Tag Archives: literature

On First Looking into Sontag’s Barthes Reader


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Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup 

Despite my allusive title, I have mixed feelings about the Barthes Reader.  Before actually reading Barthes, I had read that he was maybe the either the most important or “greatest” author of the twentieth century. I have worked my way through half of the Reader now and “my two cents” is: a few really good essays, but not too sure about the overall coherence of his ideas. He draws a lot on linguistics and formalism and later enters a deconstructive mode, and he’s ahead of the curve in terms of literary movements. But his work seems to be more about gestures at ideas than fully articulated ones. Sartre, by contrast, tries to work his ideas out on paper. I think in the long run that I prefer the more fully articulated approach. He is kind of Borgesian in his gestures. Perhaps my lack of awe is just due to the fact that the movements he’s initiating aren’t really new to me and linguistic structuralism and formalism just aren’t really very exciting topics (cf. his tenacious “Structural Analysis of Narratives.”)  That being said, his wrestling-themed essay and his essay on the Eiffel Tower are great reads and probably even classics.  

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Art and its critics: an opinion on the role of the critic


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What is the role of the critic?  How should criticism interact with an art form?  These are questions that have been asked and answered in various ways before.  In what follows, I would like to draw from my own personal experience as someone who has been writing on jazz for a little over a year.  I do not wish to claim absolute originality for any of my thoughts, but only the originality of them as my own personal observations, based upon the particular context of my experiences.  I invite comments and criticism from readers that may further the discussion.  In the course of these thoughts about the role of the critic I have also been led to say a few things about the relationship between art and philosophy, and moreover, about the relationship between science and philosophy.  My belief about the relationship between the artist and the critic is that when they work together best, the one acts to push forward the thought of the other.  The particular way in which that positive interaction comes about will be the subject of what follows.

In the case of non-linguistic arts (such as music or painting) when the critic puts into words a description of a non-linguistic art form, the result is a kind of translation that involves a jump from something communicated at a sensual level to one that engages the understanding in a rational reconstruction of the “sense” of that sensuality.  Embedded in this description is a more general assumption about what critics ought to be doing.  It may be spelled out clearly as the assumption that critics ought, at some point, to make an effort to interpret art, and not merely evaluate it in terms of whether it is agreeable to their personal tastes.  From a long-term perspective, tastes may vary, and while it may be interesting to read about the tastes of different critics, or of different critics over time, the more enduring and more valuable critical work is the work that shows us how a way of seeing or feeling can perhaps be linked to a way of  thinking or understanding.  Critical work that takes on that kind of task is critical work that engages in the project of interpretation.  An interpretation, despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of art, can be refined over time to the point where a world view begins to be articulated through reflection upon art.  It may also be the work of multiple hands.

This point seems to call for an explication of the role of the artist in relation to the critic.  The view I would like to propose is that the artist presents in art a way of seeing that can introduce listeners or viewers to new ways of seeing.  New ways of seeing, in turn, push interpreters toward ever new ways of thinking and understanding.  Thus, art can be seen as an embryonic stage in the march toward the development of systematic philosophies.  All art seems to have a way of seeing embedded in its creation.  That way of seeing is typically not rigorously drawn out in terms of a systematically ordered set of concepts.  That wouldn’t be “art”, but something else, like a mature form of criticism or a philosophy perhaps.

But to anticipate a possible objection, does philosophy always begin with art?  In one sense the answer will be “No”, but with a way of seeing, and with the project of articulating that way of seeing.  This, it seems to me, is the point at which philosophy divides itself from science (to the extent that a division based upon modern practices in the universities must be rationalized): whereas science takes the elements of the empirical world as its starting point, philosophy takes a way of seeing involving an act of interpretation as its starting point.  But there was also a “yes” answer.  What, then, is the way in which philosophy always begins with art?

The “yes” answer to this question involves embracing the thesis that what makes art “art” is simply the intentional act of seeing it as art.  For example, I am sitting in a café at this moment and there is a coffee cup on the table.  I may decided to look upon it as a scientific object, in which case I will be interested in its empirical properties with a mind toward some sort of classification or seeking answers to questions like “Why does it appear white?” or “What might be the best material for a coffee cup?”.  But, if my interest is an artistic one, I will look upon it in a different way, with a different set of intentions.  I might decide that it is a beautiful object, or I might decide that a different sort of lighting could help its appearance.

The point is that any object can be considered as art inasmuch as any object can be looked upon from an artistic point of view or with the intention of evaluating it from an artistic perspective.  Seeing an object as art, furthermore involves the possibility of seeing it as representing a way of seeing.  To return to the coffee cup, it might seem far fetched that a coffee cup could represent a way of seeing; but if one considers centuries of work that has been done on ancient artifacts, whether Greek, Etruscan, or Egyptian, one cannot help but admit the possibility of seeing a worldview in such creations.  That critics would like to articulate the sense of that worldview might be considered the starting point toward a philosophical viewpoint.  Here, it may be realized, the progression does not go from one medium or subject matter to another.  The progression is rather from the presentation of a viewpoint toward a systematic articulation of that viewpoint.

Finally, I would like to introduce the thought that the relationship between the artist and critic is a macrocosm of what occurs in each one of us when we attempt to understand the world on the basis of the information that the senses deliver to our intelligence.  We work toward an understanding of the world, and of ourselves in relation to the world, seemingly as an extension of our innate drive toward survival.  Those poles seem to interact as follows: we begin with a sensuous kind of understanding that later reaches a fuller articulation once it has been subject to the task of adhering to logical consistency.  Once the latter is achieved, a kind of philosophy may be said to have come into bloom.

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