I was reading Matthew Collings’s Diary (or ‘Mathew Collings’ Diary’ as the editors of Modern Painter put it) (one of my more morbid fancies, prompted by a misreading of my sister’s homework assignment: a graphic novel chronicling the workings of Anne Frank’s Dairy) which was, as art journalists might say, something of a revelation (but without the qualifier. Emma Dexter in Modern Painter on Marlene Dumas: “… it is a testament to her subtlety as a painter that by intermingling these themes she achieves nothing short of a revelation.” Nothing short?). Collings is my current favourite disgruntled person of middle age. From the June issue of Modern Painter: “… like articles about art written by people who usually are novelists or poets – these too are always great marvels of sympathy for something that doesn’t exist … It’s extraordinary how a kind of unmistakable jobbing Time magazine style kicks in very quickly, as the structure upon which flowery enthusiasm rides…”
That issue obligingly carries pieces by Jeanette Winterson and Toby Litt. Litt, ‘one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists 2003’, describes Phil Hale honing his painterly technique as a means of liberating his choice of subject. “Phil Hale doesn’t want to be an artist who doesn’t because he can’t, and who, as a result, does merely because he can.” It’s a neat enough idea, but carries less weight as observation. What is so exemplary about these paintings, by this painter, that teaches us about the qualities of craft and mastery of technique? Litt’s sympathy is not so much for something that doesn’t exist, as for something that doesn’t exist here - or rather its specific instantiation is nullified by its generalness. The novelist’s preoccupation with a theory, or more agreeably -what could be more disagreeable than a theory? - an idea, of art distracts him from the difficulty of looking at the work itself. This preoccupation with generic polish often betrays the writer’s shallowness as a reader. (The irony of my having randomly picked this article to illustrate this point has not passed unnoticed.) (Borges in the preface to A Universal History of Infamy: “Reading, obviously, is an activity which comes after that of writing; it is more modest, more unobtrusive, more intellectual.” I have not read the rest of the book.)
My faith in novelists, and in good writing, and the conviction that the latter is dependent on good reading, was restored by the Modern Painters Fall 2003 edition. Firstly, because there is an article by Philip Roth on Philip Guston. I have not yet read it, but it’s pleasing to know its there. Secondly, because of Julian Barnes’s beautiful account of Vuillard, and the effects of looking towards the artist rather than his work (Though to judge by the enormous photograph, and raffish pose, in every book, Barnes is one artist who doesn’t mind being looked at.) In a few lines, he affirms, by argument and – more illuminatingly – by example, the power of good writing, and the joy of good reading. Against the ‘astute’ renaming, as one catalogue called it, of paintings to reflect the circumstances in which they were painted, Barnes insists:
Such rechristening is ‘astute’ only in the sense of commercial branding – Hey, don’t be scared, you can call him Edouard. Artistically, it is far from astute. It’s saying: oh, by the way, this is what he was really painting, it’s just that he didn’t like to tell us at the time. It’s reductive, and while it couldn’t make the pictures banal, it makes them seem more ordinary. It treats them as narrative, as conversation piece, as domestic autobiography. It invites us to look for theme rather than composition and aesthetic. It is a small but significant betrayal of the artist.
A similar malady exists in the academia of the humanities, with its obsessive explication of it’s own methods, of fitting the real world to methodology, or using the world as a springboard to some discussion of scholarly technique. This is what the history of the pygmies is really about. I recently read a paper in which every second paragraph was about how complicated the facts were, and how subtle was the author’s interpretation. Neither of these was true, but even if they were, the impact was slight compared to, say, a compelling New Yorker story.
But I’m not here to convince the hip young citizens of blogland to eschew the academy. That would hardly be responsible. Indeed, the theme of this post, to arrive at it obliquely, but with some measure of continuity, and contrary to even (especially) my expectation, is a tentative endorsement of the serious.
The internet, as any fifty-year-old will tell you, is an unprecedented means of saying nothing. More surprising is that now so many say nothing so well. The agitated pursuit of form, the relentless common shaping of styles and modes (see how quickly the surface of cool crit shifts and morphs with the restless adding on and refining – and subtraction through disremembrance - by every geek with an ipod and a gifted lexis) lends credibility to the reading of hypertext as shorthand for hyperactive. For all the buzz and excitement, let’s not forget that hyperactivity is attended by a deficit of attention.
The consummate stylist of the broadband generation must be Sasha Frere-Jones. (Has anyone carried the credibility of such various streets?) But every so often I read his New Yorker pieces with just too comfortable an outsider’s repose. Partly because of the reassuring intimations of the arcane, the beguiling geekishness of pop scrutinised with meticulous, and proportionless, zeal. But there is also a feeling, sometimes, of detachedness, of an insufficient relation between critical style and critical object. When I don’t know what sf/j is talking about, I don’t really care. But it’s not like some of the other New Yorker authors, whose writing carries me over with its power and subtlety – but also its sense of conviction and urgency (or truth). When the glossy Frere-Jones metaphor machine is on autopilot (to mangle mine) it feels like a fantastic review of a restaurant I can’t afford in a city I can’t visit. Who cares how the food tastes as long as the author gets to say fish candy! It reminds me of Sonny Rollins’s (Coltrane’s?) remark about Stan Getz - we’d all play that smooth if we could – it’s true, but it artfully conceals the point.
Misia Sert tells in her memoirs … of walking through a beetroot field with him as the light was closing in, of her tripping on a root and nearly falling, of him helping her regain balance, of their eyes meeting… whereupon Vuillard burst into sobs. Sert gives a separate paragraph to the next line: ‘It was the most beautiful declaration of love ever made to me.’ Beautiful, but also characteristic – of the man, and of the painting too, John Russell … drew an astute comparison between Mallarme’s precepts about poetry and the young Vuillard’s practice as a painter. Mallarme’s instruction was ‘to paint not the thing itself, but the effect which it produces’; he also wrote, ‘Somewhere in the creative act is the attempt to evoke an object by placing it deliberately in shadow and referring to it allusively and never by name.’ Vuillard’s painting is always less ethereal and less excluding than Mallarme’s poetry; but the incident in the beetfield is the Mallarmean aesthetic applied directly back to life. Vuillard’s sobs are not a statement of love, but a display of the effect which it produces.
There’s so much to admire in this passage, its sweep and balance and rhythm, the recondite charm, the novelist’s human feeling. The salvaging of sentimentality, even portentousness, towards education is especially gratifying. It’s like discovering your favourite chocolate triggers weight loss. But it is the underlying purpose, the end towards which Barnes’s style is the means, and the completion of this end, that marks this out as a permanent and serious piece of criticism. It leads us back to the work with an expanded view, and, we hope, an expanded appreciation. And that is the point of criticism.
This feels a bit like the Lucky Jim’s nice things are nicer than nasty ones. Deep things are deeper than shallow ones, innit? Well, sort of.
Distance and objectivity are frequently considered fixed virtues of criticism. (At least by those who believe in values.) But some of the very best, and certainly the most endearing, commentary shares cultural space with its object. When Comp. Lit. Professors discover terza rima in gangsta rap it embarrasses not for lack of erudition, but, pace irony, the failure to inhabit some essential sensibility, and driving energy, that makes the work mean something. (Oh, to have Chekov review the next Streets album!) This has its limits – how do you inhabit Dylan? – but a (pop)culturally informed lucidity can initiate terrific work. Even enthusiasm is not enough: Jonathan Lethem sensitively observed of Christopher Ricks that “The critic has, seemingly, merely wished to test the songs he loves against his own pre-existing context, which happens to be Philip Larkin and Matthew Arnold, not Blind Willie McTell.” Nothing wrong with that – and I look forward to reading Ricks’s book – but if I want a guide to take me further into the work, I want someone who has lived that artistic terrain completely enough to have local knowledge.
Now look at this. There are bits where it’s as if a Norah Jones song has been transformed into prose, losing its soothing good taste along the way; but the rhythm and the voice remains intact, and, like an unusually candid artist’s commentary, it explains both the reasons and the limitations of its being. A moment like this and Frere-Jones comes across as that rare aficionado who, to paraphrase James Wood, seems to hear music from the inside.
When it works so well, you get the sense that the stylisation emerges naturally, rather than being piled on; that it is not a source but a vital symptom, of a particular cultural mode. It’s because he speaks the language of pop that the author gets such a clear reading, rather than speaking like that to affect the artist’s lingo. This is when mass media thrills. (And here, conflict of interest notwithstanding, I could say nice things about Jermaine’s text…)
Now I’m not exactly a great reader, I’m too hasty and slapdash – one reason I respond more naturally to film may be related to how much the director determines the pace – however, when the ennui lifts, I do attempt to take the author seriously. But I wonder how much empty flash I can consume before I stop caring.