A Critic Grows in Santa Rosa


May 8, 1997

We think in images; we experience feelings, emotions. We don't think in words, really, though words and language, appear to take-over our thinking at some time in our growth from childhood. As I write this, I appear to be writing and thinking in words, but if I look closer, I 'feel' the thing that is causing me to write this 'all-at-one.' I do not feel it piecemeal, though piecemeal is how it is coming out. Piecemeal disassembly of the whole explains Cartesian methods of understanding the nature of things: it is not possible, with our limited expressivity, to convey our message 'all at one.' Yet, we are stuck with the truth of it: if you take apart the butterfly to see how it works, you kill the exquisitely lovely creature.

Art (and this will require additional definition), music (this, too), poetry (probably even this), drama and prose take the place of a person's direct transmission of feeling, of emotion, or of images. I believe this, but not with any experimental data from my own laboratory. Rather the belief originates as an interpretation of myself, with conversations and interviews with myself that have gone-on all of my life. Thus I am no better than the convert who swears obeisance to "god" after some kind of personal happening. I would not tell you that my conclusions are based, however, on one "happening." They happen all of the time, are on-going and have happened since I can remember. I have to assume my fellow humans are the same.

The current conversation with myself began as a result of reading an essay by Whitney Balliet, a writer for the New Yorker. I admire his writing, in general, but, when he wrote, recently, of Stan Getz, someone I grew up listening to very carefully, I found something to complain about. Gossip, for one thing. We all do it. In some way it is important to know that others have weaknesses, real or imagined; either kind is just fine for gossip. When Whitney tells me about Stan's drug problems, or his lifelong smoking, or his divorces that made his life edgy, I want him to stop! I don't want to hear that.

For the same reasons, I usually do not wish to meet the artist when there is an "opening." The art, itself, either touches me or doesn't; the artist in the flesh is something else. That fleshy body is only the carrier state for that 'other' self. ' The 'self' that is important to the making of the art or the poetry or the music counts--only that one. All that other stuff diminishes for me the experience of the the artist's inner message, which, if it is truly sent, I may indeed "get." i don't want to meet the author, either. Same thing.

I've tried to make an analogy between transmission of feeling, as metaphor, with a science-fiction kind of thing, where humanity arrives at the day when its 'feeling' place has been anatomically located and, through some scientific breakthrough, we are able to 'feel' each others 'feelings.' Even in that wonderland, the reaction, the feeling of 'feeling that other person's feeling' will differ between us depending upon our nature, or our experience, or the time of day, or a thousand or more other factors.

So, when a poet tells us he writes for an unknown other, 'out there' somewhere in space and time, someone he doesn't know nor ever will, he informs us he is transmitting a specific emotion or feeling in his own special way. It is the only way he knows how to do this. He has no idea at all if anyone will ever 'understand' him. This poet's act is akin to the hopefulness that accompanies the search for extraterrestrials. The message we sent on that space probe reflects only our 'all-at-one' feeling..

I, as the assigned ET, don't care whether the earthlings are hooked on grass, or cocaine or heroin, whether they smoke or are drunks or have a terrible love life or even if they appear to lead empty and meaningless lives in general. I only care that I "get" and vibrate in consonance with the soft 'dit dah' that comes into my receiver. Back to Stan. The notes he played, those, those incredibly undefinable and almost totally unique notes are what I cherish and are the only things I care about as regards him. The rest of it lessens the experience of the essential part. Don't tell me about that other stuff. I not only don't care, but it leads to a kind of explanation of the music from a description of the man's 'known' exterior history. It's like trying to visualize a person by her telephone voice--I am always wrong.

When we speak of art and music and poetry, let us speak about the effect it has upon us, if any, and though the rest of it might have some theoretical importance, vis a vis anthropology, sociology or even psychology, for the receiver of that message, if it is received, those things are not really necessary.

Can one be a critic, then, without being an historian? Does a critic who only tells, or tries to tell, his reaction to the images or the musical sounds, serve a critical role? Is art, music or poetry only important when "explained" or when it is placed into some historical pigeon hole? Duke Ellington reputedly said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. Well, that's how we all take it, isn't it? Whether the goodness in it or the badness in it be, for our children, the raucous cacophony of heavy metal rock and roll or, for my friend, the boring predictability of Tchaikovski, or, for another, the predictable and therefore equally boring music of the renaissance or of Gregorian chants, it either gets to us or it doesn't. And frankly, most of everything doesn't. But that is not the fault of the music necessarily nor of the composer, who after all took all that time to write down those guides to performance and must have had something like an end-point in mind when s/he did it. Or you, who read this now. Are you bored, agitated, or have you even gotten this far? I mean who the hell knows unless you are tuned to the same conditions? Or consider other critics, perhaps more to the point ones, the ones who affect whether you will eat at Joe's or not. They need not have memorized Larouse Gastronomique nor be whizzes in the kitchen. We only need to know that our palates are similar and, if so, if the food is good.

There exist a number, only a small whole number it turns out, of critics whose critical essays tend to be filled with the facts they know about history or have gleaned from here and there. They like to 'wow' us with their IQ. Is that valuable to the observer? I ask this not only as an academic question, but also because I have been asked to perform the role of critic. Art critic. My own explanation for why this position might be postulated would include the fact that I have, over a period of almost fifty years, laid down cold hard cash for works of art, works that brought some kind of message to me. I will say that each of the now almost 4000 works was chosen and purchased because it affected me, somehow, on an emotional level. I can tell you, in more or less detail, just what it was about each work that moved me to take the extraordinary step of actually purchasing it. I can also tell you in all candor that it was not because I believed the piece was a commodity even if it turned out to be one.

I am not an art historian, not in the sense that one with a degree in art history is. In today's educational world, all we can say about a degree in art history is that the recipient has been tested on her knowledge of the book list he was to have read and got more than 70% of the answers "right" on the tests taken. Such a degree is more a rite of passage and is not willy-nilly a reflection of the recipient's ability to discriminate the message of the artist.

OK, I know that "art" has changed over the centuries, even a course in art history would have led me to that conclusion. That is why I said, earlier, the definition of what one calls 'art' is essential before taking-on criticism within that spectrum.

Art that represents artisanship, craftsmanship, or reproduction, for example, can be safely discarded as 'art' in this essay. Just because someone can draw a picture that looks like you or like your Aunt Tillie, or can copy a still life with uncanny skill, or who, with microscopic techniques can fool your eye into thinking you are observing a piece of paper stuck to a canvas, does not mean that those same people are sending to an observer a message that echoes a feeling or an emotion. Sit for a bust by the dominant sculptural 'darling' of the day and you will likely obtain a good, if not, improved likeness, but one totally devoid of feeling. Sit for Brenner or Rodin or Giacometti, as examples, and the story is completely different. These artists send with their likenesses a deeper and more important message: there is both a feeling and an intelligence speaking with us. I look at Balzac as portrayed by Rodin and I am moved. There is something extrasensory about the experience. Or live with, as I have for now over 8 years, the head and face of Gertrude Stein by Michael Brenner. The likeness is like no other made of her and it tells me much about the effect Stein must have had upon Brenner. This is no ordinary 2 month sitting; this is some other kind of transcendent feeling that he has sent; at least he has sent it to me. I do not know, nor will I ever know, if he is sending you a message that you also detect. Do you get the brotherly feeling Giacommetti has for Diego when you look at Diego's likenesses? There is more there than flesh, as it is with with Brenner, these are "objects of atmosphere." Or Moore. Beyond the shapes he makes and the suggested analogy with inner objects, such as bones, there is a feeling that is almost palpable as sculpture itself.

But these are recent episodes in the history of art. There was a time when despite the sheer enormity and therefore the awe and wonder contained in, say, the Taj Mahal or the Colossus of Rhodes or of David, the works were nevertheless the product of artisanship--directed work with a non-artist director as guide. I think much of the pre-renaissance work can be placed into this mold. And that is for a good reason: it was a kind of trade unionism that produced this result. Artisans as artists were like shoemakers--they were paid an amount decided upon by the guild. They were not free to charge what they wished, and thus they performed at the whim and fancy of he who paid them. It was a late thing that freed the artists. Artists became members of the 'liberal professions" in (XXXX). It was at that moment in time that the metaphor was let out of its cage. If it had been growling for release before then, covered over by layers of respect and homage to the patron, it was now free at last. The art of emotion had returned to its rightful position. From then on the free-market had its say.

Free markets are problems of their own kind for "art." Because they reflect the popularity of a thing, they tell us what the populus wishes. The populus is of course the portion of humanity that can be defined by the Gaussian curve. Seventy percent of them keep company between 1 Standard deviation from the mean. So it stands to reason that the works that are most apt to be purchased by a free-market society are pretty pedestrian; they are bought by pedestrians.

Well that's just the way it is and should be, no matter how much bitching from those artists whose works are not understood or desired by the "popolas" And the statisticians amongst my readers will remind me that "normal" is defined as within +/- 2 S.D. from the mean, or 95% of the population. That's bad news for "art." If the starving artists tend from the 2-1/2% to the far right, they need to seek for recognition in that 2-1/2 group. If they don't find it there, now, they will have to wait for the shift in acceptance that comes with time. Usually it will mean they are discovered long after they have died. There is a curious counter problem: what of those who are indeed "successful?" Does their acceptance suggest pedestrianism in their work? You can answer that for yourselves. Think about Worhal, here. To what aspect of society did he appeal? The Beatles? Elvis and his famous pelvis? How many concerts for which the tickets are purchased contain other than the acceptable repertoire? Even the museums that collect "modern art" appear to effect a remarkable similarity of taste, and like lemmings, they tend to bid-up the works of those artists who have been collected by another museum: envy drives culture--if that be culture.

Having lambasted the populus, the "great unwashed" of H. L. Mencken, how can I escape my subjectivity? The answer, the right one, is: I can't. You can't either. You may not know that or believe me when I assert this, but you cannot.* There is, however, something in art and music, no matter what the emotional message might be, that we can criticize for its quality: that something is its process. Some, like Dean Meeker, have suggested, with good reason, that art is ONLY process. Process is certainly fun. When Dagguere, that busy Frenchman who brought us photography, first began, he wowed his fans with stage light games using curtains of gauze that were either lit or not allowing the transmission, if not lit, of a scene in the background. For this experience, people paid good sous. The effect was almost all process. The first television must have been as amazing to those who saw it as was the first flipped picture movie, the kind we now find in old coin palaces. But we get used to that readily and soon and hanker for something else. There is the promise ahead of "virtual reality." I hear that the set-up in Marin county at the home of AutoCAD is a stunner. But, again, process.

"Art" is not just stunning your viewer. It is something else of which we have already talked. But the process is important to the criticism. It is essential to know the many ways to put-on ink or paint, to understand the nature of longevity in a work of art--what sticks to what and what will last and what won't? The plate can be rubbed or not, the acid bites, gluttonous or delicate. Each may be correct for effect, but both might be exclusive to only one result. And the paper, was it chosen well? Is it good? Free of acid? Is the canvas canvas or linen, is it important?

It you get a bunch a cheap housepaint at your local surplus store and throw it on an old bedsheet or paint it onto newsprint, you can expect the product to last the length of the exhibit. Good luck after that. For all his "importance" in the history of art, Jackson Pollack did not know diddly about the materials of art. His works are decaying faster than you can say: Giacometti. But we come, in him, full circle to the place we began: the interest in the splatter and drip painting of Pollack was as much the curiosity over a new process one one hand and, the other, his psychological testaments which he seemed to wear on his sleeve so everyone knew about them. And when in an alcohol induced error of course correction, he slammed his car into a benign Oak tree or whatever, we loyalists were not surprised and, too, the other value of his art was born: art as method of working on inner psychological problems. Just the start of something big, it turns out. It became the rage. Sylvia Plath began to write poetry to ease her emotionally distraught "self," one that eventually murdered its 'carrier self.' Neurosis on a stick became for a time, very popular indeed. Perhaps it was a marker for the widespread angst borne by the great unwashed.

You need to know these things, process--as critic and artist. So, it seems the guy who recommends "Joe's" has some kind of understanding of the "way" the food is prepared and that is implicit in a good food report.

As a critic, then, I should be artist as well. I am one of these. I fondle clay, weld, know the materials of construction, the goodness and badness of paint, the way to make paper and to pick it, the value of linen over cotton canvas and of "Masonite" board over both and where it might be better to employ it, the nature of resists, of hand and machine driven presses, of photographic processes, and on and on. Actually, I am an excellent choice, with one exception: I know what I like and commonly, I know why I like it. The opposite lives with this proclamation as well. I am quite a fan of the lore that encircles the long departed memory of the sculptor and professor of art, XX Steppit. When he disliked a student's work, he did not beat about the bush: "Dis is shit!" he would be fond of saying. And, truly, it most likely was.

So forgive me when I say to you that the overwhelming majority of work I have seen pictured and described in the 'popular' magazines about "art" is, to me, "shit." And, also, the stuff at the various museums of modern art: shit. An event artist need only have done it once, and it has been done, forevermore, so lets forget that, forevermore. It has been done. And if it hasn't, describe it to me in words, instead, and I will make a bigger and better one from my own imagination. So forevermore, for me, performance art is: shit.

Andy Goldsworthy is another matter indeed. While his work is not lasting and it has about it a kind of "performance" character, it is based in good understanding of physical principles and utilizes just the right stuff to get across the feeling--and I get that feeling if even from the pictures. It is also very Wabi Sabi.* And for some strange reason, I also have gotten Christo. For both of these artists, process is very important indeed.

So this is the me that you are going to get in these critical offerings. They are my offerings, only mine. They are the bleatings of one who has defined himself as bewildered, a man who definitely is a path seeker--his own to be sure. If you like the critiques, you do, and you are then likely tuned close to my frequency. If you don't, there's nothing I can or will do to change the transmitter.

Bon voyage!