evening spent in a McMansioned Nashville suburb which shall remain nameless. The degree of glassy-eyed detachment among the populace was actually frightening.

Bozo said...

Let me just add that technology like the net makes possible this kind of shared, almost intimate discussion which doesn't happen very frequently in the everyday non-tech world. I'm delighted that the net has opened my world to BG Notes.

BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Bozo. I'm very grateful for your company here, and for all the other good friends of this blog.

Mary said...

Thoughtful analysis of art is usually interesting to me, whether I agree with the critic or not. I believe the problems begin when you hear another person's judgement and you start to doubt your personal critique of a piece of art...which in the end is the only one that matters.

That bloody gash in her side against the white tone of her gown is genius.

I got pretty emotionally worked up when viewing Rembrandt's etchings while they were on exhibition here last year.

BitterGrace said...

Hi, Mary--It's nice to see you back. I think you would have enjoyed listening to Schjeldahl--he went on at length about the gash. I agree that the crux of the problem is that people invest the critic with some kind of authority, instead of considering his words (or hers) just one more part of the conversation about art.