Tuesday, November 06, 2007

6 BOOKS that will help you develop an eye for art by Sarah Douglas

Sarah Douglas is an art journalist based in New York. She is a staff writer for Art+Auction magazine, and has written for other leading art publications such as The Art Newspaper, Flash Art and Art News. Knowing Sarah is a bit like getting to go to graduate school for free. Below, she writes about six books of criticism that she "guarantees will help you develop that good-art-detecting thing called a mind that people generally just call an eye." She asks that you "trust her on this one."

The Dyer's Hand by W.H. Auden

Okay, this is a desert island disc. The prologue of this book consists of two related essays. The first one is called "Reading." The second one is called "Writing." They are made up of sets of what are essentially interrelated aphorisms, some longer than others. I've read these two essays so many times that I probably thought "okay, this is a desert island disc" when I plucked the book from the shelf because one of the aphorisms, in "Reading," is as follows: "Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously 'truer' than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways." But a quirky mnemonic event hardly justifies my having chosen this. Wait for it! There is a part, also in "Reading," where Auden argues that in order for a reader to be in a position to judge a critic's judgments, the critic must first describe to the reader "his dream of Eden." What follows is a questionnaire devised, and completed, by Auden, which reads, in part: "Landscape: Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast... Climate: British. ... Size of Capital: Plato's ideal figure, 5004, about right. ... Formal Dress: The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ‘40’s. ... Sources of Public Information: Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers. ... Public Statues: Confined to famous defunct chefs.”

Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey's Eden is likely a desert, decked out in blinking neon lights of every size shape and color. Last month I spotted the iconoclastic, Las Vegas-based critic sitting on a bench in London's Regent's Park, a cameraman recording the interview he was giving to a dapper BBC reporter. Hickey, who had just given a lecture in which he had aptly captured the primary and secondary art markets of the 1990s by observing that if you made it past the confetti and dog turds in the front room with your shoes clean you could get to the back room and buy yourself a nice Donald Judd, was, in jeans, paunch and baseball cap, harshly anomalous against the manicured setting. I'd first encountered him eight years ago at a conference in the middle of the west Texas desert, where he seemed at home enough to be part of the local flora – the cactus, the tumbleweed, the Dave. Anyhow, I started to wonder whether his lively volume of essays, Air Guitar, which I'd devoured just after college, had stood the test of time. Had it been a youthful enthusiasm? I'm here to report that either it wasn't, or I remain youthful – good outcome either way. So. You know you're in funny territory right off the bat because when you open the book you see a picture of Keith Richards wielding a guitar like it's a weapon, along with this quote from the Rolling Stone: "Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem." Then you get Hickey's erudition interspersed with bursts like "I'll tell you what I would like. I would like some bad-acting and wrong-thinking. I would like to see some art that is courageously silly and frivolous..." Hickey was a rock critic before he was an art critic. Maybe there is more enthusiasm in the rock criticism line of work. Because that – the enthusiasm -- is what doggedly refuses to age in these essays.

Intentions by Oscar Wilde, in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Richard Ellmann

Recently, at a party, a rock critic told me that his ultimate goal is to make an album with no bad songs on it. I thought he was speaking metaphorically, but it turned out he has a band. Anyhow, the group of Oscar Wilde essays called Intentions is an album with no bad songs on it. But I would draw your attention especially to "The Artist as Critic." There are too many good bits in it. My copy is so underlined I can barely read it. Wait, here's something: "Yes: writing has done much harm to writers." Here's something else: "Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin's views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvasses in England's Gallery..."

The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art by John Ruskin

It seems that, after a while, John Ruskin's views on Turner were not very sound. There is a snippet of one of his letters in the introduction to The Lamp of Beauty, a lovely little volume of his writings, that has haunted me since I read it. In it is his great devotion to the art of Turner, evinced among the mutterings of a mind at odds with itself. There is a lapidary quality about Ruskin's criticism; its very texture betrays both a crystalline control of language, and a need for control in general, and like many who are concerned with control, he may have been teetering for quite a while on a precipice and eventually, as happens, a crucial fragment of him tumbled down and smashed against some sharp rocks. In the letter he writes to a friend, "Indeed I rather want good wishes just now. I am tormented by what I cannot get said, nor done. I want to get all the Titians, Tintorets, Paul Veroneses, Turners and Sir Joshuas in the world into one great fireproof Gothic gallery of marble and serpentine. I want to get them all perfectly engraved. I want to go and draw all the subjects of Turner’s 19,000 sketches in Switzerland and Italy, elaborated by myself. I want to get everybody a dinner who hasn't got one. I want to macadamize some new roads to Heaven with broken fools' heads ... I want to play all day long and arrange my cabinet of minerals with new white wool. I want Turner's pictures not to fade – I want to be able to draw clouds...and I can't do anything and don't understand what I was born for." What else would any real, art-loving critic do with a whittled-down mind, other than to hope that pictures don't fade? It's heartbreaking.

Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists by Robert Hughes

Because, say what you will, he's a real, art-loving critic. Because the last essay in the book is a satirical epic poem in heroic couplets called "The SoHoiad," based on Pope's Dunciad, that lambastes the ever more lambastable world of contemporary art. And I don't even mind that I am, like, so implicated! Look -- "Behind, a pliant and complaisant throng / of Art-Reporters flatulates along / With tongues a-wag and wits made dull by rust, / Trustees who deal, and dealers none may trust, / Curators clutching freebies to their breasts, / The bureaucrats, the urgers, and the pests."

"The Renaissance" by Walter Pater in Walter Pater: Three Major Texts

Because "to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame" is still "success in life." Right?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to read Pater. Guess I'll use this as a starting point. Thanks!

3:08 PM  
Anonymous JPW said...

SD, it was kind of you to include Hughes' book, considering his cruel 'dissing' of your profession. No 'flatulating art-reporter' you, m'dear! (as this brilliantly crafted list makes apparent). That excerpt from Hughes' epic poem is, indeed, hilarious....

Not at all hilarious is poor Ruskin's fate. You write: "A crucial fragment of him tumbled down and smashed against some sharp rocks." Heartbreaking, indeed. But what a beautiful and apt description of the kind of collapse from which one never really recovers....

As far as Auden goes, I'm not sure I agree that there are "infinite" legitimate ways to "read" a dictionary.... BUT I do agree with his idea that there are "truer" and more "plausible" readings of, say, novels, even if they accomodate multiple types of readings. I just discovered an influential literary theorist who is a proponent (actually, more like an early founder) of "reader-response" theory. She believes that texts (poems/novels) are not static independent entities, but are rather 'created' during the dynamic that occurs between each unique reader and each text at a particular moment. Yet she also supports Auden's idea that there are 'better' and 'worse' readings -- that we can't fall prey to total subjectivity. Interesting stuff. Because of her balanced, humanistic bent, her theories have been embraced as an alternative to the New Criticism (which dominated the literary educations of us thirty-somethings). Also intriguing -- and instructive -- is the distinction she draws between "efferent" and "aesthetic" reading. See her seminal book "Literature as Exploration" (late 1930's)....

Thanks for this peek into your world, SD. Reading your list, I feel the way I do when I read a great issue of the NYTBR.... even if I can't make time to read the actual books, the reviews alone are good for the soul.

12:41 PM  

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