Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Too Much Information

Lately I've been doing a lot of reading on Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo. Both were highly talented artists whose works are found in the best museums and beyond purchase by anyone but the wealthiest collectors. They lived in Montmartre, a Parisian neighborhood known for it's Bohemian allure, almost all their lives. Both were drunks, which is neither here nor there, and Suzanne was Maurice's mother. She died in 1938; he died in 1953 and they had what can only be described as a strange relationship.

But that's not what I want to write about, since all relationships are strange in one way or another.

No, what I'm interested in is the critics' fashion of parsing an artist's work--and by artist I mean a writer, dancer, musician, sculptor, the whole gamut of people who cannot but be creative--into meaninglessness.

Look at a painting; read a book. What happens? Your imagination, and the writer or painter's creation work together to form an alliance. This pact moves you in a way--you feel joy, sadness, revulsion on occasion, pity perhaps, even lust or envy. You and the artist form a symbiotic entente cordiale. He or she presents their work for your consideration, with the understanding that the artist is powerless over the audience. You, the audience, are willing to make a gift of time to the work. You read, you listen, you watch. In the end, both parties are affected by each other's willingness to devote a small period of life to pleasuring the other. An artist without an audience ceases to exist, and with no art there are no spectators.

The critics want to take this process over by dictating their views--which are assuredly more learned and educated than yours or mine ever will be. An author, critiquing Valadon's Nude Girl Sitting on a Cushion, writes: "...Valadon's intense characterization is translated through the deliberate distortion of certain forms, the importance of which is enhanced by their unexpected size... Most of the time the children's alienation is expressed through reductive images whose effectiveness is enhanced through their simplicity."

I have no idea what this means. Obviously the critic and I are not looking at the same work. I see a small pencil and chalk drawing of a young dispirited nude. It's an evocative work, and I suppose I resent the critic's muddying of what is, all in all, a very basic piece of art.

For the past few years I've spent a lot of time reading autobiographies of some noted painters, and I have yet to find one describing his or her work in the same language as that of the critics. I wish those who write or broadcast opinions on the quality of things such as art, literary works, and society as a whole would do their own thing instead of parsing the works of others. That seems like a waste of time, a second-hand way of relating to creativity without adding any creativity of one's own. Maybe it's just that I don't like critics.

Here's installment 60 of Wasted Miracles.

When the Zulu put down the phone his face wore a thoughtful but not displeased expression. He had learned not to question providence, knew that occasionally events take place that are beyond human understanding, knew as well that only very foolish people fail to take advantage of such moments.
It had not been a good day after all. A police sweep had closed the Sparrow Club and Dance Venue on Georgia Avenue the night before. He had never been there and wouldn’t care save that the club is owned by one of his best customers, and that on a good weekend up to a half-pound of the Zulu’s products was moved there. The Sparrow’s owner was now in jail facing many charges, and that didn’t worry the Zulu either, since there was a large buffer zone between him and the club-owner, whom he’d never met face to face. Additionally, the club owner was a very wealthy man whose lawyers probably at this very moment were preparing counter-charges since no doubt the man’s civil rights were violated.
What worried the Zulu is that he was not apprised of the raid, and he should have been. When one spends a minor fortune lining the pockets of various people in positions of authority, such things should not happen.
In another neighborhood the Immigration and Naturalization Services nabbed ten illegal immigrants who were also dealers. There was a front page story in the paper about it, how the INS drove three unmarked vans and just picked these people up right off the street. The Zulu should have known about that as well. The reporter’s account said neighbors cheered when one elderly woman managed to trip an escaping dealer with her cane.
The citizens’ patrol in Shepherd Park was also becoming troubling. This was a recent development, residents forming their own posses to rid their neighborhoods of undesirables. The Zulu knew the dealers would find another block not far away and that business would proceed as usual--these concerted efforts were almost always short-lived, but they wreaked havoc with the distribution schedule, and this he didn’t appreciate.
He drummed the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. He looked at the notes he’d jotted while the caller was talking. Better safe than sorry, his great-great grandfather would say. Grasp the bull by the horns, anticipate rather than react. Colin Marsh, he thought. An Irish name? Or Scottish? Regardless of the man’s origins, the Zulu thought, there was no need for some misguided paladin to foul up the works. He picked up the phone, dialed a number.

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