the art of criticism of art

The arts have been hit hard by pandemic-related restrictions, with loss of exposure through festivals, launches, live shows etc. accompanied by disastrous loss of sales. Of course many artists and audiences have adapted to virtual venues. But this shift leaves us even more dependent on digital media for an income and/or recreation, and therefore more subject to corporate manipulation. Which is where we were already going, but Covid-19 has fast-tracked the process. The need to market our art or find entertainment online exists in paradoxical tension with the fact that algorithms track our behaviour and harvest our data.

This tension between subjective and objective realities has long been central to the artistic challenge. And more than in any other field, perhaps because words are the medium, those who create literature double as its critics.

In his acclaimed doorstopper novel Infinite Jest (1996), the plot of which features a film so compelling that its viewers die of pleasure, David Foster Wallace dwelt on a theme that recurs throughout his oeuvre, the addictiveness of entertainment, which he attempted to remedy by making his readers work hard for their kicks.

Five months before Infinite Jest took the literati by storm, a low-budget, cyber-fi video called The Drivetime premiered in Seattle. Directed by Antero Alli, who co-wrote it with Rob Brezsny, it likewise concerns the evils of too much (or the wrong kind of) media, bearing an anti-capitalist message and sharing a fragmented aesthetic. However, its style and approach contrast Infinite Jest’s oblique social critique. Unlike Wallace, a master of the implicit, Alli and Brezsny (conditioned by day jobs as astrologers?) wax prescriptive. During The Drivetime’s closing sequence, a voiceover intones with revelatory zeal:

Turn off the TV. Break trance. Make trance. Break out of your cocoons. Get back into the streets. Talk amongst yourselves. Take back the airwaves. Create your own media. Refuse to consume more media than you are producing yourselves. Scapegoat the media. Turn off the TV. Turn off the noise. Make your own music. Turn off the TV. Turn into the TV. Walk into the light. Turn on the TV inside you.

All of which sounds great in theory. If each of us dares to defy corporate agendas by unleashing our fullest visionary potential, imagine what breakthroughs might follow… But before I can make the most of my softsynth, camcorder or graphics program, I need to know what’s possible. And if, for example, I read only one novel a year (or however long it takes me to write my own), I won’t be exposed to a wide range of novelistic approaches… So who’ll consume the media created by those too enlightened to consume what others produce? And what about the tech giants making massive profits off all the anonymous wannabes clogging up YouTube and Amazon, and the gazillions of bloggers paying just to not have to host ads?

Along with the arts, art criticism has been changed by digital culture. Take Goodreads, which gives any booklover (or hater) a platform where in-depth knowledge re a book’s subject or author doesn’t matter: reviews by the most popular users rise to the top. Will critical skills soon be obsolete?

The best artists know their conscious process is just part of what comprises their art. So the trend in recent decades to associate creativity with right-brain emphasis – popularised by Betty Edwards’s ambiguously titled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979) – may have liberated those whose art is a hobby or therapy, where self-criticism is counterproductive to pleasure or healing. Yet, according to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009), a tome that probes far deeper than Edwards’s self-help/how-to text: ‘Both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately – the precise function of the corpus callosum, both to separate and connect (p. 42)…’ McGilchrist returns to the theme of creative separation – implicit in the title of his magnum opus – later:

Ultimately the principle of division (that of the left hemisphere) and the principle of union (that of the right hemisphere) need to be unified: in Hegel’s terms, the thesis and antithesis must be enabled to achieve a synthesis on a higher level (p. 198).

What might this mean for writers, painters, filmmakers etc.? Without critical distance, an artist risks repeating mistakes, wallowing in their weaknesses. Perspective can come direct from outside (both amateur and professional feedback), or indirectly via analysis and reflection. What does constructive criticism – or its opposite – look like? Wallace’s novel and Alli’s film both provoked extreme reactions, if on vastly different scales. Contrarian Dale Peck, famed for his hatchet jobs, said of Infinite Jest, hailed as a major literary event of the late 20th century: ‘in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled.’ Now that Peck has our attention, he proceeds to unpack his rationale amid lashings of sarcasm (and envy?). Yet, in a rare bid for balance, even he concedes that ‘sentence by sentence, David Foster Wallace is a very good writer indeed.’

Presumably due to Alli’s fringe status, The Drivetime failed to attract criticism of a comparable calibre. In a short review, Robert Firsching (who?) describes it as a ‘ludicrous sci-fi polemic’ and Alli as ‘simultaneously naïve, risible, and irritating’ and, referring, in the absence of a broad cultural context, to ‘the usual hippie nonsense’, begins to sound creepily right-wing. Reading his feedback, ‘like listening to a … college freshman’ (Firsching’s simile), tells an artist more about the critic’s pet hates than their own limitations. At least Peck, in identifying the straight white male lens warping Wallace’s vision, contributes to a meaningful critical discourse.

Astute art/lit crit can stimulate our critical juices; enable us to see our own work from other points of view. A writing tutor once advised me to ‘walk around’ a story of mine – a copout, she was at a loss. And yet…

The old block of flats I live in looks symmetrical from the front. So I’d guessed that, as at my last address, the units on either side mirrored each other. Until, walking up a road across the valley beyond my back door, I saw that the other flat on my floor isn’t a mirror image at all. (The building obeys a mysterious logic that resonates with my off-kilter body. Is that one reason for my sense, so rare, that I belong?)

Yet a walk around much of what passes for art in our saturated culture tends to reveal that what might have looked unique from the front (the side favoured by its depthless creator) is instead, viewed from behind, more or less a reflection of everything else.

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