Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Criticism and self-indulgence

“I've never had much faith in art criticism as a primary form because you are leaning on somebody else's work. It's not that it can't be a positive parasitic process, not that you can't bring new insights to the work, or get out the artist's intentions better than the artist himself or herself might be able to do, but I can't think of any criticism that has ever stood up in the long run as a real parallel to the art. Some of the critics we respect the most didn't write good criticism-they were good poets or something. It's self-indulgence when you come right down to it, you like something and you enjoy plunging into it with words. I don't finally know what the hell criti­cism does for anybody except the artist and the writer.”
Lucy Lippard, “Freelancing the Dragon,” From the Center, p. 20 (Dutton 1976)

This is a great quote, and makes several points I believe strongly, like the self-indulgent quality of writing criticism, and the impetus to do, to “plunge in with words.” Her description of criticism by poets and others fits some cases well, like Baudelaire. His criticism makes some fine points, but they mostly take the from of aphorisms isolated in the midst of more topical observations.

There are exceptions to this characterization. Walter Benjamin for instance, unless you want to call him something other than a critic. Susan Sontag for sure, and I think everyone sees her as a critic primarily. Of even more recent people, it seems someone like Tom Frank, and Lippard herself, might hold on and be worth reading years from now.

The final comment in the quote reads initially as a condemnation of criticism, but I’m not so sure it is. If criticism forms a place where a writer and an artist can establish communication, that seems valuable as a human phenomenon. Criticism as a public correspondence, a conversation with a performance dimension. If the artist is one of the two primary beneficiaries of the writing, other people in the society or community benefit by the encouragement the artist gets to keep doing what she does. This view has a strange effect of relegating the general readership to a critical secondary position. Private correspondence does not have the same impact as knowing that the writer made statements in front of anyone who would read or listen. So you need readers, but you need them more as witnesses than as recipients of communication.

After putting it in those terms, I remember my own experiences as a reader of criticism. It spurs my thinking, teaches me things about works of art, and in some cases gives me a feel for an exhibit or movie I won’t see, music I won’t hear. Sure that’s frustrating, and sometimes it serves to make me feel isolated, but it also gives me some of the pleasures at second hand. For some reason, in some frames of mind a review or critical essay is exactly what I want to read.


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