Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Posts tagged “criticism

Artful, Crafty

In theory, there’s not a lot of difference between these words. Except that one implies a certain kind of grace and the other implies a certain kind of cunning.

There are a lot of reasons why I mull over the word ART as much as I do – I don’t harbor the illusion that I’m going to be Changing the Definition. I’ll come up with my own more or less satisfactory take on the word that’ll stick for a few years and that’s it. Merriam-Webster will not come calling. Separate issue.

One of the reasons I do mull it over is the baggage that the word carries around, the idea of transcendence and grace that our Platonic ideal of ART keeps with it like a little cloud on a leash. Named Art. (more…)


How Dark Green Was My Garden

This is not the Megan Cox Gurdon entry you think it is. She’s a symptom, that’s all.

I confess. I haven’t read her stupid article before today. I’m not saying it’s stupid because of her perspective, which I suspect no one has any real problem with – i.e. we want to be good parents raising good and (mentally) healthy kids. Nope, it’s stupid for statements such as this:

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.

Look, I’m all for scaring kids with YA lit (joke! I joke!) but scaring parents with what sounds like good ol’ common sense and a set of blinders two feet tall? I draw the line. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to see some citations here. Sure – it does sound likely. What’s that thing about correlation and causality? (more…)


I See Red.

I’m going to fess up before the rhetorical angle feels too overwrought – it’s not just about Art per se. The problem is that A R T is a very big word that encompasses a lot of meanings, and you and I might both be using the word without saying the same thing (for politically-laden giggles, venture over to Scalzi to see a similar conversation, this one hinging on the meaning of “nihilist”). I’m not going to get into what the various definitions of Art might be, the thing that I’m focusing on, the concept that’s buried in the concept of Art, is standards. (more…)


Art Schmart?

At the risk of betraying one of the Spouse’s deep, dark secrets, I’m going to tell you about the movie that changed her life and helped make her become the person she is today. It was the movie that inspired her to leave home, because it showed her you could do that. It was the movie that compelled her to dream big, because it was about making dreams come true.

She was seven or eight years old, it was The Muppet Movie, and she wrote her Academy Award acceptance speech afterwards.*

Back when I used to teach Theater History at the university, I’d sometimes ask the question HAS ART EVER CHANGED YOU?

I don’t mean an emotional connection. I’ve teared up at movies. I’ve wished for some books never to end. That’s not the same thing.

When we teach craft and technique, we focus on the results that we want to achieve and we talk about Grand Purposes. In the marvelous, at times pitiful and at times embarrassing, documentary Addicted to Acting, the filmmakers follow four German students through their conservatory training. In the first 5/6 of the narrative, they focus on Craft and Art. In the last 1/6, the students are suddenly faced with Business and Getting a Job – and it’s no longer just how good they are that matters – it’s what they look like.** Art just got real petty.

So I say “big deal,” to whether or not you’ve had an emotional reaction. We’ve all had that happen. I want to know the big question – how often has art changed you? Because that’s what we say ART is supposed to do. That’s why ART is supposed to be so great. That’s why – I suspect – artists so rarely talk about the BUSINESS of art. Because that business is a different kind of a gatekeeper.

I had a follow-up question in my History classes after querying whether or not my students had had a life-changing experience because of ART. If art is supposed to change people and make the world better, then why are so many of the people we work with assholes?*** I mean, you’d think that all that transformative mumbo-jumbo would be working on the people who made the stuff, wouldn’t you?

If you’re the author of that emotional connection, there is pride in knowing that you made a connection. There is hope that you brought that person around to your way of thinking by showing him or her what you feel is a profound experience. But did you change anyone? Did someone stop being a bully because you showed him what it was like to be bullied? If it’s that straightforward, then, given the sickening popularity of programming Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the U.S. come the end of Thanksgiving, why are there still so many Scrooges in the world?

See, you knew what I meant. Scrooge isn’t even a lesson any more. He’s just a cultural reference.

The best I got in my classes, the absolute best my students came up with, was that someone might have changed based on a play she was performing in. In other words, the process of creating art was more transformational than the process of consuming it.

If you’ve got an example, please tell me. Because it’s my inclination, based on observation and conversation, that art hardly ever changes its audience.

I focused my dissertation research (“Doctor?” “Doctor.”) in the Czech Republic because theater companies led the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Theater companies. How crazy is that? But, I discovered, they didn’t engage with the revolution via their theater. The people helped transform their country, but their art didn’t, at least not directly. Roughly at the same time, the trade union Solidarity was making a parallel change in Poland. You don’t hear unions squawking about how they’re transformational like art is. But there’s historical precedent, so maybe they want to try that in the next election cycle.

Good art makes me think. Good art can fill me with joy or passion and sometimes rage. Good art might make me want to do something.**** But I can’t think of a time when ART made me stop acting in a certain way, become a different person.

The “specialness” of art is not a lie, but I don’t think it’s what we tell ourselves it is.

So what is it for you? What’s so great about art?

*To date, she has not delivered said speech, but I suspect it is only a matter of time.

**Is this a good time to bring up whitewashing in YA lit? Real life example here.

***Incidentally, this is the critique that Brazilian theater artist Augusto Boal levels against Aristotle, calling him, basically, a coercive bastard (not a direct quote).

****Both Bertolt Brecht with epic theater and art critic Arthur Danto conceive of art has having a fundamentally rhetorical bent. For Brecht it was an entertaining lecture that made you a better person, which would help improve Society. For Danto, a successful work of art is one that brings you to the artist’s perspective, at least for the duration of your exploration of the work. (Danto happily struggled with Warhol.)


Yes, but what does it MEAN?

First Ladies. A Serious Man. Grief. “The Ice Worm.” “Woke Up Near Chelsea.”

When I was teaching Freshman Comp at Carroll University, I asked my class how they felt about picking up the anthology of essays I had required them to purchase for the class. I had a good enough rapport with them that I was rewarded with heartfelt groans of despair and disgust. You don’t like reading, I pursued. Hems and haws, lots of “sometimes.” Do you mind reading your text messages? (Chelsea, put your phone away.) They were surprised at the thought, that texting was reading. You look forward to one, but not the other. Part of this is just what you expect. Adjust your expectations and the experience won’t be so onerous.

I don’t know if that helped them with my assignments, but I hope that it helped them in their later years at school.

First Ladies is an opaque play by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab, which I saw this past weekend at Trap Door Theatre. The production was very, very good. In spite of this, my friend and I, theater pros that we are, having each studied in college and worked in the industry for 20ish years, we didn’t really get it. But we agreed that Trap Door had put on a hell of a show.

I saw A Serious Man with three other people, all of whom work in the film business and all of whom really like the Coen brothers. We all agreed that it was a beautifully realized movie, but none of could make heads or tails of it. Did we not have enough background? If we’d been raised Jewish or educated in Judaism, would we have made sense of the story? Didn’t get it = didn’t like it.

This past weekend was the six month anniversary of my friend Anthony’s death. Coincidentally, I came across the book review linked at the top – in which the reviewer wonders why we write about grief.

This afternoon I read Lore Segal’s “The Ice Worm” in the April, ’11 issue of Harper’s, which is a wonderfully executed story about a sudden horrible event. I understood it, I appreciated it, and I wondered why someone tells a story of despair, for that is how I read it.

The last link up there, that’s Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, singing a rockin’ song with punchy lyrics, but whose overall meaning I don’t think about.

A question that I used to pose to my students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one that I didn’t have an answer to, was this: why do we fret about meaning in film and theater and not in songs? Why do I dwell on First Ladies and A Serious Man, but not “Woke up near Chelsea”? Why can I go a different direction entirely with prose, and simply admire the craft of Lore Segal’s writing?

More to the point, why can’t I simply admire the craft of the film? Why don’t I fret about what the song means?

There’s something about the form that makes me hung up on interpretation – not how I should interpret it, because I don’t think about how. I simply leave the theater and say, wow, what was that about? Obviously, I can appreciate the craft of the play, but that’s only a stopping point. My goal for it, for the film, is the meaning.

I’d be grateful if you had any insights or similar takes.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s the link that got me thinking about A Serious Man again. And two reviews (one, two) for First Ladies.


If a picture is worth a thousand words –

I met up with Lisa yesterday afternoon to catch the fourth of her four films, Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym. “Frederick Wiseman’s a genius,” swore Lisa, before running on for forty-five minutes about the other films she’d just seen. Most of her enthusiasm was reserved for Cinema Komunisto, but her one-word precís of the day’s picks were “great” (Mysterion), “good” (Earth), and amazing (the aforementioned).

When I first moved to Brno (nearly 20 years ago – egad), I didn’t speak much Czech. My friend Johanna came to visit one weekend and I found myself speaking at speeds that should have caused a cop to pull me over. I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself – I was finally in the position to talk! Not with someone, just at all. Johanna didn’t get a chance to say much back and never visited again. I’m not saying there’s a correlation, I’m just saying.

Anyway, that’s what the first 45 minutes of Lisa was like last night, and that’s why she likes film festivals, and all of that had been prefaced by genius.

Genius is not a word that Lisa bandies about. I’ve never heard her apply it to anyone, in fact, so the bar was set pretty high for Boxing Gym. In light of yesterday’s post on criticism, this film couldn’t have come at a better time. For one thing, Wiseman is a superb visual storyteller. There’s hardly any dialogue in the film at all, and what is there tends to be illustrative rather than expository. No direct questions or graphics for this guy. Secondly, there’s no dramatic arc, which is how Lisa often talks about her stories, and I think why she likes Wiseman so much.

Here’s a still from the film.

If I ask you to describe this picture, you’ve got just the one image frozen in time. Which part do you begin talking about, the foreground or the background? Do you talk about the kid’s stare, his intensity? The placement of his feet or the way he holds his body? Do you begin with the state of the bag, hardly brand new, or the duct tape keeping the carpet fragments together?

Boxing Gym is a 100 minute portrait of a place where people come to train. Some of the issues that come up are a lack of class divisions (in that this particular gym is a real melting pot of working class, white collar, serious fighters, new moms trying to get their bodies back), an emphasis on movement, technique, and form, and particularly given that the cinematography took place during the Virginia Tech attacks, the occasional meditation on the aesthetics and ethics of violence.

Wiseman largely builds from the background up with visuals of the empty space and the sounds that feet make, hands striking bags, electronic buzzers. It’s not until near the end of the film that he gives us an expansive physical view of the gym, and it’s also only near the end that he finally shows sparring. It’s a mark of his focus on technique, an emphasis he shares with gym owner Richard Lord, that fighting in the gym is secondary: training is what’s important. When one of the two combatants strikes a cross to his opponent’s jaw – no slow motion here – there’s an audible gasp and jump from the audience. Boxing is a violent sport, but the gym is not an inherently violent place.

This is the kind of storytelling that cinema can do well, but rarely does because it’s not a money maker. It’s not the kind of storytelling that theater generally does at all, where, thanks to that bully Aristotle, people always want to know what the conflict is.

It’s a hegemony, is what it is.


I guess it depends on how you define “successful…”

Two movies for me today, three for Lisa. I joined her for How to Start Your Own Country and a live performance of Tagfish, part of the “Expanding Documentary” section of the festival.

At the risk of getting into some big words here, there are a lot of semiotics at play when you try to talk about the performance inherent in a production, live or recorded. I will turn for aid to a paraphrased, unnamed, and not shown French diplomat, who is referenced in How to Start Your Own Country. In regard to the potential number (and potential explosion of numbers) of micronations, he dismissively says that he doesn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of “silly little countries.”

I could get lost in the micromeanings of individual self-presentations, but I think in a larger scope a work of art of this sort is delivering a set of meanings to us. How we interpret all of those micromeanings, their interplay, and how we layer on our own experience and cultural knowledge is what determines whether or not a movie or a book “works for us.”

How to Start Your Own Country illustrates a couple of micronations (Sealand, North Dumpling Island, Hutt River Province, Seborga) and shows interviews with various diplomats and political scientists, all of whom discuss potential definitions of What a Country Is. What they (or Shapiro, the filmmaker) dance around but never articulate precisely is that existing countries (and through them, their clubs: the UN, the IMF, World Bank, EU, etc.) have a vested interest in stability. Stability is safe, after all, and helps to insure that existing countries (and perhaps existing power dynamics between countries) will also remain stable.

So it is, I think, with evaluation of art, even if accidentally. The criteria by which I judge, evaluate, and criticize a work of art should be flexible, allowing each piece to succeed or fail on its own terms – as opposed to succeeding or failing on mine. But isn’t easy to fall into patterns of my own, and come back to familiar answers? Classical storytelling (whether “documentary” or “narrative”) often relies on the Aristotelian 5 steps: first, admit you’ve got a problem exposition; followed by conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. It’s simple, tried and true. Aristotle didn’t even invent the rule, so you know he didn’t have a dog in that fight, right? Right. So you know that’s the best way.

Or at least the simplest, most straightforward way.

The truth is, as far as I can tell, that every story wants to be told in a different way. Maybe a percentage far north of 50 want to be told that via Aristotle’s prescription. Sometimes, though, a little bit of non-linearity goes a long way. Sometimes you pull a last-minute reverse to surprise your audience: “OMG! Bobby’s still alive! It was all a dream!” (I apologize for crossing the timestreams).

If that’s the case, then when I say that How to Start Your Own Country got a little long and rambling, is that because it failed to tell its story well, or that it failed because it didn’t conform to how I expected it to tell its story? Because either are real possibilities. (You could quibble with me here and assert that Aristotle’s work doesn’t even apply in the first place so I enact my own argument by applying Aristotelian standards out of context and I would say that you have missed my point entirely Mr/s Lost in the Microsemiotics (that’s “Mr/s Can’t See the Forest for the Trees, BTW).) I learned facts about an odd little quirk of history and law, and they showed me some eccentric ideas thrust into the world (MAN, talk about performing yourself – sheesh). It was fun. It got long.

Tagfish used individual screens as literal, visual placeholders for the projections of the men speak from them. An interesting idea, and a potentially enthralling story about bureaucracy and how a redevelopment idea can be killed not by committee but by the very process that is meant to document and regularize business planning. Instead, it was technically superb (in design and execution), but with a quite dull story. Although by necessity it was highly edited, they pretended to a cinema verite style of recording by using prolonged silences, awkward pauses, and charisma free committee members.

The execution of their idea, however, is impractical on any kind of scale. Costly in motor control and projection (not to mention the rigged table and chairs), it is an effective blend of performance and recording. So what does it do, if that’s the case? I think shows like this succeed as experiments – they’ve shown us a new possible path. Because I think there’s a corollary – if every story wants to be told in its own way, finding a new way to tell a story might yield new kinds of stories to tell entirely.

And that’s an exciting thought.

Although as something that holds your interest, I gotta say WAY too long. And slow. Hoo boy.