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July 21, 2005 by AK

Yes, it is an argument about tastes after all

A.C. Douglas thunders against the “genteel pap” style of art critism, quoting an old post by Michael Blowhard as an example of the wrong approach.

This reminds me of the time, about ten years ago, when I tried to figure out how more or less independent Russian theater critics put together critical reviews. My guess was their reaction guided them — “I like it,” or “I hate it,” or “I don’t really care.” Since the public wouldn’t take a mere “I like it,” the critic would go on to rationalize her assessment.

That can be helpful to the reader if the critic digs in the right direction. It is possible to like a work of art without understanding it — think of a magically sounding poem in a foreign language. It is also possible to understand every bit of a poem without understanding the whole, as happens way too often to linguists. Perhaps the most important task of a critic is to help the reader understand and appreciate a work of art — but neither as a chaos of little details, nor as a lifeless whole. To understand and appreciate it as a living thing in its dynamic entirety.

To that end, any tools would do. But all investigations into art’s innards should be means to an end, no more.

Knowing anatomy helps understand what humans feel and why but one can’t understand humans well judging by the condition of their intestines alone. (On the contrary, avian guts used to be extremely informative.) That wry smile on your colleague’s face does not mean she thinks you are mentally incurable; it could be a severe heartburn that makes her smile convulsively. But if you were to write a memoir of the lady, hopefully many decades later, I doubt you would make her stomach-ache the centerpiece of your story.

Remember that analysis is dissection; one can only dissect a corpse. Likewise, synthesis is like taxidermy. It works — but the bird won’t fly unless you sprinkle it with live water.

What if old-time arguments over what consitutes great art gave off — no, not the magic liquid but sparks that kept reigniting the public’s interest in the scene? What if these days, the burns can wake up those who suffer the apathy of postmodernism, meaning sloth — the boring levellers?

Make them argue over the value of everything that might, just might seem valuable. May duelling critics be at one another’s throat with arguments of all thinkable sorts, rational as well as wild and exorbitant. It is only advisable that the arguments be impressive, and the purposes of criticism be a shared set of axioms.


1 comment »

  1. J.Cassian says:

    Critics have generally produced more heat than light in my experience. With a few shining exceptions, I’d say that on balance they’ve actually reduced my pleasure in and understanding of the arts. Most of the best critics seem to be artists themselves. As you say, you’ve got to watch the butchers and botchers who never hesitate to “murder to dissect”. I also try to steer well clear of the Dogmatic Systematisers. As Lord Byron wrote: “When a man begins to talk of system, his case is hopeless.”

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