Sunday, July 06, 2003

From the beginning of Daniel Mendelsohn's NY Times review of The Book Against God:

"Art and criticism, after all, seem to spring from wholly different impulses: one is emotional, libidinous, aesthetic; the other intellectual, detached, coolly evaluative."

This is a bit too simple, and too romantic, especially since as I've been arguing recently, an interest in art is not necessarily any more romantic than an interest in law.

An artist can be as detached and evaluative in his approach as a critic. The difference is that a critic evaluates the world in terms of meaning and an artist does so in terms of sensibility. The weakness is that art is most often intellectually vague and conflicted. The advantage is that good works of art- as opposed to good artists- are never hypocritical, and that is because rather than ordering meaning an artist is ordering objects surfaces and tones, doing so according to a formal but private logic.

When you order surfaces- even when you dress in the morning- you order meaning by default. Yet by concentrating on craft or process instead of purpose or implication, a sort of a formal or 'accidental' honesty occurs. And this, even resulting in contradiction or bad taste, is a strength. But it becomes the job of a critic to point out the meanings behind the work, even those the artist did not intend, and to do so without doing injustice to the object of his criticism, since whatever ideas the critic recognizes in the work might not have been conceived of without it. Art is more a lens than an eye. But without the lens the eye sees nothing. Mendelsohn has performed the job of a critic. James Wood's art has outflanked his ideas, and Mendelsohn has just pointed that fact out to him, and us.

Ideally you would call this process one of 'progressive awareness,' and it is a good description -as example- of the symbiotic relationship between art and the rest of intellectual culture. But the notion of such a relationship is foreign to American political ideals. Progressivism sees the sloppiness as antiscientific, and conservatism sees it as lazy and self absorbed.

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