Archive for April, 2011

Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist”

If you aren’t terribly familiar with the language and artistic perception of 1888, a lot of Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” probably won’t make much sense. While alluding to the works of numerous poets, authors, and philosophers, Wilde posits a thought-provoking view on art criticism. His theory, which is made obvious by the piece’s title, looks to equate the critic of a work of art to the creator of that work of art, rendering the critic’s artistic capabilities as important as the artist’s, sometimes even more so. Although the density of the language—and the relative obscurity of his examples—is frequently overbearing, Wilde’s perspective is simple, and, in many cases, still relevant today.

In a seemingly endless Socratic dialogue between characters Gilbert and Ernest, Wilde displays his vast knowledge of art past and present. He refers to the literature, poems, and philosophy with so much detail and comprehension, that his pathos is never in question. While discussing the world’s need for artistic expression, Gilbert—who presumably shares the opinion of Wilde, as Ernest signifies a more skeptical side of the artistic digest—suggests that “the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety.” And Gilbert argues that an understanding of this perfection can lead to a realization of one’s own infinite variety and that the ability to recognize great art, and eventually understand it, is made possible by good criticism. And when, in his response, Ernest maintains that “great art needs no explanation,” it comes off more so as a defeated retort than a supported position of defiance.

While Gilbert—but really, Wilde— passionately defends the aesthetics of art criticism by referring to it as “a flawless system” or “the purest form of human impression,” he seems to be unaware of the rhetorical pretension that at times demeans his own philosophies. When discussing the current dumbing down of literature, Gilbert blames it on “the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes of this country.” This type of critical self-importance presumably plagued art criticism before Gilbert made this claim—which explains some of Ernest’s skepticism. But just last year, when Stereogum contributor Gabe (last name not listed) referred to the blues as a “terrible music for poor people,” he made it clear that, at least in some cases, this stigmatic self-importance remains.  The subject of this 122 year parallel is of course not the point here; rather it is the mere semblance of unintended similarity between one of history’s finest authors and a practically anonymous blogger that compels the critical mind.

Although not every blogger enters their own critical realm with “The Critic as Artist” in mind, aspects of it are still relevant. And they’re not just the pompous ones: when Pitchfork’s Brent DiCresenzo verbosely compared Radiohead’s “Kid A” to “witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax,” Wilde’s infinitesimal theory of perfection loomed as if to say “I told you so.” After all, Pitchfork did give “Kid A” a perfect rating of 10.0.

It’s entirely possible that Stereogum’s Gabe and Pitchfork’s Brent have never read the ideas of Wilde’s Gilbert and Ernest. But the ancestry is there. No matter the form or subject, the critical motives which “The Critic as Artist” helped define have, for better or worse, survived in art criticism. This traceable lineage proves the longevity and integrity—both artistic essentials—of the critical process; which is basically what Wilde spends upwards of 30,000 words discussing. Learning from your elders, how’s that for an artistic process?


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Accepting your own shortcomings can often be thought of as a form of pessimism, but in Bored to Death—an HBO series based on the day-to-day toils of a sheepish author turned clumsy private eye—this idea is conversely celebrated as a merit of being self-aware. Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is a recently single white wino struggling to pen his second novel. Bored and directionless, he takes to the Craiglist classifieds to advertise his newfound investigative ambition. Throughout each episode, aspects of Jonathan’s social and vocational peculiarities are detailed in a healthy balance of sprightly humor and poignant sentiment.

“The Case of the Missing Screenplay” (season one, episode three) opens with Jonathan and his boss, the wealthy magazine editor George Christopher (Ted Danson), drinking martinis at a nameless high society gathering. George tells Jonathan of his new friend Jim Jarmusch, the film auteur (who later appears as himself, a nice advancement for the show’s burgeoning art cred). In their meeting, George learned that Jarmusch, known for his dark films, is a fan of Jonathan’s similarly dark first novel and is interested in working with him on a new screenplay. The next night George introduces the two. “I loved your novel… You must really suffer from a terrifying clarity of your vision,” says Jarmusch.

“Thank you, I do suffer, thank you,” Jonathan meagerly replies. After an awkward exchange, Jarmusch hands Jonathan the script he’s been working on and tells him to call the following day with some editing ideas. This is a big opportunity for Jonathan, and, while riding the wave of being cool-by-association, he is approached by a dangerously young party girl who invites him back to her house on this shallow principle: “You know Jim Jarmusch?”

In an uneasy hoopla of a make-out scene, Jonathan quickly learns this girl is 16 years old and that the dark room they’re smooching in is actually her psychiatrist father’s office. And as the father barges in, Jonathan has no choice but to run, leaving his dignity and the script behind. A sort of circumstantial hilarity ensues as Jonathan enlists his embarrassingly sophomoric private eye skills to recover the script, eventually returning to the scene of the crime as a patient.

As a main character, Jonathan’s fermented immaturity is amusing. He is 30, but, his lack of foresight and prioritization—in this episode, especially—makes him seem about half his age, rendering him even younger than the femme who so easily seduced him.  He remains afloat, however, because of the comfort he has with his limitations. His coy avenues as a writer, as a private eye, and as a charmer fully showcase aspects of a life not yet fully realized. And from there, the show’s thesis is alluded to by the party girl’s psychiatrist father in this cynical retort: “Lives don’t change. We simply become more comfortable with our core misery. Which is a form of happiness.”

Although sometimes disguised in pessimism, Bored to Death’s politics are typically hopeful, and should appeal to those that believe in the power of self-awareness, where misery is just as interchangeable as happiness.

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Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women, and Art

Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women, and Art is a traveling gallery show that focuses on one of the world’s worst cross-cultural problems: violence against women. Every day, acts ranging from rape to domestic and social harassment cloud our world’s moral landscape. Through paintings, video, photography, and installations, the show looks to shed light on the pervasiveness—and senselessness—of this violence. 29 international artists, both male and female, are featured in this horribly affecting collection of social commentary, and almost all of them have made works that speak to the context of the show, as well as transcend it.

The first eye-grabbing piece is an eccentric classic, and a vapid remake of it. Yoko Ono’s 1965 “Cut Piece” is an iconic performance widely recognized as one of the first of its kind to address the issue of sexual harassment. The nine minute video consists solely of Ono kneeling on a stage, with her audience coming up one-by-one to cut off a piece of her clothing. Throughout the performance, Ono never resists, and, at times, with her unassuming grace and batty eyelashes, almost seems to encourage this public degradation.  Her on-stage complacency speaks equally to the ease of which woman can be violated, as well as the apathy our society has towards this violation. The timelessness of this message is worth noting, but at almost an hour, the second “Cut Piece” loses the original’s immediacy, and although it literally mirrors its predecessor, it comes off more so as an unedited director’s cut than a bold work of art.

The show’s most affecting piece is Yoko Inoue’s “Untitled.” The work is a slightly out of focus photograph of a young Asian girl. She stands alone and bare-breasted against a cream colored wall. Her eyes stare directly at the camera, while a large frying pan covers the lower and upper half of her face and chest. The dead-center angle—and the girl’s direct glare—make it heartbreakingly clear that this is the viewpoint of a potential attacker. The defensive position of the pan gets the “stand back” notion across quite well, but her frightened eyes say something more like “please don’t.” Although some may right this message off as a cultural difference, it’s still appalling to think a helpless young girl would need anything more than her eyes to tell you that what you’re about to do warrants a smack over the head with a frying pan.

Although most of the artwork featured in Off the Beaten Path doesn’t antagonize its viewers as directly as “Untitled” does, they all still implore some kind of emotional resonance. The show’s double entendre title looks to instill the notion that great art can point society in a new direction. These 29 artists have done their part, now it’s the audience’s turn.


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