PROBLEM 0015: Critical Immunity

In which the author broaches an anathema. In which it is speculated that some works of art may be above/beneath criticism. And where the author looks at some examples and waits for the hornets to build a nest in the dark corners of his website.


Are there works of art that are immune to criticism? It’s an interesting idea. I have no clue what the qualifications would be for a work of art to fall outside of criticism. I worry that even making such a conjecture would undermine decades of hard work by well-meaning people everywhere. Ah well, consequences be damned. Let’s give it a shot.


SOME INCOMPLETE THOUGHTS ABOUT CRITICAL IMMUNITY

  1. Whenever a work is so strange that it takes theory and kindness and patience to comprehend it, it probably falls outside the realm of criticism (but not critical thinking).
  2. Whenever a work is unfinished, it is barely even a work of art, for it lacks the final signature, the last correction, the tombstone date of completion.
  3. When a work of art is on such a scale (i.e. a magnum opus) that comprehending it would take as much effort as the building of it, a la Proust or Dante, we who cannot give it such time should back off a little. (Also, we shouldn’t just call every big work a magnum opus.)
  4. When something is so new that there is almost nothing to compare it to. Don Quixote perhaps fell into this category once upon a time; as did perhaps Tristram Shandy; or Sartor Resartus; or Gargantua and Pantagruel; or The Satyricon; or The Iliad; or Finnegans Wake; or Marcel Duchamp or the earliest works of the French New Wave or Robbe-Grillet. All that is left to their contemporaries is theory. As more imitators arise, criticism finds a foothold.
  5. Whenever a work seems to transcend all common sense and defy critical conventions, it’s time, perhaps, for criticism to call it a day. The best case scenario for a critic in this scenario is to fall back on criticizing the ideas, of which there are only so many in the world. But criticizing ideas is like criticizing a hairdo or a fence.
the-beautiful-bird-deciphering-the-unknown-to-a-pair-of-lovers by Joan Miro

Go ahead. Try to criticize this. I can’t.
But I could just be superladen with naivete.
I’m willing to admit that possibility.
“The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers”
by Joan Miro, 1941, MOMA.

Imagine now what would happen if a critic were to do decide not to criticize something. How wild would that be? I don’t mean a decision based on the impossibility of reviewing everything—no, that’s not interesting. But what if a critic looked at a work of art and decided that critiquing it was simply not possible. What would that do to the status of the work of art? Would it be deemed true Art or would it find itself located outside of art? How would that affect its value?


SOME EXAMPLES OF ART THAT CRITICS PROBABLY SHOULDN’T CRITICIZE

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov. This was the work that first raised this question for me. One could say that The Original of Laura isn’t even by Nabokov the Author, since it was never finished—in fact, it’s foundations were barely laid. Yet it is a fascinating work-in-progress and has moments of brilliance and moments of embarrassing uncertainty, like life itself, your life, my life. This is the work of Nabokov the Man and we have no idea what it would become in its final, elusive form. See also: Kafka’s The Castle.

The Tulse Luper Suitcases by Peter Greenaway. Some things are destined to be grand failures in the eyes of man. In this/these film/s, Greenaway became his own architect’s belly, feeding his grand visions to the bursting. It is a massive project, a cancer-filled stomach whose tumors are bursting through every bone and organ within reach. But what a fructive cancer. The style is all his, yet it is nearly every style imaginable. A bigger magnum opus than most can create, har har. And yet, it can hardly be called a film. It is The Tulse Luper Suitcases, almost unwatchable except in small doses, almost impenetrable except for brief spans of hideous time, and certainly a success, even if only for Greenaway himself. It should be respected, avoided by those would prefer to not encounter it, and embraced by those who enjoy encyclopedic minds that know there is no chance of ever being truly encyclopedic.

The Cantos by Ezra Pound. Like the two works above, there is something perversely personal about Pound’s Cantos. There is also something unfinished about The Cantos that leaves one feeling simultaneously distant and near to the writer. Their opacity amounts to something of an alchemical personal code whose meaning, though discernible through reference materials, will always elude the reader/scholar/critic—for all its seeming coldness, this is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of personal poetry that is barely fit for consumption outside the brain that created it—that brain is now dead and The Cantos remain to baffle and puzzle and overwhelm. Like Tulse Luper, it will have instances of obtuse lucidity and moments of stultifying torpor. [Critiquing poetry almost falls into the category of bad manners anyway (unless you are a truly brilliant critic, a rare bird indeed), but a “magnum opus” is a magnum opus. Lesser minds will rarely comprehend such things.]

The paintings of Henri Rousseau. What the hell are we supposed to say about this stuff? When a man’s works are praised for the very thing other painters are criticized for, we have left the realm of criticism for the land of pure taste, which is meaningless. At this point, we might as well eschew all criteria whatsoever.

Any Abstract paintings. Well, they’re abstract, you know? What is there really to criticize? The technique? There is no technique. Not really, if you think about it. Certainly not the subject. Maybe we could criticize the titles. Those are usually facile and unhelpful.


SO IF WE DON’T CRITICIZE, WHAT DO WE DO?

Perhaps this is where theory comes in? Theory is useful. Theory is fun. Theory can be ignored with everything else or taken seriously—so seriously—and open up the mind to new ideas—qv, the French. This is a good thing. There should be room in our lives for theory, just as there should be room in our lives for good conversation, belles lettres, the personal essay, and the bicycle ride.