Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Form is how memory works

FROM THE CODGER in Corvallis comes today an envelope with a number of clippings. He pretends it's his way of cleaning off his desk; I know it's his way of keeping me au courant. In a recent phone call I mentioned my appreciation of Peter Schjeldahl's art criticism in The New Yorker, one of a great number of magazines to which we do not subscribe; this envelope contains a number of recent ones.

Schjeldahl's such a fine, fine writer. A fine critic, of course; a man who really knows how to look at art with his eyes, and then attentively follow the information that travels along his optic nerves back into a brain clearly jammed with experience, trained to consider, and allowed to reflect. You feel, reading his reviews in a magazine my west-coast taste finds often a little frenetic, a little peremptory — a curious pairing perhaps available only to an insecure culture-capital, that he's somehow above and beyond that fray. There's a mandarin ease to his writing, drawing as much from his wide and not entirely uncritical reading as from his first-hand art-looking: in both cases, his own sensibility is speaking, but with authority he's earned by closely studying that of so many others.

His sentences are beautifully formed, tending to stop just a little sooner than you'd expected. Where it is descriptive it is breathlessly, ingratiatingly evocative, and amply detailed:
Sensational colors, in particular, strain the scene of a husky young servant pouring milk, in a careful dribble, from an earthenware pitcher into an earthenware bowl on an odd-shaped table laden with a wicker basket, a loaf and fragments of crusty bread, and a stoneware beer jug.

When it adduces hypothesis it is forthright:
Echt biennial art is critic-proof, because it eschews formal engagement with past art, providing no basis for comparative evaluation.
These sentences develope cogent paragraphs whose purpose is to consider the event of the moment — a Vermeer in New York, a biennial exhibition in Istanbul — within a complex context triangulated by the conflicting, urgent, mindless demands of our own time, the long slow cultural history unfolding since ancient time, and the ample contents and motives of the critical sensibility.

I tend to read these reviews twice: once for their content; once for the sheer enjoyment of the writing. And I'm rewarded by any number of insights, usually at least one per review. The one at the head of today's blog is one of them:
Form is how memory works.
What clearer statement can there be, and what more beautifully self-illustrative? Will I ever forget how to explain the utility of form, the next time a grandchild asks?

One of the powerful engines of Schjeldahl's machinery is his insatiable curiosity as to what art is, how art works.
[Luc Tuymans] told Artnet that in his initial hours of work, "until I get to the middle of the process—it's horrific. It's like I don't know what I'm doing but I know how to do it, and it's very strange."
A lesser critic would have heard this as a comment in passing, perhaps registered it, and moved on. Schjeldahl registers it, considers it, and sets it in parallel with a thought of his own, leading the reader to an insight:
Now, that — uncertain ends, confident means—is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know. It illuminates and justifies Tuymans's eccentric work rule, with its distant redolence of Jackson Pollock's odd decision to paint in the air above a canvas.
In the air above a canvas. Schjeldahl deftly moves his paragraph away from the foreground, while keeping the foreground in view; he lifts the discussion above the present, while keeping it pertinent. His criticism fully achieves Joseph Kerman's memorable, terse definition of the practice: "the study of the meaning and the value of art works." (Contemplating Music: challenges to musicology , Harvard University Press, 1986). And it is elegant.
Oh: I want to add one thing to the comments on D.H. Lawrence, a delicious comment he makes in Etruscan Places, summing up all his attitude about the evils of Rationalist and Industrialist displacement of the vital, intuitive values of unrestrained humanity:
We have lost the art of living: and in the most important science of all, the science of daily life, the science of behaviour, we are complete ignoramuses. We have psychology instead.
The science of daily life. What a great blog title that would make!


Curtis Faville said...

Science is a certain approach to phenomena, but it's also profoundly a language, a way of talking about phenomena for which ordinary words and sentence structure are inadequate, or inadequately precise.

That variety of "daily life" is what makes one's interest in it potentially fascinating. What any indigenous culture does, daily, always comes to seem familiar, adequate, and dull. Selling your home cooking might be interesting, but its familiarity (to you) is something no one's interested in.

I'm still trying to convince my wife to write her "gorp" cookbook, but she thinks her inventions don't warrant examination. I say they do, but I'm familiar, so they don't seem as interesting or ingenious to her as I'm sure others would find them.

Oh, and they're always delicious, too.

Here's my little ditty:


at home.

Curtis Faville said...

Actually, Wittgenstein is often able to talk about very complex concepts in ordinary language, just by asking very simple questions. But that's a different story.