Lebenskünstler

“Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something.” – Generous criticism for perilous times

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/25/2013

Burying the Hatchet – Lee Siegel

Criticism was socializing by other means. And since socializing in those narrow literary and intellectual precincts consisted of egos battling for position, status, friendship, and love, it was inevitable that the criticism embody and sometimes exemplify what Delmore Schwartz—no mean takedown artist himself—once called “the scrimmage of appetite.” Pulverizing reviews were not taboo because the victims could always make their retort at the next social gathering, or on the pillow, or in one of the journals that served as kitchen tables for the extended family of writers who published there.

In the popular imagination, the intellectuals—especially the so-called New York intellectuals—were hugely influential, but this is a distortion. Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” published in Commentary in 1959, caused few ripples outside her own circle, even though Arendt’s argument that the United States was wrong to pursue integration at that moment was incendiary. By contrast, her article “Eichmann in Jerusalem” caught on in the larger culture because she published it in The New Yorker, one of the dreaded “middlebrow” magazines that was then in the process of making intellectuals like James Baldwin, Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, and Harold Rosenberg prominent national figures.

The insular, hothouse atmosphere of postwar intellectual combat is where, about twenty years after it disappeared, I schooled myself in the dark art of the takedown. I can now see the irony of my situation—or, as those bygone critics would have said, my “position.” My awareness of my own ineffectuality in the world also led me to seek out the power conferred by words. But the world had changed. I was not practicing a shared style. I was cultivating an idiosyncrasy: I was one of the few critics who carried a hatchet.

What had once been nicely divided into highbrow and middlebrow culture—even at the time a crude formulation of a complex reality—had become a wildly eclectic place where “high” and “low” and everything in between existed side by side. A critic I admired as I was starting out was Robert Hughes, who reviewed art for Time, ruminated more deeply on culture in the New York Review and in the back of the New Republic, published serious books on serious subjects, and introduced people to art in television series on PBS. His style was gripping, elegant, and, above all, popular. Though I didn’t share his fierce aversion to much contemporary art, I thought that the way his career blurred the distinctions between “high” and “low” was exemplary.

Authority is a slippery thing, and its nature is going through yet another permutation in literary life. There are plenty of young, gifted critics writing fiercely and argumentatively in relatively obscure Web publications. But they are keenly aware that, along with the target of their scrutiny, the source of their own authority is also an object of examination. Macdonald simply took for granted the fact that membership in a community conferred on him a certain accredited brilliance. This is what, for me, makes reading him now an incomplete experience, because the group that certified his judgments has disappeared. Literary criticism on the Web, on the other hand, draws whatever authority it has by renouncing any claims to authority. The Web critic relies on his or her readers for attentiveness and approval. A social style is gradually replacing an idiosyncratic one—whether it’s n + 1’s collective tone and worldly references to literary coteries and cliques or Choire Sicha’s slyly self-deprecatory exclamation marks.

Twenty years ago, Robert Hughes might have taken up the subject of Andy Warhol with a demon barber’s gleam in his eye. Instead, this article by Nick Faust in the online journal The New Inquiry, though its occasion is a reflection on Andy Warhol, captures the new spirit of criticism. It is a positive critique of the genre’s social possibilities, and it is expressed in a social tone:

    Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.

In other words, the critics will leak the total secret context surrounding a work of art—Edmund Wilson meets Edward Snowden! The French Annalistes wrote history in such a way, characterizing a moment in time by reconstructing its finest, most mundane details. Why not a criticism that draws from the same energy? I have no idea whether it would be successful, but I love the possibility of it.

Applying old standards to a time when everyone is throwing everything they can at the proverbial wall to see what sticks is like printing out a tweet, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to someone through the mail. The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim. The very largeness and diversity of present-day audiences make less and less relevant the type of review that never gets beyond the book under review. It’s the critic’s job nowadays not just to try to survive and flourish amid ever-shifting modes of cognition and transmission, but to define new standards that might offer clarity and illumination amid all the change. Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on “Girls,” the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it’s worth a try.

New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.

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