The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Foolish and dangerous critics

Posted on: August 12, 2007

I thought this would be an interesting excerpt in light of the posts I’ve been doing recently on so-called “obscene” novels. It features one of the longest questions I’ve ever come across in a Paris Review interview and is entirely the fault of the floundering interviewer, the playwright’s pal.

INTERVIEWER

A critic recently wrote the following paragraph, “Mr. Albee complained with Tiny Alice that people asked questions and would not let the play merely occur to them. He complains of those critics who judge a play’s matter and do not restrict themselves to its manner. Both of these statements tend to a view much in vogue — that art consists principally of style, an encounter between us and the figurative surface of the work. This view reduces ideas to decoration, character to pageant, symbol and feeling to a conveyor belt for effects. It is to shrink art to no more than a sensual response, one kind or another of happening. To some of us this modish view is nihilistic, not progressive.” Now the critic in question has come fairly close to defining a theory that might be got out of, say, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation or her essay on style. I wonder how closely the critic’s interpretations of your remarks — of the remarks, I guess, that you made most specifically at the Tiny Alice press conference — are true to your own understanding of them.

ALBEE

Well, this critic is a sophist. What he’s done is to misinterpret my attitudes, Miss Sontag’s attitudes, and the attitudes of most respectable creative people. What I said is that I thought it was not valid for a critic to criticize a play for its matter rather than its manner — that what was constituted then was a type of censorship. To give an extreme example, I was suggesting that if a man writes a brilliant enough play in praise of something that is universally loathed, that the play, if it is good and well enough written, should not be knocked down because of its approach to its subject. If the work of art is good enough, it must not be criticized for its theme. I don’t think it can be argued. In the thirties a whole school of criticism bogged down intellectually in those agitprop, social-realistic days. A play had to be progressive. A number of plays by playwrights who were thought very highly of then — they were very bad playwrights — were highly praised because their themes were intellectually and politically proper. This intellectual morass is very dangerous, it seems to me. A form of censorship. You may dislike the intention enormously but your judgment of the artistic merit of the work must not be based on your view of what it’s about. The work of art must be judged by how well it succeeds in its intention.

INTERVIEW

In other words, what you’re saying is that a critic should separate what he takes to be the thematic substance of a play from the success or lack of success that the author brings to its presentation.

ALBEE

It’s that simple. And critics who do otherwise are damn fools and dangerous, even destructive people. I don’t think it can be argued.

From “The Art of Theater” No. 4 interview with Edward Albee, The Paris Review No. 39, 1966

16 Responses to "Foolish and dangerous critics"

Bah! I’m with the interviewer. If we are to ignore the “matter” then art becomes all “manner” and therefore meaningless. If “matter” didn’t matter to the artist he or she wouldn’t have put it into the art in the first place. It seems cowardly to put an idea out there and then whine when it gets criticized.

Well, the interviewer was quoting a critic not expressing his own opinion. :p

I don’t think Albee was saying that matter was of no import but that when judging something artistically that can’t be the primary consideration. You can judge something on moral or idealogical grounds, and perhaps these can be so awful/wacked out that the critic posits that the work doesn’t deserve to be considered on artistic grounds — but that’s still not an artistic assessment. One can think that the subject matter of Lolita is the most horrible thing ever but that’s not an artistic assessment, is it?

Now I don’t know that his idea can work for all art — some practitioners are definitely more concerned with “matter” over “manner”. Which approach makes better art is another question all together. James Schuyler’s “Poem” isn’t about anything in particular really, there’s no theme, no main idea, for all we know he just took an aspect of nature in order to experiment with words. I don’t think that’s any less valid an approach than someone writing a poem on the Iraq war.

Abstract art is another perfect example of a huge leap way from traditional “subject”. Maybe that’s why art “experts” have to come up with the most far out interpretations imaginable.

It seems that your underlying assumption is that “art” is nothing but craft, and ideas are indicental to it. I don’t agree. I think it has to mean something to be art, even if it is just a challenge to our aesthetic values or an attempt to elicit emotions. Both the ideas and the way they are elaborated matter.

Well, no, I stated quite pointedly, “Now I don’t know that his idea can work for all art” which was a milder way of saying that it can’t. But if you mean that I value craft over ideas in the initial assessment you’d be right, because it’s not the ideas that make it art. Doing so doesn’t mean I consider ideas “incidental” (and I always found it strange that if one doesn’t regard “theme” as end all and be all, people automatically assume you don’t give a fig).

When you referred to “[judging] something on moral or idealogical grounds” as “not an artistic assessment,” it seemed that you (or at least you advocating for Albee) drew a distinction between art (as craft) and argument. Aren’t the two, ideally, intertwined, with the “manner” reflecting and advancing the “matter,” or the two having some sort of dialogue? Certainly there is “art” where one or the other is weak or nearly absent, but that doesn’t mean they are truly separable, does it? Maybe it just means the art in question is bad art!

A judgement based on moral or idealogical grounds without an aesthetic counterpart isn’t an artistic assessment. I would agree that the two engage in some sort of dialogue but the ideas are only as interesting as its execution. Albee said the critic judged the play by “its matter rather than its manner”. Arguing that they can’t be separated would assume that a moral or idealogical judgement would be invalid.

Aren’t ideas interesting in themselves? If they weren’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation! Aesthetics can also be interesting in themselves–to wit, the decorative arts. It seems to me you have to have both ideas and aesthetics to call it “art,” and both aspects should be subject to criticism. Just saying that a book is well or poorly written is only half the story. If we dismiss an artwork’s meaning then we have disconnected it from real life–it stops being a conversation between artist and the rest of us and becomes… I don’t know what–an empty show, I guess.

I think I can understand that Albee doesn’t like to see cleverly or beautifully executed artworks denigrated or censored because their ideas are considered immoral or dangerous, but I don’t think retreating into pure aesthetism (is that a word?) is the answer. It’s throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Of course ideas are interesting, Sylvia, and even by themselves they are interesting, Sylvia, but if all I wanted was ideas it would suit me better to get some philosophy books and have myself a time. I want something more, something beyond that, something in addition to the mere conveyance of ideas, which is why I turn to art. And “art” that is more concerned with ideas and getting across a “message” more often than not descends into didactic crap and worse, becomes a bore.

No matter how inextricable one wants to argue that ideas are to art they are not what allows it to first be considered artistic. I can get ideas anywhere. It’s the form, the medium, its appeal, the author’s skill, inspiration, that something indefinable. It is how the idea is executed.

I didn’t read anywhere of Albee promoting “pure aestheticism” — that would be the critic misinterpreting his position. He stated that a critic should judge an artist’s execution of the idea, how he presents it; that’s hardly advocating a lack of engagement with ideas. It’s asking the critic and the audience not to judge the execution on mere content eg. a play has a pro-Bush slant and I think that anyone still riding that train is on lethal drugs therefore it gets an F-. I guess you could then say that moral and idealogical assessments are ultimately what make an artistic critique. I’d say it depends on their position in whole outfit the same way I think Albee’s emphasis on the aesthetic depends on what’s being judged.

On some issues it is fair for someone to say: I have a line in the sand as far as morals and ideas go and that work crossed it, I won’t consider it art, or at least art worthy of my notice. That’s fine and necessary, IMO. But it’s not an artistic judgement.

I guess the difference between me and Albee is I think a work of art can be judged both for its “execution” and its “intention.” And, since I think both factors are integral and necessary to art, then judging both is an artistic judgment. But I see that for you, the “intention” is completely optional and outside the realm of art. In that case, do you draw a distinction between fine art and decorative art? Is a Fabergé egg a work of art equivalent to Don Quixote or the Pietá?

I’m sorry, it seems that whenever I type “I want something in addition to ideas”, that though I concede ideas are inextricable but are not what immediately seem “artistic” to me, than focus on “execution”, to my mind, does not advocate a complete detachment from ideas, that ideas and aesthetic do, indeed, engage in a dialogue, it’s just that execution and inspiration count for more when valuing it as art (otherwise any ol’ crappy poem about saving the trees — a great idea — would be “art”), that it’s not mere criticism of ideas that get’s the mark down it’s only that and nothing else, it goes through a garbler that spits out “ideas are completely optional and outside the realm of art”.

So I’m ending this now before I run out of ways to re-state my position.

Oh no, I do think I get what you’re saying. You’re saying that art without aesthetics is not art, but art without a message may still be art (you mentioned abstract art, and Schuyler’s Poem). I just think both are necessary, not just aesthetics.

Oscar Wilde discusses this in The Picture of Dorian Gray. He writes in a response to (homophobic) critics that art should be judged only on the basis of beauty, not subject matter. However in the book, Dorian is corrupted (in part) by a book that describes all sorts of immoral acts, and he performs all of them, while at the same time developing a passion for the decorative arts. What do you make of that?

Hey, if I came up with more ways to re-state my position does that mean I won??

Abstract art and Schuyler’s “Poem” do not have conventionally packaged ides, or a developed “theme” but I don’t know of many people who would say they do not elicit emotions or cannot be thoughtfully provocative. Abstract art and Schuyler’s works are not “decorative”. That’s why I don’t think that you get my positon — in art work a message may be secondary to aesthetics it’s fine, it does not have to be a primary consideration, which does not logically lead to a position that states it should be given no consideration — because you consider it in the context of extremes. Message, message, message! Faberge eggs. Pretty prints! Don Quixote.

You refer me to The Portait of Doriary Grey. I refer you to Art as Experience by John Dewey.
😛

So to put it all together: If an abstract painting is provocative or elicits emotion it can be considered to be “art” (even if those things aren’t primary, which is fine with me), but it can only be judged (artistically) for its aesthetics and not for the very thing(s) that qualifies it as “art”? Wouldn’t it be more logical to include in “artistic judgment” that which qualifies a piece as “art,” as well as its aesthetics?

Well you and the critic quoted in the interview seem to be the only ones labouring under the impression that an artistic judgement excludes ideas. To quote from myself, yet again,

I don’t think Albee was saying that matter was of no import but that when judging something artistically that can’t be the primary consideration.

I stated quite pointedly, “Now I don’t know that his idea can work for all art” which was a milder way of saying that it can’t. But if you mean that I value craft over ideas in the initial assessment you’d be right

A judgement based on moral or idealogical grounds without an aesthetic counterpart isn’t an artistic assessment. I would agree that the two engage in some sort of dialogue but the ideas are only as interesting as its execution. Albee said the critic judged the play by “its matter rather than its manner”. Arguing that they can’t be separated would assume that a moral or idealogical judgement would be invalid.

No matter how inextricable one wants to argue that ideas are to art they are not what allows it to first be considered artistic.

To put it yet another way: what allows an essay to be considered an essay primarily, most immediately — its form or its content? I would say its form. This does not mean that one can ignore the thesis and development of the idea in the essay. But we do not call it an essay, rather than a statement, rather than a thesis, because of its ideas.

Decorative art is still “art”. Its place in the hierarchy of great genres is another thing altogether, I suppose.

I’m bored with my opinion now.

Edit: Oh, this is funny, found this bit in an article about people being afraid of poetry (or something):

One person forever linked with antagonism toward poetry is Plato, who was so suspicious of the poets that he wanted them banned from his Republic.

What is Plato’s problem? For one thing, he feels that poetry should primarily serve morality. He considers poems that are only interested in imitating beauty and nature, for instance, or that pay no heed to deities, to be at best decadent and at worst socially corrupt. If poetry “knows nothing of true existence,” Plato argues, then it must be about appearances only. Poems ought to idealize the world, in other words; otherwise the whole business is just a triviality. For Plato, to write or to read poetry is not just to be anti-social, it’s to be subversive.

http://www.oregonlive.com/O/artsandbooks/index.ssf?/base/entertainment/1186437310110120.xml&coll=7 (hmm, weird url, hope it works.)

Oh, I see. When you said that judging art on a moral basis was not an artistic judgment, I did not get that a moral/thematic judgement *plus* an aesthetic judgement *would* be an artistic judgment. It wasn’t entirely clear that you thought moral/thematic judgement could be part of artistic judgment as long as it wasn’t the only part.

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