I’ve always mistrusted critics.
Truth be known, there’s a part of me that subscribes to the old saw that those who can’t, criticize.
I was, however, forced to reconsider all of this when my son—my own son—proved himself a gifted critic!
It was a completely unexpected development.
He had, after all, begun his adult life as a stuntman, dying conspicuously in a number of Steven Segal films—most memorably when Segal threw him backwards through a window in what became the signature image of the movie.
He was, in other words…how shall I put it?
He leaned more heavily toward the physical than the intellectual, and his interest in the arts was best described as minimal.
Let’s be honest.
It was non-existent.
And so it was that his wife decided to civilize him.
By dragging him (kicking and screaming, I’m sure) to L.A.’s MOMA and exposing him to resplendent examples of contemporary art.
It was in a gallery dedicated to installation art that his talent first manifested itself.
The installation in question, which I myself was never privileged to view, sat on the floor.
Steven studied it carefully.
Then stood over it.
And began to grunt and groan like someone suffering terminal constipation.
His wife was, for reasons that will forever elude me, mortified.
I, however, when I learned of the incident, swelled with pride—genuinely dazzled by his critical insight.
I had a critic in the family!
Henceforth, I did my best to banish my memory of such things as the L.A. Times art critic’s commentary on “Rusty Pipe.”
It, like the piece Steven reviewed, was an installation at L.A.’s MOMA—in this case, a length of rusty pipe removed from a demolition site and suspended from the ceiling of an alcove in one of the museum’s galleries.
The Times critic was so impressed with it that he wrote two full pages of analysis, employing words and concepts far beyond my humble capacity to understand.
To be honest, I have to admit that everything in me cried out, “It’s just a piece of pipe, for God’s sake.”
In fact, I felt the commentary deserved much the same response as my son gave that other piece of sh…
I meant to say, that other piece of installation art.
I have to admit that the “Rusty Pipe” review sorely tested my resolve to admire critics now that my son was one of them.
But I persisted until just the other day when I stumbled upon another Times reviewer and his evaluation of Terence Malick’s Song to Song, which recently debuted at Austin’s SXSW Festival.
Now, you should know that I was blown away by Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven—both examples of stunning poetic realism, both examinations of characters driven by forces they can neither understand nor control.
I was not alone.
Hollywood was abuzz with talk of this remarkable new filmmaker.
Michael Eisner, my boss at Paramount, had done more than just talk about him–he had given him a generous contract, renewing it year after year even though Malick had disappeared and delivered nothing for years on end.
It is, I’m convinced, unwise to declare any artist a genius.
The danger is, of course, that he or she will believe what people are saying, take it so completely to heart that they lapse into total self-indulgence.
When, after twenty years, Malick finally reappeared on the scene, the artist in him had gone missing in action, replaced by a poseur— pretentious, contemptuous of the members of his audience, uninterested in entertaining them or telling them a coherent story or creating compelling characters they could care about.
…when I came across Justin Chang’s rapturous review of Malick’s latest effort—a review that refers to the writer-director’s incoherent, uninvolving The Tree of Life as a “masterwork” and even manages to praise his deliberate disregard of the rules of linear storytelling, his inability to write dialogue that sounds anything like real speech, and his reduction of the ever so distinctive Austin, Texas to a familiar “Malickian landscape…
…I wanted to criy out, “Horseshit!”
But that would have been unfair both to horses and to the fragrant deposits they are known to make.
I remain faithful to my son and proud of his insight, his remarkable critical intuition, but I have to say that I’ve once again lost faith in critics in general.
Time after time, they look upon a naked, fat, flabby old man and praise his new clothes.
Time after time, they look upon an empty landscape and miraculously discover a breathtaking skyline.
Number me with the little girl who tugged at her mother’s sleeve to protest the emperor’s lack of clothes and with Gertrude Stein who looked at the Oakland of her day and clearly saw that there was no there there.
Priceless commentary, Dan!!! My God, you are a JOY to read!
The acclaimed landscape artist Russell Chatham once said: “All genuine art grows outward from the heart, and is a matter of sensations. Art inspired mainly by the intellect may induce awe, excitement, or even laughter, but never tears, and there is no great art without tears.” And the late art critic Robert Hughes (the only art critic I have ever heard of or read who actually knew what he was talking about and never succumbed to the preposterous “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome) once wrote “The new job of art is to [hang] on the wall and get more expensive,” as damning and accurate a comment as I have ever heard. Translating that to movies, I would refer to “La La Land” as an example of mediocre nonsense being sold as fine art. It is possible to ignore the rules of story-telling and get away with it, but damned few people, whether writers, artists, or movie-makers, have ever done it successfully. Judging by your comments, Mr. Malick is not one of them, but I doubt I will seek out “The Tree of Life” to find out.
I take my hat off to both Chatham and Hughes, though I think Melville said it best: “To the dogs with the head. I stand for the heart.”
I think that there is a saying “never believe your own press.” I am sure this statement explains the actions and attitudes of some actors and directors. They believe that they are geniuses and everyone else is a mere peons not worthy of their “art.”
Perhaps the saying should be modified: “Never read your own press.” Ignore the critics. Be an objective judge of your work. Acknowledge how far short it falls of what you’ve attempted. Try to do better the next time.
“Tis truly art when it brings tears instead of turds.”
I was disappointed to see that there is no attribution to this memorably expressed insight into the nature of art. Could it be that this is your own contribution to the literature of criticism, Jay?
No comment on Malick, due to respect for his first three movies, the first being the western sort of short LANTON MILLS with Harry Dean Stanton, and Malick himself, acting! Malick at one time was Carly Simons easy going boyfriend. Hard to think of him that way.
Regarding Hughes, I keep an extra copy of his first book THE ART OF AUSTRALIA in the car for those times theres nothing to read. Its a masterpiece that you can open at any page and be hooked, even if you are not interested in Australian art. Ive read it cover to cover countless times. Hughes was not afraid of changing his mind. Some of the paintings from Oz that he blitzed critically, often savagely in this book, he later changed his mind about, reasoning that he was too young and had not seen enough when he made the earlier criticism. And Hughes himself was a painter at the start, there is at least one painting of his from his twenties here in Austin, or was, it may have been sold.
The other art criticism I ve read that rises to the quality of literature, is by Fairfield Porter, (can t recall the title of the book that came out a few years ago) and more recently English realist painter and MacArthur “genius” award winner Rackstraw Downes, of Presidio Texas and Manhattan. Downes most recent collection of art writing is entitled NATURE AND ART ARE PHYSICAL, well worth reading. Downes could certainly make his way as a writer should he have chosen such.
You should consider writing your own book of art criticism, Randy. I don’t know anyone more knowledgeable.