Considered as an instrument of thought, the [Texan] mind is coarse and undeveloped. The only thing that can purify it is the growth of the critical instinct. – Oscar Wilde
Welcome to my new blog. I hope that you will come back often, leave comments, and promote your own art events using the ‘add event’ tool. I would like for this to be a community space–a space for dialog.
In this first post, I want to take on the question, “Why criticism?” In other words, I want to justify my own existence, so let’s start with Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist,” a Socratic dialog first published in 1891, which is the most rigorous defense of criticism I’ve read. It is a dialog between two men–Ernest and Gilbert. In the beginning of the dialog, Ernest feels like criticism is base and at best, useless, whereas Gilbert feels that “Criticism is itself an art.”
Dig this exchange:
ERNEST: [W]hat is the use of art-criticism? Why cannot the artist be left alone, to create a new world…Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamour of criticism? Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work? What can they know about it?…[T]he creative faculty is higher than the critical…
GILBERT: The antithesis between them is entirely arbitrary. Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation…worthy of the name…[f]or it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms. The tendency of creation is to repeat itself. It is to the critical instinct that we owe each new school that springs up…The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces.
In Gilbert’s estimation, then, originality itself (“fresh forms”) is born of the critical impulse. If artists are not responding to and pushing back against the perceived shortcomings in older forms (including their own previous work), then they will merely copy those old forms and reproduce the same images/carvings/pottery/baskets that artisans and crafters (as opposed to “artistes”) have been making all along. Art moves “forward” not in spite of but precisely because of that critical faculty.
Criticism is generative of new art, then, but Gilbert does not leave it at that. He adds:
[J]ust as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent…
Criticism is no more to be judged by any low standard of imitation or resemblance than is the work of poet or sculptor. The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought. He does not even require for the perfection of his art the finest materials. Anything will serve his purpose…To an artist so creative as the critic, what does subject-matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives everywhere. Treatment is the test. There is nothing that has not in it suggestion or challenge…
[Criticism] works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry? Indeed, I would call criticism a creation within a creation. For just as the great artists, from Homer and AEschylus, down to Shakespeare and Keats, did not go directly to life for their subject-matter, but sought for it in myth, and legend, and ancient tale, so the critic deals with materials that others have, as it were, purified for him, and to which imaginative form and colour have been already added.
Here, in calling criticism “creative and independent” art which uses extant art as its source material, Wilde posits a claim similar to one Kathy Acker would make, one full century later, in defending her own appropriation/plagiarism/sampling/collage:
What a writer does, in 19th century terms, is that he takes a certain amount of experience and he “represents” that material. What I’m doing is simply taking text to be the same as the world, to be equal to non-text, in fact to be more real than non-text, and start representing text [emphasis in the original].
– Kathy Acker, “Devoured by Myths: An Interview With Sylvere Lotringer”
Gilbert steps it up a notch further, even. Not only does criticism generate new forms, not only does it satisfy two conditions of modernist “Art” — “creativity” and “independence” — it has the ability of improving the art it builds on. So, in the hands of 19th century critic Walter Pater, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” goes from being a boring portrait of a nobody to high art. (See Pater’s words superimposed over the image here.) In Pater’s hands, says Gilbert:
the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing, and the music of the mystical prose is as sweet in our ears as was that flute-player’s music that lent to the lips of La Gioconda [i.e. “the Mona Lisa”] those subtle and poisonous curves. Do you ask me what Lionardo would have said had any one told him of this picture that ‘all the thoughts and experience of the world had etched and moulded therein that which they had of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias?’…He would probably have answered that he had contemplated none of these things, but had concerned himself simply with certain arrangements of lines and masses, and with new and curious colour- harmonies of blue and green [emphasis mine]. And it is for this very reason that the criticism which I have quoted is criticism of the highest kind. It treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new creation. It does not confine itself–let us at least suppose so for the moment–to discovering the real intention of the artist and accepting that as final. And in this it is right, for the meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it. Nay, it is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive [emphasis mine]…For when the work is finished it has, as it were, an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say.
Gilbert then veers off in favor not just of “independent criticism,” but he seems to be advocating for ekphrastic writing, which brings me to the title of this blog. Ekphrasis, or ekphrastic writing, is writing which is done in dialog with visual art. It may or may not even refer, explicitly, to the visual piece it speaks to. In my next post, I will serve up some of my favorite pieces of ekphrastic literature, but for now, let’s get back to Wilde (in Gilbert’s voice), where he will argue for a thoroughly subjective form of criticism, even:
GILBERT: It is for [the Critic] that pictures are painted, books written, and marble hewn into form…[I]t has been said … that the proper aim of Criticism is to see the object as in itself it really is. But this is a very serious error, and takes no cognisance of Criticism’s most perfect form, which is in its essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another. For the highest Criticism deals with art not as expressive but as impressive purely….
To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes…
[S]o the critic reproduces the work that he criticises in a mode that is never imitative, and part of whose charm may really consist in the rejection of resemblance, and shows us in this way not merely the meaning but also the mystery of Beauty, and, by transforming each art into literature, solves once for all the problem of Art’s unity…
ERNEST: You have told me that the highest criticism deals with art, not as expressive, but as impressive purely, and is consequently both creative and independent, is in fact an art by itself, occupying the same relation to creative work that creative work does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought. Well, now, tell me, will not the critic be sometimes a real interpreter?
GILBERT: The critic will indeed be an interpreter, but he will not be an interpreter in the sense of one who simply repeats in another form a message that has been put into his lips to say. For, just as it is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality, so, by curious inversion, it is only by intensifying his own personality that the critic can interpret the personality and work of others, and the more strongly this personality enters into the interpretation the more real the interpretation becomes, the more satisfying, the more convincing, and the more true.
ERNEST. I would have said that personality would have been a disturbing element.
GILBERT. No; it is an element of revelation. If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.
Look for examples of some of my favorite, famous ekphrastic works in the next post.