Sunday, January 31, 2021

On the matter of Criticism

Occasionally, either by collision or perhaps in the act of navel gazing, I’ve endeavored to resolve my feelings around criticism, something every artist faces and something that no one likes.  It never works, the best I could ever come up with was that critics should offer insight over opinion.  Sounds good sort of, but mostly I don’t like to think about it so I write it off as unimportant.  But that doesn’t work either so it sits there unresolved, perhaps to be grappled with another day.  

This week I’ve had occasion to appreciate that there may be some good in criticism after all and I’m tempted again to ask, what if this tension could be resolved?  I’m reminded of what a friend of mine would say in this situation, “if you ever thought that you came to the end of that road it might be time to check your pulse, you may be dead”.  At this point, after having deceived myself numerous times in the past I’m starting to feel that this kind of tension is simply built into life.  Perhaps what is required is to resolve oneself within that tension, to cease externalizing it.  Something does want to be resolved, to be at rest.  But not dead.  

Last week we had a family conversation about reading habits.  My son and I  started by discussing what constitutes a polemic, a form of writing with a long history that has taken on renewed energy, morphed into 280 character twitter-bursts and burned into our daily cyber-consciousness.  By the way, there is no way this does not affect our collective mental health.  In recent weeks there has emerged the clearest evidence yet of some of the worst effects, a mutating internet cult making it’s way into political life.  I have to think of it as a form of brainwashing made all the more effective by technology.  But I digress.

My wife is an enthusiastic reader, very open to entering literary terrain.  I’m inspired by her because I’m the opposite, sorry to say.  Somewhere along the line I became aware that there is a tacit world view or set of assumptions in anything anyone writes.  There is always a degree of self interest that would seem to infect what may otherwise be a sincere reach towards some kind of truth.  Attention to this fact on the part of the reader (me) often requires arduous work to counter the threat.  Sounds paranoid, right?  “Infect” and “threat” are exaggerations but it’s difficult to articulate the more subtle and hidden operations that take place under the surface when reading.  I asked the question “is it possible to read something without having any personal vested interest in what is being read”?  My wife immediately responded in the affirmative saying that fiction takes her somewhere, she is open to learning about another person, other people, other cultures.  This set the stage for a good conversation that has been resonating since then.  

I’m pretty deficient in the amount of literature I’ve read.  What I do enjoy reading are essays, interviews and news.  This morning I read an interview between jazz pianist Ethan Iverson and classical music critic Alex Ross (of the New Yorker).  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, at first glance it seemed to be potentially dry, involving a somewhat detailed exploration of the academic tradition of criticism and classical music.  But I have enjoyed the writing of Alex Ross (whom I cited in a previous post on Passion and Etymology) and decided to go for it.  I’m very glad I did.  After pushing my way in, the interview gradually became more personal and alive.  By the end Alex Ross wound up fleshing out this tradition (by way of his recent book “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music”) by illuminating connections between music, art and literature that I never fully appreciated, with Wagner being central and vastly more influential than I’d realized.  An investigation of Wagner is also problematic but you can read the interview for a better analysis than I can provide. In the final few exchanges Alex Ross offered some surprising connections from the late nineteenth century to aspects of popular American culture today.  Most importantly I am appreciating that the role of criticism has been an integral part of the western tradition, not just on the part of critics but on the part of composers, writers and artists, as evidenced from their correspondence with each other and even in the way they may teach. To know literature and academic study is to know something about criticism. I had been vaguely aware of this phenomenon and to be honest I never liked it, it seems contrary to the process of making art.  I recall years ago reading a book (I wish I could recall the title) which was a series of articles or interviews with contemporary composers in which they all trashed each other.  It really turned me off of the idea of criticism and I dismissed the whole thing entirely.  But perhaps I was not being quite honest with myself. 

Reading the Alex Ross interview put a light on my skepticism and intimidation around academic tradition while at the same time eliciting an undeniable attraction to it.  Critical thinking, while being essential to our survival and to our sense of meaning is also an essential skill for any artist in being able to gain a perspective (a form of distance) on their own work.  But in artistic practice (the creative act) it is often very limiting, distance being a liability.  I emphasize instead the virtues of intuition and direct experience.  Above all I’m an improvisor, but hopefully not a dumb one.  It’s easy to romanticize a degree of willful ignorance in the name of authenticity.  And it is equally easy to throw stones at the citadel but I still very much want to know what’s in there.  

Many years ago when I was still rather new on the scene I did a radio interview here in NYC.  Afterwards the DJ and I rode the subway together and chatted more about music, he also being a jazz critic and a sharp scholar of the music.  At one point I expressed my enthusiasm for Albert Ayler only to be told in no uncertain terms that Albert Ayler was “not part of the canon”, which floored me.  It had never even occurred to me that there was such a thing as a jazz canon (I was pretty naive) but I immediately knew I wanted no part of it.  It sounded too much like gatekeeping and exclusion by folks who were not musicians.  

What was most impressive about Alex Ross was that he was actually embodying the academic and critical path, coming to terms with it’s complexities and contradictions by coming to terms with himself in it.  In other words, it was personal and that is compelling.  I’m in no way drawn to that path myself but I begin to understand something of my attraction to it.  Still, it seems unavoidable that there is a conflict and an adversarial process at work, but what is it and where does it operate?

We all have a critical inner voice that we live with every day.  Reading news seems a good way to feed that critical voice but without some discipline and discernment there is risk of creating distress and outrage.  Who wants to live with that?  That’s just painful and whether you direct that distress outwards or inwards, either way it is you who will feel it.  This is not always easy to stop once it gets rolling and may require an antidote, deliberately practicing gratitude for example.  At the same time we can ask ourselves if our habitualized negative assumptions are true.  Critical thinking actually works well when it examines itself rather than feeding on itself.  You don't have to be an academic to do this.

I come from a working class background and was raised to an ideal that it didn't matter what you did in life as long as you did it the best you can. If you were a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger you can be.  That gave me the sense that it was possible to attain the fullness of one’s potential using just what you have.  A good education is important, no doubt, and the world is often unjust.  My parents instilled positive values and I was told to stay in school.  I was fortunate in that way.

I followed up the Alex Ross interview with another set of articles that I had also put aside for later reading.  The New York Times recently published an article titled “When James Baldwin and Langston Hughes Reviewed Each Other”   It recounts the discovery of a pair of overlooked reviews in the archives by Langston Hughes and James Baldwin from 1959.  I found them to be revealing.  If you subscribe to the Times you can access the original articles on their Times Machine

Coincidentally, one of the first books I remember loving was a children’s book by Langston Hughes called “The First Book of Jazz”, published in 1955.  He engendered a sense of respect and dignity for the music and it’s culture by not speaking down to his reader.  He was able to tap into a child’s natural creative ability to grasp how the music sometimes expresses sadness and other times happiness and yet it is the same music.  I still have this book.

Langston Hughes began his review of Baldwin by saying, “I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”, reaching millions with something they can understand.  He goes on to praise aspects of James Baldwin’s writing while detecting a quality of irresolution as needing to be resolved in order to qualify as great art.  

James Baldwin seems to endorse this irresolution or is at least willing to nearly sacrifice himself explicitly in addressing it.  That is my feeling having read some of his work, his pain is laid bare.  In his review of Hughes he speaks of a war between “social and artistic responsibilities” that are “all but irreconcilable.”  He’s speaking of Langston Hughes but also more broadly as well, perhaps including himself, I’m not sure.  But it may not be the indictment that it first appears to be.   Baldwin says “the poetic trick, so to speak, is to be within the experience and outside it at the same time…”.

What impressed me greatly was the fact that the pieces were rigorous but not adversarial or destructive.  There is empathy, each man seems to sincerely wish for the other to succeed and yet each are unafraid to put themselves on the line. It is a form of strength and vulnerability tied together.  Their topic is racism and they are speaking in deeply humanitarian tones.  The conflict, between artistic aims and with respect to the artist’s relationship to society, while handled differently by each, is not being externalized, rather it is lived.  The essays are specific to their experiences and the writers are acutely aware of the cultural dynamic that threatens to co-opt their language, style and more.  At the same time, I feel that they are by necessity speaking to everyone.  

Personally, writing about this feels fraught but it also feels like a responsibility.  I was born the same year these words were written.  The words do not belong to me and yet externalizing them puts the truth at a remove, just out of reach. But perhaps it’s not as difficult as it first seems. There are clearly differences between each writer, as well as differences between them and me, which need to be honored.  To honor these differences requires honoring our shared humanity, and to honor our shared humanity requires honoring every difference seen and felt in this life.  

The idea of “great art” has taken somewhat of a beating in intellectual circles since those articles were written.  I don’t know that I fully endorse the concept myself, it seems an interference to the artistic process as well as in fully understanding ourselves.  But that’s not the problem of art, it’s the problem of how we deal with it, ourselves and each other.  I don’t wish to play games of avoidance either, I’m perfectly willing to give it up when I encounter deep truths in art and I deeply respect the dedication that is required to achieve that.  But as an artist I can’t really concern myself too much with it, in a way it’s none of my business.  

I still don’t know what the role of criticism is, especially now when so much discourse is incendiary.  And I’m still unsure of my relationship to fiction.  I was heartened however when my wife pointed out that there are a much wider range of voices in the literature that is available today as compared to thirty years ago.  In addition to new writers there are also newly unearthed revelations of historical voices from outside the western canon.  Perhaps it’s time to catch up a bit.

Still, I’ve not resolved anything, but that would seem to be exactly the point.  Sometimes I really do worry that the pace of current events have overtaken culture.  But I am encouraged by what James Baldwin said about being inside the experience and outside at the same time.  And the ability and example of Langston Hughes to find a way to include everyone.  

I am not outside of either one of those investigations, nor can they be done alone.  To embrace this contradiction (which is itself a contradiction to be embraced) is to accept who we are.  

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