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Yes, but is it art?


The phrase above was the name I gave to the arts section I edited at the University of Washington Daily. I thought (and still think) it was funny, while it also satirizes the central conceit of writing about culture, whether it's "high culture" or "popular culture." (If I made a Venn diagram of those categories they would significantly overlap.) I still have a rubber stamp that says, "This is not art." I got it about 30 years ago. Sometimes I like to get it out and stamp it on things because I think it is absolutely hilarious -- both as a comment on art and a comment on criticism. I laugh and laugh, even if it's only on the inside.

A few days ago, I cited a quotation from the late critic and painter Manny Farber (via Roger Ebert, via Ken Tucker): "I get a great laugh from artists who ridicule the critics as parasites and artists manqués -- such a horrible joke. I can't imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism. I can't imagine anything more valuable to do."

Probably I could think of something -- involving, say, the saving of lives and the pursuit of world peace -- but as somebody who has devoted his life to movies (watching them, studying them, analyzing and discussing them, making them, programming and exhibiting them, writing about them...) I appreciate the wisdom behind the sentiment, especially since it comes from someone who also has a reputation as an accomplished visual artist. (See Paul Schrader's short film on Farber's painting Untitled: New Blue.)

One of the things this blog has taught me is how often I feel the need to repeat my own stories and maxims, and among them is the truism that movies are not made or seen in a vacuum. By that I usually mean that movies can't help but reflect the social, political, cultural, historical conditions in which they are made and shown. I'd like to re-phrase that slightly to make a related point, which is that, in order to thrive, art needs a climate in which it is considered worthy of serious scrutiny and consideration. That's where criticism becomes a vital part of the relationship between art and audience. Think ancient Greece, where art was appreciated as an essential expression of humankind's highest values and ambitions.

We've all heard filmmakers complain about "the critics" who've slammed or misunderstood them. And who can blame them? Audiences do that, too -- and when you put something out into the world there's always that risk. (Human beings are likewise subject to occasional misunderstanding and underappreciation.)

But I've also heard filmmaker after filmmaker complain that, without a sufficiently lively critical culture to encourage discussion and appreciation (including evaluation), they feel their work simply disappears into a vacuum. It can become popular or not, but it doesn't matter unless somebody cares enough to engage with it. The movies, given their history as a mass medium, the cost of making them, and the nature of the form as something exhibited in front of people, demand a response from those viewers. The makers of those movies crave feedback -- a laugh, a tear, applause, a paragraph that shows somebody understood what they were trying to get across.

OK, to some, art and entertainment is just like beer, something to be rented and consumed. It passes through you, maybe even satisfies an appetite and provides a temporary lift, but afterwards it's just pissed away. (Lovely simile. Stamp: This is not art.)

But art demands criticism to help create the conditions in which it can flourish, to encourage the formation of an audience that knows enough about art to care. Can criticism itself be art? Absolutely. I can't think of a form of human expression that couldn't produce art: not just painting and music and sculpture and film, but dance, calligraphy (and typography), video games, architecture, construction, demolition, clockmaking, cooking, mixology, athletics, with the possible exception of Olympic beach volleyball. (I kid.) Synchronized swimming has found expression as art, if only in the form of that SNL sketch starring Christopher Guest, Martin Short and Harry Shearer, which is pure genius.

But, you say, criticism piggybacks on art (or entertainment). So does other art, much of which is a form of criticism of previous works. Or an expansion of them, a transformation of them, and sometimes just a rip-off of them. (Puff Daddy, as you were once known several lifetimes ago, I'm looking at you -- and "I'll Be Missing You," which did virtually nothing with "Every Breath You Take" but regurgitate it.) This ought to be more obvious than ever in the modern age of collage, montage, sampling...

Watch Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1986 film "Antonio Gaudi," on Criterion DVD, consisting entirely of images that examine and caress Gaudi's architecture, and you'll see art and criticism, one form and another, reflect each other like a pair of facing mirrors.

I've read criticism of film, music, painting, architecture, baseball, that has moved me and transformed the way I see the world as profoundly as any work of art. It doesn't have to be a consideration of a masterpiece, either; the criticism itself may well transform and transcend any individual work under scrutiny.

Sometimes the art and the criticism become inseparable. As much as I have loved Buster Keaton since I first laid eyes on him, I don't think I fully experienced him until I read Walter Kerr's chapters in "The Silent Clowns." One of the most magnificent films I know, Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu," is forever reverberating off Robin Wood's consideration of it and "Ugetsu: The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer." (Wood taught me how to see Alfred Hitchock's "Marnie," too.) "The Shining" is a greater movie because of Richard T. Jameson's unforgettable Film Comment cover story. Of course, the movie is what it always was, but Jameson's piece is a masterful interpretation -- the way a musician's interpretation of composition can explore it so deeply and resonantly so that the composer and the interpreter, working in concert, fuse and become co-authors of a particular performance.

Buster Keaton (one of the towering artists in the history of the universe -- who would also adamantly refuse the label) is a filmmaker, a dancer, an architect, a musician (without sound), an athlete, a writer, a comedian, a poet... and it takes the eye and intelligence of a critic to appreciate all that, and to present (also shape) their own experience of Keaton for those who have never seen a Keaton film, to those who have, and to those who will. That will speak as deeply about the critic as it will about Keaton.

That is art.

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