Written in response to:
Everyone’s a critic, usually a bad one. But if Apollo e Dafne, Tristan und Isolde or a Dickinson poem come along, then even very good criticism is no use either. The great work of art has no need of the critic. Yes, it will still get criticised, but really not to much purpose. When a Nijinsky, or a Miles Davis, or a Bergman come along, you can only learn from their passion. Criticism is redundant.
The great work of art, whatever that my be, is inviolable. After all, the critical temperament cannot create the great work of art and it stands to reason that the critical temperament cannot really understand the energy/desire that created it. A long time into the future, some begin to get the message: Wagner, Dickinson, Patrick White.
I entirely disagree with you Peter. You veer close to suggesting we should not think about or discuss a work of art at all. That it should remain mystically inviolable, which of course great works often do despite any attempts to deconstruct them.
The mistake is to assume criticism is simply about – or only about – deconstructing work, the mechanic in reverse approach i.e. pull it all to pieces and then say why it doesn’t work. I think there is a place for fine analytical criticism that works off that process and reconstitutes a useful contextual vision that helps involvement without seeking to imperially control that involvement. I also think there is a place for what I would call ecstatic criticism, which to me is a kind of criticism that filters a an affecting work or artist through a personal process and the art of the personal essay to create something anew. There are elements of the translator to that act. To me the energy and ideas are radiating outwards in that way.
It’s the rock journalist in me that keeps me enthusiastic about idea of ecstatic criticism e.g. Lester Bangs when he was writing something good, or Jack Kerouac writing about music, love and everything else in something like The Subterraneans. But I well know how it can turn onto a tide of adjectives having slathered it all out myself at times!
Creation is inviolable, materially. Criticism, especially in our time, is just an elaboration. I can think of very few critics of any form who possess even a hint of alchemy.
I thank all of the respondents to my essay. As its argument suggests, I am rather more sympathetic to Mark Mordue’s ideas about criticism than those of Peter Nicholson. In fact, I am genuinely puzzled as to how one might ‘learn from the passion’ of Miles Davis or Emily Dickinson (to cite two of Nicholson’s examples) without first trying to understand how and why their particular art is affecting, without acquiring some understanding of the artistic traditions in which they work, without considering the historical and social contexts in which their work appeared, without considering the issues of form and technique – without, in other words, engaging with their creations in a critical fashion. It seems to me that this process is, as T.S. Eliot remarked, as inevitable as breathing. Critical analysis might not exhaust the meaning of a Dickinson poem, but that is not the same thing as being ‘no use’.
To describe something as a ‘great work of art’ is itself a critical judgement, of course. But that judgement cannot be hermetic or final; it has to be based on something and it has a context. To insist that certain manifestations of greatness are ultimately inexplicable – or ‘inviolable’, though why criticism might be considered a violation I do not know – not only shuts down discussion in a rather peremptory manner, it leaves us with an unsatisfying tautology: Dickinson is great because she is great.
Perhaps I am being overly sensitive in detecting in Nicholson’s argument an assumption that art and criticism are antagonists. But I don’t think they are. I see them as complementary, and in a sense mutually dependent. We need art, but we also need the cultural conversation about art, which is criticism, and art itself needs this discussion to endure. You can be the greatest artistic genius who ever lived, but if no one bothers to engage with your work, to think about it and discuss its meaning, it will disappear.
I do have a point of contention with Mordue, however, and that is his use of the word ‘translator’. I am not sure that the analogy is quite right, even though redescription is one of the critic’s tools. To my mind, criticism is more akin to an interaction, a dialogue with the work. Christopher Barnett’s point that too few critics these days have the alchemy to provide genuine insight is well taken: we can always do better. But criticism is, I would argue, not ‘just’ an elaboration; it is a necessary elaboration, for the meaning of art – even the greatest art – is never self-evident.
I think James’ comments here are fair enough. I’m a democrat and think people should critique work as intelligently as they can. I just don’t think criticism works terribly well in explaining art. Even some artists I greatly admire have made some very foolish critical comments, in my opinion – Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden. Can I stir the pot with a quote from the Finnish composer Sibelius: ‘Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a a critic.’
This is an excellent criticism of criticisms and I agree, in particular, with the very accurate assessment of David Shields’ approach. It’s great that Ley has taken the time to show precisely why Shields’ musings amount to little more than trendy sophistry. Shields’ work does, nevertheless, pose a question apropos of audience. As much as I totally agree with Ley about the sheer banality of Shields’ passage, I also ‘get’ what the latter means by ‘the existential rock thing’. (I assume he’s referring to something like Sonic Youth and/or the more recent iterations of this ‘something’.) This of course designates the contemporary, postmodernist, ‘experimental’ critic as a deeply elitist, conservative figure: Shields obviously demands a certain aesthetic education from his readers, so that his readers will naturally ‘get’ the meaning of idiolectic – and, as Ley points out, idiotic – phrases like ‘the existential rock thing’. Nevertheless, doesn’t all criticism have a particular audience in mind? Or can we instead talk about aesthetics in properly universalist terms, a la Kant, Hegel, etc? I’m not quite sure if, say, Wood is doing this.
Ali Alizadeh’s point about audiences is an interesting and important one, and he is right to observe that my essay does not address this issue in sufficient detail. Criticism does, of course, always have an audience in mind, as does art itself.
I think the crux of the issue he raises may lie in the phrase ‘aesthetic education’. The weakness of Shields’ writing, considered as criticism, is that it is parading a set of received ideas as if they were radical. It is a self-projection that is not really trying to illuminate or understand anything. In this sense, though it presumes an audience, it is not particularly interested in their education. Yet it is the case that one can be aesthetically ‘educated’, not in the sense that there are certain ‘great’ works that one must learn to revere or be counted a philistine and a dunce, but in the sense that one can learn to appreciate art that initially seems incomprehensible and alienating by coming to understand its cultural context and its informing ideas, and by absorbing its particular aesthetic principles. I share the postmodern scepticism about the possibility of a ‘universal’ aesthetics, which would seem to demand a contextless or transcendent perspective that I don’t think is possible. But I don’t believe this matters, particularly, from the point of view of criticism. Arguments about criticism tend to organise themselves around the polarities of universalism vs. relativism or elitist exclusivity vs. democratic inclusiveness, but I think in the realm of aesthetics, and thus the discursive and contingent realm of criticism, these are false (and invariably unhelpful) dichotomies.
In taking Nicholson’s bait, I am compelled to point out that Sibelius’ high-handed dismissal of critics – good line though it is – it not actually true. There is a statue of Sainte-Beuve at Versailles. But one might also retort that there are other reasons for doing things than the prospect of a statue in one’s honour – a rather tawdry motivation for doing anything, in my opinion. However, given that a statue is lifeless monument and criticism is dedicated to living art, I am willing to adapt Sibelius’s line into a provisional definition – criticism: opposed to statues.