Of all critics possibly the most irksome is the visceral. He won’t tell you why something is great, he just knows when he sees it, or more precisely, when he feels it. Along these lines we have Emily Dickinson, better-known, of course, for poetry than criticism: “If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Or most famously, A.E. Housman: “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that my razor fails to act.” Experience has taught me never to use a phrase like “shaving of a morning.”

Such remarks are useless as criticism. They emphasize not the bristling face or the exploding head but the I, I, I. Look on my exquisite sensibility and despair. Anatole France, an arch-impressionist (with and without the hyphen), once defined criticism as “the adventures of a great soul among masterpieces.” Unfortunately the adventures are rarely very rigorous, and the great soul the reader is obliged to take for granted.

Now it is true that aesthetic appreciation is physical, at some level, but this says nothing about the quality of the art. People react as powerfully and viscerally to bad art as good. Housman was the greatest classics scholar of his time and a very popular poet, though not to my taste. When his skin bristles at some line from Euripides, I’m willing to take his word for it that it’s pretty good. But Joel Siegel swears, for publication, that every third movie he sees gives him goosebumps, and what grounds have we to doubt him? We might theoretically hook Housman and Siegel up to a monitoring device and check their respective palpitations; I have no confidence that in such an experiment Medea would prevail over Top Gun.

Terry Teachout, a distinguished critic who surely knows better, unaccountably sets out to adventure among masterpieces in his review of Mark Morris’s ballet V, even quoting Housman with approval. V is a “masterpiece,” Terry is sure, for five reasons, none of which has anything to do with what happens on stage. He is “immediately involved,” he “realize[s] that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing,” he is not bored, he is “anxious,” because “what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong”; and when he finds that this something, whatever it might be, does not go wrong after all, his “eyes filled with tears.” This is all so refined that I nearly forgot that I began the piece knowing nothing of ballet and ended it in exactly the same state. Tell you what, Terry: if I give you the great soul, will you promise, next time, to talk about the ballet?

(Update: George Wallace comments. Tim Hulsey comments. Terry Teachout replies.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted August 10, 2003 @ 11:31 PM | Culture

8 Responses to “Off With the Top of His Head”

  1. 1 1. acdouglas

    You apparently make a habit of this sort of misapplied thinking,
    Aaron.

    You wanted Teachout to write a critical piece on "V". But Teachout, inconsiderate fellow that he is, chose to write about something else, and simply used "V" as the piece’s hook. And for this you not only unreasonably take him to task, but compound your unreasonableness by confounding Teachout’s clearly identified out-of-the-box test for greatness with a critical system and credo, just as you several months ago similarly confounded my out-of-the-box test for genuine art, which test I labeled the "Jabberwocky Test".

    I think you need to rethink your complaint, m’boy — both of them.

    And BTW, your "People react as powerfully and viscerally to bad art as good," is, pardon me, manifest rubbish. You need to rethink that as well.

    Warm regards,

    ACD


  2. 2 2. acdouglas

    Oops.

    I wrote: …but compound your unreasonableness by confounding Teachout’s clearly identified out-of-the-box test for greatness with a critical system and credo….

    That should have read: "…but compound your unreasonableness by confounding by implication Teachout’s clearly identified out-of-the-box test for greatness with a critical system and credo…."

    ACD


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    Teachout of course is not obliged to write about the ballet: it’s his party and he’ll cry if he wants to. I suggest only that if he intends to persuade his readers that V is a "masterpiece," he ought to tell us something about V.

    The trouble with these "out-of-the-box" tests is that they rely on tacit knowledge, as I’m sure you, Teachout, Housman, and Anatole France would agree. (It’s not everyone’s emotions that matter, right? Just mine.) Articulating the knowledge is a lot harder than referring to the emotion. But it’s also a lot more useful.

    The testimonials to the emotional power of bad art are numerous, heartfelt, and embarrassing. Do you suppose they are fakes?


  4. 4 4. acdouglas

    Articulating the knowledge is a lot harder than referring to the emotion. But it’s also a lot more useful.

    To whom? Out-of-the-box tests are not for the benefit of the public, but for the individual, for whom nothing needs to be "articulat[ed]". The articulation comes later — for both.

    The testimonials to the emotional power of bad art are numerous, heartfelt, and embarrassing. Do you suppose they are fakes?

    Whose bad art?

    ACD


  5. 5 5. dan

    The testimonials to the emotional power of bad art are numerous, heartfelt, and embarrassing. Do you suppose they are fakes?

    Do those testimonials call that bad art "bad?" Or is it someone else’s criteria being applied to judge? Or does a work attain the category of "art" by inspiring some sort of emotional reaction at all, and if the reaction is unbalanced with other elements slip from good, downward through okay, to bad?

    I understand your desire for more description of the work of art (a performance, in this case), Aaron, but you called Terry’s piece "a critical piece" as opposed to a review. Criticism often presupposes the reader is familiar with the work being criticized and seeks a new point of view into the work.

    But I would characterize it as a blend of review and criticism. Terry is saying V is great, but he’s unable to explain why in a critical lexicon we might share, or by saying exactly ‘things’ he found so beautiful or moving (he can’t separate the parts form the whole). So he strikes out and tries to create his own lexicon to get around that.

    Terry uses a lead mention of V to launch into a discussion of his critical stance more than as an entry to a review piece, per se. In that sense maybe he’s setting expectations he’s not delivering on. He does offer a sort of justification for this: "In the face of mastery, analysis is impossibleits something you do after the fact." I would think the number of times he’s seen this should have him past the "in the face" stage though.

    Oddly enough, I expressed nearly the same thing about one author’s books a couple days ago. I feel he’s the best of the group I categorized him into, but I have a lot more to say about a different author. It’s hard to achieve any distance from the first while reading because he’s so darned absorbing (I’ve read him twice now, maybe the third time will do it.) I have a lot less trouble with the one I am scribbling about because she slips and loses her hold on me now and again, causing me to ask myself why on the spot. Which then leads to internal dialog on what she’s doing well or poorly and the overall balance.

    Terry’s list is an interesting offering of a somewhat objective mechanism for examining one’s emotional reaction to a work. My problem with it is that I suspect a lot of parents might say the progression applies to them pretty well when they watch their kids perform in school plays, concerts, etc. That might question its value in judging "masterworks."

    Or it may prove that what we bring to an artistic experience tremendously affects what we receive from it.


  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    Thanks for the thoughtful remarks. To begin with, I believe there is such a thing as bad art, period. Otherwise there would be little point in discussing art and none in teaching it. Bad art can appeal powerfully to many people for all kinds of reasons irrelevant personal associations, misinterpretation, limited experience, or poor judgment.

    A while ago here I demonstrated, pretty convincingly I thought, that Invictus is a bad poem, confused in theme and careless in detail. Several readers took exception to this and asserted that they were deeply moved by the poem. So was the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, who read it at his execution. These people are not lying about their reaction to the poem; they are simply ignorant of what good poetry is.

    Are their aesthetic emotions less powerful than, or otherwise inferior to, mine, or Housman’s, or Teachout’s? No one has offered evidence that they are, and in its absence I am inclined to take these people at their word. The feelings about which Terry is so eloquent amount to nothing more than an assertion of his own infallible taste. The ballet was a masterpiece because he liked it. Dan is right that it is harder to praise a good work of art intelligently than to blame a bad one; this is why I try to train myself not to indulge in too many demolition jobs. But that’s why critics make the big bucks, right?


  7. 7 7. dan

    Wait… you get paid to do this?


  8. 8 8. Aaron Haspel

    Would it were so. But Terry does.


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