Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Terror of the Naked Critic – Part 1 of 2

The comic bit, on which there’ve been many variations,goes something like this:  A Hollywood pitchman addresses a group of studio execs, exhorting them, “I’m tellin’ you this project is box office gold!  It’s like Godzilla meets Terms of Endearment!”

We’re supposed to smirk at the crassness of the agent’s tactic, at the “jurors'” implicit fear of the new.  We disdain the smug moneymen who won’t sign on without warranties from market research and sales data, who don’t have time or tolerance for anything complex or profound.  The joke mocks the workings of commercial pop culture.

But the same timidity and conformity holds sway in the halls of high culture, too, including the corridors of photography criticism, journalism, and judging.  (“Wow, I love those Cindy Sherman sex photos!  They’re like Hans Bellmer meets Bozo the Clown meets Joel Peter Witkin.”)

I wrote in a previous post how a famous poet warned his students that 95% of criticism is more harmful than helpful to our understanding and, more important, to our experience of art.  What he then went on to explain was that most critics, most professors can’t really deal with the living reality of artworks, can’t perceive the life that’s in them, can’t illuminate how the artist generates that life in a reader or a viewer or a listener.  And, he said, that’s partly because professional commentators, like other people, are afraid of the painful emotions, the inexplicable and uncontrollable realities, that great art lays bare.  We’re often disturbed by what great art implies and what it seems to demand.  In his poem about an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rilke captured how all the parts of the statue, even in its headless state, blazed with undying vitality, seeming to say to its viewer, as Rilke wrote in his poem’s last line:  “You must change your life.”

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