Why Are You So Critical?

Why Are You So Critical?

(Soundtrack: Joan Jett — Fit To Be Tied)

Our story so far:

Steven lamented the phrase “it took me right out of the story”

The Forager (whose return to near-daily posting is always welcome!) spoke out in favour of “old-fashioned” appreciation

Steven returned, chiefly to wonder what the hell consitutes “old-fashioned appreciation”

and then

Marc Singer leaped onto the stage and pointed an accusing finger at the “real enemy”–not any specific type of critic, but lazy criticism in general

Along the way, Steven admitted that, of course, he never believed that, when people say “it broke the illusion”, they really meant that they thought they had been “called back” from Earth-2 or anything like that. I never believed it either. The problem is that people like to pretend that this is the case. How many times have you heard someone say they were “transported” by a work of art? I’ll bet you any money that they didn’t go anywhere. Unless they happened to be reading on the subway.

And that’s the crux of the problem. When I fall in love with a book or a movie, I don’t lose myself in it, I become thoroughly engaged in conversation with it. And my friends (which includes you, dear reader!). That’s not “immersion”. Or “absorption”. I’m still me. That’s a sad fact of life, and devotees of the cult of aesthetics are loath to admit it.

Which brings us back to JW Hastings–who seems to cherish a notion of the critic as “witness” to the “divine” products of aesthetic genius. I know, I know. Where the hell does he say that?

Well, maybe you could start with this:

I’d be a lot kinder to the academic variety (a) if I didn’t see its influence everywhere–having a trickle down effect on all kinds of criticism–and (b) if I didn’t think this theory-driven analysis seems to have completely replaced the kind of basic, nuts-and-bolts technical analysis, boring but useful, that used to be the focus of scholarship.

In general though, I have nothing against interpretation of art that grows out of an actual aesthetic experience of the art work and builds on a solid understanding of the technical-craftsmanship involved in the work’s creation.

So let me get this straight. The critic’s job is to use her/his inner “aesthetic sense” to determine where “greatness” resides, and then to bore the reader with an analysis of the technical virtues of the work. This is the perfect way to convince the reader that aesthetic creation really is the new prophecy, because no technical analysis ever thrilled anyone, and yet, the works under discussion are undeniably thrilling! The “remainder” must therefore be of divine origin. Right?

Bollocks to that! My theory of aesthetics works completely differently. It’s a domino effect. The only way to do justice to a work of art is to engage in a rousing conversation with it (and anyone else who might be in the vicinity!) I may not always succeed, but that’s always my intention. Criticism is not “caducous”, an unnecessary supplement to the holy work of art! No criticism, no work of art… The terms depend upon each other!

JW says:

Dave: I don’t doubt that you love the stuff you write about, but you generally seem to like stuff because of what it says–its contribution to an ongoing philosophical and political conversation–and because the stuff happens to be beautiful, moving, pleasurable, etc.

I object!

I like the things I like because I like them! Most of the stuff I write about at Motime is stuff I’ve loved since my mid-teens! And I wasn’t reading “literary theory” back then–in fact, until my mid-twenties, the only “critics” I was reading were people like Parrington, Brooks, Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen… (and I still love these folks, by the way!) But waitaminnit! There’s an important question in there–do you dislike New Criticism too JW? I mean, there’s certainly nothing “new” about it at this point. But it may not be “old-fashioned” enough to meet with the standards you outlined in your post! I myself write criticism that is much closer in spirit to the mid-twentieth century zeitgeist than to the kinds of unimaginative “debunking” exercises that seem to have driven you out of the academy.

As for academia building canons to suit its purposes! I need examples! From what I’ve seen (and by your own admission) theorists can apply their methodologies to any “cultural artifact” (even a tube of toothpaste), so where does the “privileging” come in? Most critics are still writing about the things they love, just as they always have–they just aren’t hiding behind the cult of aestheticism any more. I know that what interests me in criticism is the same thing that interests me in any other product of the human mind–a unique and moving invitation to thought and discussion! And if you think that sounds cold and theoretical then you’ve got a different understanding of how powerfully emotional thought and conversation can be!

Good afternoon friends!



One comment

  1. Dave,
    I’m not arguing for anything so grandiose. I am arguing that immersion should be a perfectly acceptable form of engagement with a work of art.
    I also think that academic criticism focuses on the “find the meaning” method because this method is the only one that is teachable. Professors can’t “teach” you aesthetic sensibility: you have to cultivate their own (although I’ve certainly met professors who have helped me along). Because of this, you’ll find that books like The Crying of Lot 49, which invites a lot of interpretation/search-for-meaning analysis(and, in fact, requires such analysis in order to be fully satisfying) more central to the academic canon than a book like What Makes Sammy Run?, which has a much more transparent “meaning”–it doesn’t invite academic analysis and doesn’t require such analysis to be a satisfying experience. And I’d argue that all the Lit Profs who’d say that Lot 49 is the greater book are, in fact, privileging the kind of book that happens to fit nicely into what they do for a living: interpret and analyze “texts.”
    Incidentally, this leads to the use of the weasel word “interesting” as a subsitute for “good”, as in:
    Q: Did you think the new Godard movie was any good?
    A: Well, it was very interesting.
    Here “interesting” means: provides a lot of fodder for the kind of political and philosophical discussions that I like to engage in.
    In fact, although you accuse me of believing in some kind of “aesthetic genius”, my own take on art is a lot more prosaic than yours. To simplify things (and to call a momentary moratorium on splitting hairs) I see art, and artists, more in relation to craft: an art work, for me, is basically some kind of object with which we can enagage with to have an aesthetic experience, which, for me, is (merely?) a very specific, highly refined form of pleasure. I don’t see all that much difference between appreciating a work of art and appreciating a garden (or a meal).
    Now, I also think that having political and philosophical discussions can be pleasurable. However, for me at least, this seems to be a different pleasure from the art appreciation kind.
    Granted, these two things often exist side-by-side (in The Magic Mountain, for example), but they certainly don’t have to and I think that one of the major problems with contempo-academic criticism is that it focuses almost exclusively on the value a given art work has as fodder in some political/philosophical discussion. The idea of the art work existing as its own thing and on its own terms (while admittedly existing withing a larger context) is completely lost.
    All the best,

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