Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Two

There is something ineffably futile in the act of criticism. There's an imagine in popular culture - or at least in the part of popular culture devoted to writers' mythology - of critics as vultures, joyless hacks who live to pick apart the carcasses of dead books, after they have been ripped cruelly from the loving arms of their creators. I think it's something of a corollary to that old saw about "those who can't do, teach" - in writing, those who fail often become the critics of those who do not.

And, of course, the critics imagine themselves in a slightly more heroic light. You don't have to read The New Yorker (but it helps) to find flowing panegyrics to critics present and past - critics like to write nice thing about other critics because it makes them look better in reflection. I suppose we like to think of ourselves in a slightly exalted light. It makes it easier to think that these random thoughts we place on paper have some sort of meaning, and that talking about art could ever be anywhere near as important as making art in the first place.

Well, as someone who straddles both sides of the fence, I have to say that being a creator is far more difficult than being a critic. This is not to say that criticism is not a difficult matter, or that some critics don't succeed in crossing over into the realm of genuine artistic effect... but it's rare. I write criticism, and I read a lot of criticism, but there reaches a point where reading and producing criticism seems to get in the way of actually digesting and enjoying the art itself.

Because, when all is said and done, the best art will always resist explication. So much of modern "critical theory" is devoted to dissecting and deconstructing art that it seems resolutely futile - as if someone who didn't really understand the appeal of art in the first place decided to simply take it apart in their frustration, so that no one could ever enjoy it again. That's where the stereotype of critics and academicians as bitter wannabe artists comes into play. Writing about bad art can't help but make a person feel bitter. Writing about good art seems at times to be similarly senseless, because how many different fatuous ways can you possibly think of to say something is "really, really good"?

I ran into this problem during my abortive feature on Chester Brown's Louis Riel. It seemed to me, after I had written a few entries, that getting to the bottom of just how and why the book had such an effect on me was futile. I mean, we can talk about certain cartooning effects or developed technique or historical antecedents, but when you get down to brass tacks it's difficult to really pinpoint the way in which truly great art makes us feel the way we do. Oftentimes, attempts at pinpointing this phenomena become nothing more than hoary examinations of craft, as if truly great art consisted of nothing more than the old "well-wrough urn" ideal. Which it doesn't, but I do believe - based simply on my own experience as a writer - that knowing how to do something well is not necessarily an obstacle to producing interesting art. That those who have the greatest mastery of craft are often unable to turn their minds to any but the most mundane subject matters is an unfortunate fact of life.

Well, for me at least, I find that a mastery of craft is hardly a distraction, because a lack of craft can be as much of a distraction as anything else. I don't believe truly great art has "loose ends", insomuch as it is complete in and of itself. It presents a definitive statement about itself and what it intends and how it does so... there are as many different ways of achieving this as there are works of art (and this shouldn't in any way be taken to understand that ambiguity is bad, because I also find ambiguity to be one of the most important attributes of great art), but when I am in the presence of truly great work of art I don't find myself asking questions. I find it hard to ask questions of great art, which might seem odd to some. Imperfect art, mediocre art, downright bad art - that asks questions, that leaves space for the reader or audience to insert themselves, and there's a lot of room for critical engagement on that level. But really good art? You don't want to break the spell. Leave it be, let it happen. Perhaps that strikes some as a dose of creeping medievalism - just accept hierophants' magic explanations and be happy in a state of unquestioned servitude. But great art is the one thing in this world to which I will proudly bend in service.

I think a lot of critics, and critically-minded people in general, tend to forget that. The only reason a person would be attracted to art in the first place is an affection for art - contrary to popular belief, if a person held a legitimate antipathy for art, they'd find something else to do with their time, like bricklaying or animal husbandry. No, in order to get to the point where a person is willing to dedicate themselves to art enough to write about it in the first place, he or she has to be operating out of a sense of affinity. Everyone has their own personal canon, works of art that shaped the way they were formed and influenced the way they perceive art - works of art that in many ways form the basis of how a person can engage art for the rest of their life. In any continuing engagement there is a search, a constant desire to find art that re-engages the mind and spirit in the same manner as when we were young and impressionable, and our senses were as yet inchoate and unformed. But it gets harder with every year, and the moments of supernal remove and profound enlightenment become fewer and far between. When you're ten, your mind can be blown by a particularly well-written X-Men comics book - hopefully by the time you're 25 or 35 or 55 your standards have raised a little bit.

Which is, I have to admit, one reason why good reviews are so hard to write. Oh, don't get me wrong, I've written far more bad reviews than good reviews. At this point I've written multiple hundreds of reviews for various outlets - not a lot compared to some, but still significant - and I can honestly say that the only thing that keeps you going after, say, the fourth or fifth review is an application of craft and determination. Because, honestly, not every work of art that crosses your desk will engage you. Sometimes - most of the time - if you have any sort of deadline or external pressure at all, you have to force it. Writing for this blog is difficult because, as there is really no one telling me what to do besides myself, I shouldn't have to write anything I don't feel like writing. But very little really offers me genuine inspiration in the field of comics these days.

I get books from publishers (not as often as my swag-loving self would like, but still), and I feel something of a responsibility to give those an honest appraisal. For the most part, I'd say I'm pretty lucky, in that most of the books I get sent by companies like Top Shelf or Oni or AiT / Planet Lar have at least something interesting to say. Top Shelf, in particular, has really improved the overall quality of their line in the past five years - used to be they were (in my eyes) in the habit of publishing works by a number of cartoonists who just did not seem very good. Now they don't really publish work by those people anymore, and the majority of what they do publish is, at the least, decent. Even if it can be fun to write the occasional bad review (although they're usually more trouble than they're worth*), it's much more satisfying to be able to take a book (or CD or movie) and cogently explain how it works, how it doesn't, the areas in which the author could use improvement and the areas in which he or she excels, and in general just give an accurate enough portrait of the work in question that it feels as if there is a genuine dialogue taking place between the artist and the critic. Even if the artist doesn't appreciate honest criticism, if the criticism is honest and well-meaning, other educated readers will hopefully find some profit.

But that's still essentially skating around my original point: it's frustrating to be a critic because so much of criticism still boils down to dealing with the inadequate, the unappealing, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time. Even sifting out the good and the bad in a decent work, it is inevitable that the harsh criticism will carry far more weight than the good words. And as much as the artists' perspectives can be skewed in this field, the critics perceptions are skewed as well. It's easy to become jaded, so used to taking apart art in order to see what works and what doesn't, that it becomes difficult to actually perceive the good from the bad, to perceive art as more than merely the sum of so many predictable widgets Because, you know, works of truly great art are few and far between. Rather than being horrendous or crap, the vast majority of art falls into the gaping chasm between perfection and absolute shit. It's good to be able to enjoy something of lesser virtue without feeling the need to sharpen a knife against every available surface. If you criticize things on a regular or professional basis, you invariably carry the tools of criticism everywhere you go, and even on something as innocent as a night at the movies with your friends, you find it increasingly difficult to just accept things on an uncritical basis.

To a degree, this is necessary for any educated person. Most people don't possess any ability at all to differentiate the good from the bad, and furthermore, many people see something unwholesome in the very attempt. Rather than merely accepting all art and entertainment on an uncritical level, however, it should be possible to accept what is good and bad, and to also realize that the world doesn't often live up to arbitrary standards of perfection. This isn't quite so easy for the conscientious critic. It's easy to become disenchanted with the world, to take bad art as a personal affront.

But it's also hard to stay enthused and enamored with art when most of what surrounds is is, frankly, so uninspiring. Moments of numinous beauty and surpassing depth are few and far between.

*Check out a future issue of The Comics Journal for my high-larious takedown of Scott Pilgrim, sure to be the single most unpopular Journal feature since the Kenneth Smith centerfold.

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