Sunday, August 5, 2012

Advice to Critics Young and Old, Part 1 - A Review is Not a Proof

People who are unsympathetic to The Hub Review often collar me with questions like "Who are you to say what is art? And what is art, anyway? Can't anything be art?"

Now these are valuable questions - although most don't go nearly deep enough. For instance, isn't "Who are you to say what is art?" really only part of the larger question "Who are you, period?"  And I'm still working on that!

I will note, however, that the people who ask me these kinds of questions almost inevitably then begin to harangue me with their own idea of what art is.  (Generally, it turns out to be what they like but I don't.)   To top it all off, they then inform me that their opinions count as "inclusive," "diverse," or "non-judgmental."  Uh-huh.

Now this is always privately amusing, but I've learned not to comment on it - I just nod (sometimes even with a smile); I know from experience that when my critics are faced with the internal contradictions of their positions, they will react with something close to fury.

But I will point out that I rarely make the overt claim that anything I'm reviewing is "art."  In fact, I'd never say "It made me cry, so it's art," as one former Globe reviewer basically opined (much less "It got me hard, so it's art," as another did).   It's true that when I am talking about acknowledged masterpieces by Rembrandt or Shakespeare or whomever, I will often blithely refer to these works as "great art." But that's simply reportage - time has crowned them "art," not me (and hence they're as good a definition of "art" as we've got).

(I know, I know - it is not "time," but rather the dead white male patriarchy, that has crowned these works as art, and you are a revolutionary dedicated to universal justice, so up with this you cannot put!  This is an argument for another day, but trust me it won't lead where you think it will; to get an idea of what I mean, ponder Michel Foucault's life-long thesis, "I Will Now Disprove the Influence of the Enlightenment by Applying the Ideals of the Enlightenment."  In other words, admit to yourself that yes, those Dead White Guy ideals are embedded in your critical apparatus whether you like it or not.)

Which leads me to today's topic in a new, ongoing series, "Advice to Critics Young and Old," which could be summed up as:

A review is not a proof.  And if yours is, then it's not a very good review.

Okay - a review should be full of argument - every contention or statement should have its implicit or explicit justification; you should always be asking yourself what the reader is (or should be) asking: "What's backing up that opinion?"

But thinking that you can therefore tie your individual arguments up into a kind of proof of a work's artistic greatness is, I'm afraid, a little naïve.  You're just going to have to leave that part to time.  A critic can hope to have influence over that eventual decision - but trust me, such sway will only derive from your arguments' value on their own terms (and not on their claims to a definitive conclusion).  If a critic is delighted with a work of art, his or her job is simply to articulate its cultural interest as best he or she can; and if the resulting argument is made insightfully enough, the work will be that much closer to joining the pantheon.

But a lot of critics seem to want to take a short cut to that pedestal.  Indeed, the naïve "proof" is one of the most popular forms of review - at least from naïve reviewers.

To give you a better idea of the kind of thing I'm talking about, here is a sample from a recent post on another blog (it doesn't matter which one, but okay, it's a review of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity on The Arts Fuse):

. . . the play unfolds organically: Gestures support words; Words support action. A flawless whole, the entrances, exits, the falls and the blows are choreographed with the same playful—if you forgive the pun—pursuit of excellence that defines the entire evening. Same for the lights—or rather, the moods they create. Same for the costumes. Now the costumes in professional wrestling are notoriously inventive and outrageously macho, what with the grotesque baklava type masks, etc. But with regard to the costumes as well, I felt the artistic discipline that elevates this show to the level of a work of art. (Emphasis added.)

Now why am I unconvinced by these arguments?  Perhaps because they amount to a circular stream of re-inforcing declarations: this whole production is flawless; the action is "choreographed  . . . with the playful pursuit of excellence" (??); the same goes for the costumes and lights - or rather "the moods they create" (even the audience's moods are playfully pursuing excellence?).  Needless to say, all this empty posturing can only lead to the emptiest stance of all - "This is art, because it is self-evidently excellent."

Now it's hard for me to see how this kind of writing is different from saying "I liked the choreography.  I liked the lighting.  I liked the costumes.  I liked the masks.  So this is art."  (If someone can explain the difference to me, please do.)  I will give this critic points, though, for confusing "balaclava" (a style of headgear that masks the face) with "baklava" (the tasty Turkish dessert made from nuts and honey).  That, at least, is cute, and undercuts the rest of the paragraph with a piquant innocence.  But reading the rest of the review is a waste of time, because this critic's desire to prove the production he has seen is "art" has led him to string together a series of idealistic (and vaguely corporate) gestures, rather than any actual descriptions or theses, as a mode of "proof."

A deeper point, of course, is that it's hard to prove any abstract contention without relying on other abstract contentions.  That's why it is best to analyze why something is interesting rather than why it is "great." But how does one argue for cultural interest?

Well, it helps if you define your context - the closest this particular writer gets to that kind of thing is in his amusing mention of the "baklava" on the wrestlers' faces.  This is actually (perhaps) the beginning of a valid critical point - the writer contends that this production accurately evokes the milieu it is trying to conjure (the world of professional wrestling).  And it may well do precisely that (I haven't seen it, although I saw the Off-Broadway production of this solid-but-nothing-special play).

But this would only validate the skill of the designer's representative skill, wouldn't it; we wonder why we couldn't just watch an average WWF telecast and glean basically the same aesthetic pleasure as we would from a highly accurate simulation of same.  Does the production take this representation a little further, perhaps?  Has something about the aesthetic of the WWF been heightened or analyzed, perhaps even satirized or undermined?  Has the very reason for (pointlessly) wearing a mask in an athletic event been somehow probed?

But all we learn from this reviewer is that these masks are being celebrated. Indeed, in general the sensations the WWF dishes out have been apotheosized, but not analyzed.  (Which is far from accurate, btw; I'll give the playwright this much, he does clearly intend to satirize the WWF.)  What's more, we learn that this very celebration is what defines the production as art; it is art because its subject - the WWF - is also art, and because the production has accurately rendered its subject, it too, perforce, is Art:

The Elaborate Entrance Of Chad Deity is about art. About a violent ballet, supported by utterly fantastic costumes. But such a summary makes the play smaller than it is. Ultimately the evening is indeed NOT about wrestling. It’s about the root, the very nature of art. About the love of craft; about wanting and needing to create.

You may have guessed by now why I chose this particular example: it recurses beautifully in its meaninglessness; it's fandom in a hall of mirrors; its final argument is even: this is art because it's about art - it's even about the ROOT of art.

But wait, there's more: not only is this production art, but everything is also art in its way:

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity reveals an obvious truth about all of our lives and the nature of art: that we don’t have to travel to far, exotic places to be awakened from the slumber of our everyday existence. We merely have to do what this playwright, this director, and this cast do: open our ears, our eyes, and especially our heart—and we will discover pulsing, inspiring life wherever we look.

I have to admit, I do admire the way this writer has the guts to parlay the void at the heart of his review into an all-encompassing nullity: art, it turns out, is wherever we look.  And therefore, of course, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is art because. . . well, because it's exactly like everything else.

Okay, Siddhartha  . . . we get you.  But what if we want to, well, think a little bit about the World Wide Wrestling Foundation?  I mean, sure, yeah, wham, bam, thank you ma'am - the body SLAMS into the mat - YOW! - move over Shakespeare!!!  I read you, but . . . what did this play reveal about the WWF, aside from its awesomeness?  Did it conceal some sort of critique, some sort of content?

Because here's where we bump into that "working definition of art" supplied by, you know, Shakespeare and Rembrandt and Beethoven and those other dead white guys.  That stuff they left behind - and I won't call it art - does reveal things.  It is not pure sensation; in fact, we're debating its meaning even today, and therefore its essence is precious, and cannot be found "everywhere we look."

So - by your own arguments, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity cannot, actually, join their pantheon.  It can be "excellent," sure - but its excellence must be of some other type or quality.  It is not "art" in the way that "art" has been defined until now.

That is, unless you've got something else to say about it.

And thus the final lesson of this kind of review - declarations of absolute excellence can be dangerous; the unsubstantiated proof all-too-easily devolves into its own anti-proof.

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