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Critiquing the Critics

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This is a fascinating conversation. It has been a pleasure, especially, to eavesdrop on the most recent posts. I especially appreciate the suggestion of affinities between Balanchine and Picasso on one hand, and possibly Ashton/Tiepolo on the other.

I also appreciate Michael's point, as follows:

No one has read everything; seen everything; but an interesting critical intellect is always placing things in his or her own context, and cross referencing things they know in that context. Thus if major intellectual events for you personally were Beckett and Balanchine, that's going to be a reference you make. An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications.

I find it interesting that Macaulay wrote about ballet frequently for the Times Literary Supplement before coming to the NY Times. Most of the reviewers who appear in TLS are academics and therefore expected to incorporate knowledgeable references to a broad range of writings -- which means background and context -- in their fields. (They do not just "review" a book or performance. They do not just drop names. They do not need to sneak a peak at Wikipedia.) Those who write about the performing arts, current literature, etc., for TLS tend also to be quite aware of current cultural trends in their fields. What's more, they expect their readers to know about the topic and to be interested in wide-ranging issues related to it.

Personally, I like these qualities in a ballet critic. To put it another way: the richest, most rewarding ballet criticism includes an understanding of and willingness to discuss artistic matters that go beyond ballet itself.

Why does this matter? Because ballet is -- or can be -- an important art which deserves thought and writing on the level of the finest literary or drama criticism. Those of us who grew up in NYC with Balanchine know this intuitively. Some reviewers feel this in their bones. They explain (and advocate for) ballet -- though not always for the individual performance or work -- and for its place in the larger family of performing arts.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of journals with the readership, budget, editorial independence, etc., to devote space, time and money (including travel budgets) to such a venture. Macaulay seems to have been extremely fortunate -- or clever -- in getting serious support, and a large degree of freedom, from this editors at the Times. The New Yorker gives similar resources to its staff reviewers for books, opera, and drama, but no longer to dance. Ballet Review and DanceView have done marvelous work in this style, but their readership is small and specialized.

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He denied even knowing Apollinaire to the police in the matter of that Louvre theft.

Patrick, check out Richardson's v.3 Picasso life (Mailer’s Picasso claimed “no original scholarship”), it's as if the Louvre incident didn't happen, a blip.

Are you saying that it's not mentioned in the Richardson, or that 'Mailer made it up' or Richardson never mentioned it, or what? Don't know what you mean by 'no original scholarship'. 'A blip' in what sense. Are you suggesting Mailer made up this story about Picasso and Apollinaire?

Here's what wiki for Apollinaire says: "On September 7, 1911, police arrested and jailed him on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa, but released him a week later. Apollinaire then implicated his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning in the art theft, but he was also exonerated.[1] He once called for the Louvre to be burnt down."

So Mailer's rhapsodies may or may not be in question, but it's certainly not that the incident didn't happen.

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/29/books/bo...racts-like.html

There's Michiko Kakutani's review of the Mailer, plus mention Picasso's betrayal of Max Jacob as well, that Mailer didn't include. One thing I noticed also in the review is the 'machismo' shared by Mailer and Picasso. This is certainly totally absent in everything Balanchine stood for, of course. She sees Mailer as indulging in 'hero worship', but her review, while calling Mailer's book 'subjective', does seem to try to be objective, I don't know whether that's before or after he called her the 'one-woman kamikaze' or not, either way, it was a pretty good read of a review. She's got a review of Richardson, which she praises as 'magisterial'. I'm going to go back an look at that, which is obviously a lot more scholarly a kind of work, but her review alone clears up the Louvre matter, in that it did exist.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/06/books/06...nted=1&_r=1

Her review of the 3rd Volume of Richardson points out his cruelty. All these great artists have a certain amount of cruelty. The final quote that she makes of Picasso himself, as he says 'I am God' three times still seems very far from the 'persona' of Balanchine. I don't see Picasso as saying 'God creates, man assembles'. So if you want to compare artists in different fields (I really don't see much in it myself, and prefer what Michael pointed out as the more academic kind of carefully thought out thing, instead of this 'conversational fun thing'. I mean, I like 'conversational fun things', but for me, comparing artists doesn't mean much. It's enough that Picasso, Stravinsky and Balanchine worked together, they would therefore have many artistic sympathies, and probably all capable of ruthlessness and cruelty. Martha Graham certainly was. But 'persona' is unclear in what it includes. I was just pointing out differences in manifestations of the character-persona. Obviously, Gelsey Kirkland thought Balanchine was cruel, that's not quite the same thing, even if true, as what Picasso was up to.) In any case, I've often heard Picasso and Martha Graham compared, much more frequently than Balanchine and Picasso. I don't really see Picasso as having much similarity with Fritz Lang, I was just pointing to that particular weakness in character, which did seem to be negligible to both. Of course, one could say that Balanchine's insistence that dancers 'not be political' is not especially admirable in and of itself, but it could also just mean they really haven't time to take getting involved in politics if they're going to realize their potential as dancers, esp. Balanchine dancers.

A couple of arresting quotes from Kakutani's review of the Mailer:

"Even their preoccupation with violence, machismo and the baffling otherness of women have been very much the same. In fact, when Mr. Mailer described himself in "The Armies of the Night" as "warrior, presumptive general, champion of obscenity, embattled aging enfant terrible," he might well have been describing Picasso. "...

"Like Ms. Huffington, Mr. Mailer repeatedly suggests that Picasso had homosexual leanings, that he saw his father as a rival, that he sought to pierce the appearance of people and things and depict their hidden reality. Like Mr. Richardson, he notes that Picasso's use of color was willed, rather than instinctive like Matisse's, that he owed considerable artistic debts to the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, that he channeled feelings of guilt and shame into his art with astonishing success." ...

"And of Picasso's failings as a human being in general: "If he was a monster, we have no alternative but to accept him. We ought to know that violence and creativity all too often connect themselves inextricably. Indeed, how can they not when some of the most creative moments in early childhood are interrupted by adults -- concern for one's safety, or one's deportment, are always grounds for interruption -- and so in maturity, love is frequently followed by hate, and creation by destruction." "...

"While such rationalizations of genius should not distract attention from Picasso's genuine artistic achievements, they attest to a naive, adolescent -- and ultimately hazardous -- impulse to worship the artist as hero. "

She's a good writer (I never thought her better, and was reading this for the first time), and at least as a person, he doesn't bear much resemblance to Balanchine, to my mind. As an artist, that's something else, of course, but it's hard not to see something of both parts of a man or woman artist.

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The New Republic currently has a piece by Ruth Franklin referencing the Macaulay/Isherwood debate about Come Fly Away that wonders why fights between critics are so tame.

The dueling-opinions phenomenon isn’t limited to the professionals: we’ve all encountered reviews in which the critic seems to have read an entirely different book or seen a different film than the one we loved (or deplored). Is it true, as the proverb goes, that in matters of taste there can be no dispute? Since Kant, at least, judgments of taste have been understood to be primarily subjective, governed less by inherent, empirical attributes of a work than by the personality and intellect of its assessor. But this view overlooks the niggling fact that few of us, when encountering an opinion of a work of art diametrically opposed to our own, are magnanimous enough to declare the merits of both positions and call it a draw. No: we believe that our position is right—otherwise why would we have argued for it in the first place?—and the other side is wrong.

But this is rarely admitted in polite company.

Methinks polite company is on to something here. :) If critical opinion, or even just man-in-the-street opinion, is reduced to de gustibus non est disputandum, then isn't the proper, deepest response to the work itself a great big yawn? If art is important, opinions about it are important. As Graham says

a taste judgment, after all, is a kind of value judgment, even if we can’t always articulate those values exactly. What we like reveals something about the sort of person we are.

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Are you saying that it's not mentioned in the Richardson, or that 'Mailer made it up' or Richardson never mentioned it, or what? Don't know what you mean by 'no original scholarship'. 'A blip' in what sense. Are you suggesting Mailer made up this story about Picasso and Apollinaire?

I've enjoyed Norman Mailer in the past, Armies of the Night and earlier Advertisements for Myself were important works, but I wouldn't go to him for art criticism and agree with Michael Kimmelman, the Times art critic when he says,

[Mailer's] Picasso emerges in a familiar guise, as a selfish, superstitious, sometimes cowardly and combative prodigy who moved chameleonlike from one style to another, through one relationship after the next. Mr. Mailer has called his work "an interpretive biography," to distinguish it from a work of original scholarship. This is fair enough, but most of the interpretations are not original.

For instance, Mr. Mailer is not the first to suggest, on the basis of no compelling evidence, that Picasso might have had a homosexual encounter or two as a young man. That dubious honor goes to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington in her reckless "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer." Who cares one way or another, you might well ask, whether he had such an encounter? But like a dog with a bone, Mr. Mailer takes hold and won't let go.

Michiko Kakutani's Richardson review also says,

Mr. Richardson’s Picasso is not the destructive, misanthropic egomaniac portrayed in the Merchant-Ivory film “Surviving Picasso” or the heroic hipster artist depicted in Norman Mailer’s “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man.” Rather his Picasso is a mass of contradictions, a savage artist, who was often horribly cruel to his friends like Cocteau but who also “had a very loyal, if sometimes paradoxical heart”

I think a loyal paradoxical heart may be the key term. T J Clark says tenderness and monstrosity co-exist in Picasso. Despite the Louvre incident Richardson cites Braque and Apollinaire as among his closest friends by 1917. A piece of a woman's black veil blows across Picasso's face one afternoon and he knows that Apollinaire is dead and he spends ten years devising a monument to his memory.

Anyway I think we were comparing Picasso and Balanchine for their protean output, not for their personalities which yes are day and night apart.

But the larger point is that dance doesn't have the critics and critical resources -- or critical curiosity -- that the serious art world does. The space that Balanchine uses has complex parallels to Braque and Picasso's cubism through Russian constructivism, to cubist interiority. Elizabeth Cowling says the cubist table top is a stage. And Clement Greenberg uses a charming image that brings painting back to ballet's source,

Cezanne broke up the objects he depicted into multiplicities of planes that were as closely parallel as possible to the canvas surface; and to show recession, the planes were stepped back with comparative abruptness -- even the receding edges of objects keep turning full-face to the spectator like courtiers leaving the presence of royalty.

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But the larger point is that dance doesn't have the critics and critical resources -- or critical curiosity -- that the serious art world does.

I totally agree but it used to in the past, certainly in the UK you could find critical essays putting dance works into an artistic/social/historical context but that was many decades ago.

For example I was going through some old magazines just recently and came across a marvellous piece by Beaumont on the provenance of 19th century paintings of the Taglioni family, who bothers with subjects like that today? On the minus side I was reminded just why I am so contemptuous of Alistair Macauley when I read a review he wrote about the Kirov describing a now eminent figure in Russian ballet as merely 'a pretty boy'. Tear into a dancer’s technical abilities by all means - that is what criticism is supposed to be about, cheap insults are beyond the pale though.

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Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too;

This is what I started with. There's no argument about 'protean in styles', but 'persona' is a difficult word. Both men may have needed a sense of being godlike, but one had no humility when it came to that at all. Fine. That's his business. I agree with Mailer that we have to accept him. I'm talking about what Picasso said and what Balanchine said, or rather what I know that they said. I know they said many things of which I'm not aware.

I've enjoyed Norman Mailer in the past, Armies of the Night and earlier Advertisements for Myself were important works, but I wouldn't go to him for art criticism and agree with Michael Kimmelman, the Times art critic when he says,

That's marvelous, Quiggin, it rather rhymes with "I've always liked Judith Miller. I like operatic types." We were not going to Norman Mailer for 'art criticism', but for anyone for facts about the Louvre incident, and that happened to be what I had at hand at the moment yesterday, that is from what I remembered it. I'm not going to go through the Richardson to see if he didn't ever even mention it, I'll take your word for it that he didn't, since that's what you seem to indicate.

Mr. Richardson’s Picasso is not the destructive, misanthropic egomaniac portrayed in the Merchant-Ivory film “Surviving Picasso” or the heroic hipster artist depicted in Norman Mailer’s “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man.” Rather his Picasso is a mass of contradictions, a savage artist, who was often horribly cruel to his friends like Cocteau but who also “had a very loyal, if sometimes paradoxical heart”
I think a loyal paradoxical heart may be the key term. T J Clark says tenderness and monstrosity co-exist in Picasso. Despite the Louvre incident Richardson cites Braque and Apollinaire as among his closest friends by 1917. A piece of a woman's black veil blows across Picasso's face one afternoon and he knows that Apollinaire is dead and he spends ten years devising a monument to his memory.

It could well be the 'key term', a bit like some of the rhetoric that has come out during the last week in some of the religious controversies, and I have nothing against the 'tenderness and monstrosity'; they certainly both show in the extravagant and monstrous sensibility that would be able to turn Apollinaire's own tragedy and bad fortune into a repulsive 'delicate moment' in which to assuage his guilt with this image of a 'woman's black veil', which in Clark's description unfortunately comes across as the very 'adolescent hero worship of the artist' that Kakutani pointed out, in its overt 'special grief' monstrosity. I'm sure he spent time on other things during those ten years.

Anyway I think we were comparing Picasso and Balanchine for their protean output, not for their personalities which yes are day and night apart.

I think we were talking about both. Michael brought the matter of comparing them in matters of 'persona factors'. That Michael may mean something different by 'persona factors' than I do is likely, but that doesn't mean it's not a provocatively interesting way of looking at both artists--you'll forgive me, I hope, that I took the liberty of looking at it as I happened to see it, that being the only one available to me at first. Their 'god personas' are both very impressive, and maybe, as many an artist (to use one of Mailer's favourite formulations) might say, they were both necessary in either case. Edna O'Brien certainly went so far as to say that James Joyce's monstrosity was indispensable for his own protean output. I myself have defended Leni Riefenstahl and other Nazis, including Heidegger, because of their artistic and philosophical output; others have defended Strauss and Schwarzkopf, I've defended Wagner. It may be that Balanchine, claiming something like 'apoliticalism', would have shown no more courage than did Picasso, and was simply never tested.

But if we are then through with the talk of persona, the 'protean output' could be compared, yes, but as mentioned already, a number of other figures could as easily be chosen. In the sense of 'revolutionary', for example, Graham may seem more like Picasso than Balanchine, and so forth and so on.

The whole discussion is rendered perfect, though, by Michael's superb witticism: "In that case I tend to forgive them the intellectual shotgun blasts - that is unless and until one of my own sacred cows gets wounded. "

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