Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Knowing Better

I was reading through some of the interviews on the Comics Reporter website and these comments from Frank Santoro stuck with me:

I remember when I did Storeyville, it was "You shouldn't do it like this, you should do it like Rubber Blanket. Have you seen Rubber Blanket? Check this out." Or "If you could just tighten up your drawings." Everybody had something to say as opposed to, "Hey, cool comic." It was raked across the coals. Even John Porcellino, we were exchanging letters. He was like, "I just don't understand it. I don't like the ending. I don't get it. It just ends." I remember James Kochalka wrote me a letter and said, "It's too many pages; there's so much you can cut out." [Spurgeon laughs] That's fine, but I didn't invite that kind of criticism. I just sent it to people. You're welcome to criticize it whatever you want, but it was people telling me what I should do.

I like to be aware of whether or not I'm doing criticism - trying to talk about a given art/culture object/experience - or doing something else that may just look like criticism - offering suggestions on what would make a given arts/culture object/experience work better for a specific audience, for example. It's this latter thing that Frank is describing to Tom. It reminds me a lot of the practice of "giving notes" from my days as a theater student. It assumes that the note giver is coming from some kind of position of authority (i.e. he or she "knows better" in some way), which works pretty well within certain pedagogical frameworks (i.e. an acting class or a writing workshop), but, IMO, doesn't work as well in other contexts.

I'd point to Jim Emerson's post on The Happening as an example of this "not working well". Jim goes into great detail and makes a persuasive argument for why Shyamalan should have made different filmmaking choices, but Jim's argument only makes sense if you assume that Jim knows what Shyamalan wants out of his movie more than Shyamlan himself does. The changes Jim suggests would turn The Happening into a different movie - maybe one that Jim would like more, maybe one that a lot of other people would like more, too, but, nonetheless, a different movie from the one Shyamalan actually made.

Criticism needs to look at the given object/experience itself. That's not to say that people shouldn't engage in other kinds of discussions about arts and culture, including speculations on the kinds of changes that might have made a given object/experience work better for us or for some other kind of audience (like, commentary along the "Here's what DC should do to make their comics more kids-friendly..."-line). It's just that by taking the position of "knowing better", you put yourself in danger of closing yourself off from art/culture objects/experiences that work differently than you expect them to.

Also, it seems to me that there's more temptation to "give notes" when you're (a) talking about pop art/culture and (b) talking about it on the internet.


James said...

Jon, just because it's left unwritten in this post, what is the purpose of criticism?

Also, your remark about The Happening notes that Shyamalan may have a different objective than many critics, thus their complaints, or posturing, or Knowing-Better, is very presumptuous, in addition to not being true art criticism. That is: as criticism it's bad, and as Knowing-Better it's unfounded because the premise is wrong.

But there are nevertheless plenty of works of art where the premise is fairly easily ascertained, and I would argue that Knowing-Better isn't quite as wrong-headed as it might be in Shyamalan's case.

For example, that Star Wars: The Clone Wars thing we saw a few weeks ago was... well, it wasn't High Art by any means, and I have a strong urge to correct it: "Look, you screwed up here, here, and here. There's a whole body of work on good sidekicks: learn from it." I agree this isn't art criticism, but I don't feel bad about passing judgment, either. (This may not be how you feel about that particular film, but I imagine something out there elicits such a reaction from you.)

On the other hand, as I type this I'm watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou - a movie I was largely indifferent to the first time around. But rather than bitch at Wes Andersen, I'm trying to watch it again and appreciate it more.

I wonder when art reaches the point that Knowing Better isn't adequate, and you need to learn to appreciate it on its own terms?

Jon Hastings said...

Hi James -

Borrowing some language from film critic Bill Krohn, I'd say that criticism is analysis of (or exploration of or argument for) how a given art/culture object/experience means. I'd break it down into: formal analysis of the work/experience, placing the object/experience in its larger context(s), and interpretation of the object/experience. In practice, these three things might happen in any order or all at once or in a cycle and a given piece of criticism might emphasize one of these things over the others.

(Note: I'm definitely using "criticism" here in the sense of "literary criticism" or "film criticism" and not in its more colloquial sense.)

I think criticism of Clone Wars would do these things. To take a specific detail from it: one of the ways it makes meaning is to present Ziro the Hutt, one of the traitorous villains, as an over-the-top flaming Truman Capote-like caricature. I'd interpret this as the filmmakers trying to equate treachery and cowardice with being effeminate. Now - once I've "done the criticism", I don't think there's anything wrong with passing judgment.

Actually, I don't think there's anything wrong with just passing judgment, either, but I don't think that just passing judgment makes for good criticism. To the extent that I have a standard, it would be that criticism should attempt to transcend the individual tastes/values of the person doing it, whereas judgment is all about acting on your individual tastes/values.

My thinking on this is based on past instances of me getting things wrong (IMO) or rushing to judgment. Wes Anderson is a good example: it wasn't until watching The Darjeeling Limited that his work really clicked with me and part of my issue was that I had been trying to fit his work into a box that it wasn't supposed to fit into. (Similar cases for me: the Coen Bros. before The Big Lebowski, Spike Lee before reading Jonathan Rosenbaum on Do the Right Thing). I'm probably more likely to pick this tendency up when other writers do it, because I do it myself! So, in general, I like to give the benefit of the doubt to the people creating the art/culture. Again, eventually when all is said and done, nothing wrong with passing judgment, but I think there might be too much of an importance placed on the idea that a given work has to grab us by the shoulders and make us appreciate it, damnit, as opposed to the idea that different works ask the audience to approach them on different terms.