Friday, February 22, 2008

The Ideology of Critique 2: The Inner Compass

As an artist one must, eventually, develop an inner compass. And one must learn to trust one's own internal compass.



The upshot of receiving both praise and vilification of one's artwork is the realization that all flavors of critique do, at least in part, reflect their giver, rather than the artwork being critiqued. it is never possible to be completely objective, or to entirely divorce personal taste from the occasion or critique—which does not mean that one should give up any attempts towards attaining greater objectivity than one currently possesses. I've never advocated total subjectivity: I believe that dead-ends in solipsism. I believe that striving for objectivity is necessary. But I've also never said that striving for objectivity was an attainable goal. It's absurd to believe that one can ever attain that: nevertheless the impossibility of the attempt is one very good reason to undertake it. If we only ever did what we thought was possible, the species would have died out long ago. Attaining the impossible is required. It's just that one has no illusions about thinking one can ever, finally, arrive there.

The inner compass carries the artist through times of turbulence and shadow, wherein nothing seems to make sense, one's sense of direction is otherwise lost, and one is buffeted by turbulence from all sides. This can refer to criticism that supports the artwork just as much as it can to criticism that rejects it. Both can be deadly, if one has no center, in oneself. The inner compass requires self-confidence and self-esteem. A lack of either of these can get the artist stuck with an inflated sense of one's own worth, on the one hand, and on the other hand, an equally false belief that one has nothing at all worth saying.

When reading critique, always CTS: Consider The Source.

It is helpful to remember that even the very best critics can be wrong. Critics almost never realize how much of themselves they are revealing; the wisest critics do realize to an extent, and don't mind being so self-revealing. Oscar Wilde once quipped: The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Of course Wilde also said: The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic. And this is true: the art is always moving ahead of the criticism, as is just and proper. Theory follows praxis, always.

I wrestle with both the rejection and the embracing of my artwork by critics. I've had a recent poem or two that have developed camps both for and against—actually, I get that regularly, but what's interesting in terms of this discussion is how the camps flip in their opinions based on the content and style of the poem itself. It's become clear to me that, at least with regards to what I'm writing right now, that the comments both pro and con have really nothing to do with me or my writing, and everything to do with what people think my writing should be. Even a well-meant comment that tries to tell me what is going on inside my own mind can be so off-target as to be laughable.

The truth is, nothing has changed in my creative process as a result of criticism: I still make art, I still write poems, and they still come out the way they want to come out, which is not necessarily how everyone else would like them to come out. Or even how I might like them to come out. I will continue to make art in just this way, not always knowing what the heck I'm doing. My best work is often a surprise to me, too, not just to you.

Nothing should change in my creative process just because of a critique: being able to maintain a steady course despite either praise or rejection is one mark of a steady inner compass. Neither praise nor rejection should be able to rock you, or throw you off-course. Of course, no one is always impervious, and we all have days of weakness, when we let things get under our skin, for good or ill. One simply tries to minimize the impact of that on oneself, and keep one's center aimed onwards.



When you let the outside world tell you who you are, and judge you as either fit or unfit, you are giving away everything in you that makes you an artist and person. The outer world can never tell you who you are. Other people can only tell you who they think you are, or who they would like you to be—always consider the source, and always be aware of the possibility of hidden agendas. (Hidden agendas are not de facto evil, or even wrong; but they can be driven by unconscious desires that have nothing to do with you, or with your artwork.)

Demanding that I conform to rules that have been established even by my own prior work is an attempt to keep me (or any artist) locked into a straightjacket of conformity and expectation built on previous work: it denies the possibility of growth. To grow is to risk, and to risk is to occasionally fail; to fail is to grow, if one can learn from one's mistakes. I am more than happy to make artistic blunders and failures, because it means I'm really onto something. it may be, in the end, a blind alley or dead-end. Still you cannot know that until you have gone down that road and tried it on for fit.

This truth is what lies behind Cocteau's comment that We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar. The demand that an artist endlessly reproduce him or herself, rather than evolve and change, is one meaning that Ralph Waldo Emerson evoked when he commented that A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Just as in chaos theory, in which higher forms of order may lurk behind fields of seeming chaos, higher levels of consistency may lurk behind an artist's apparently scattershot and widely-strewn attention.

If ever there was a demonstration of the arbitrariness of taste in criticism—even among those who would claim objectivity in their critique, and who occasionally achieve something close to the that claim—it has been this recent series of poems of mine, which have received both ridiculously fierce rejections (some of which amounted to moral arguments rather than poetic ones) and ridiculously high praises. On occasion i've been left standing in the middle with my head spinning. One can get to a point where those critics one normally trusts are no longer giving one useful critique, since it either keeps missing the mark or doesn't give you enough specifics to dig into. In which case you are left on your own devices. But that's okay: You must trust your inner compass, anyway, even if it occasionally can be wrong. We can all be wrong. The point is: critics who won't admit that they can be wrong, have got a problem.



Here's a truth any reasonably self-aware artist must run into at some point or another—and it's a truth that drives both critics and rationalistic artists crazy: The artist is not always in charge of the creative process. The artist is not always in conscious control of the artwork. The gods forbid we were: nothing new comes in art but that it arises from some Mystery, often surfacing as part of the artist's own unconscious. Art that is entirely conscious-mind-driven tends to end up repetitive and dry. It's the difference between those surprising and terrifying "monsters from the Id," and replicated production art.

So, I will continue to write the poems that come to me wanting to be written. I will continue to write new poems in whatever style or format the poem tells me it wants to emerge in, growing itself organically to flower from within. And I will no doubt continue to baffle and piss off some critics, friends, and fellow poets. So be it. (One also comes to believe that one must be doing something right, to have triggered such an uproar.)

In the end, one important point on the internal compass must always be highlighted: This is just a poem. This is only a poem.

Navigations, from Spiral Dance

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

It is interesting how critics, when they find they don't like a piece, automatically feel the need to blame the author forgetting the most fundamental rule of writing, that it is a collaborative process. I guess this is why some of the most amateurish poems that appear on many of these self-help sites that are around get such praise from their readers; it's because they are the perfect audience, anything the author doesn't say they can fill in from their own experience. It's interesting but I invariably assume that the fault lies with me.

Someone made a comment about 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' on my website yesterday and I thought I'd have a look over it again before I replied because it's been years since I read it. The result was the same: I didn't get it then and I didn't get it now. Then I decided to look up a few commentaries on it and they didn't get it either. It might be this, it might be that, it might be t'other. What makes it such a damn fine poem? What did Eliot leave out that I need to bring to the table to make the thing work?

I get that there's a lot of clever stuff going on and that's fine, I'm used to Beckett and there's an author you could spend a lifetime analysing. But the thing about Beckett is that he works on a surface level first and foremost. You don't need to have read Dante to get his stuff despite the fact that he references him constantly. It helps but it is not essential. Eliot couldn’t be jugged translating his bit of Dante into English for us.

An artist may not be in complete control when he is writing something but what's good for the goose – a reader may not be in complete control when he is reading. I come to all poems with the same expectations and skills; I can only work with that they present me with to the limits of my natural abilities. As a reader I need more from Eliot than he is willing to give and Eliot expects more from me than I am capable of giving. The bottom line is I'm never going to like that poem and I'll stand by my opinion of it acutely aware that it is only my opinion and who am I to try and impose it on the rest of the world?

5:52 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I think you're taking some of the criticisms you've received too personally--otherwise, I doubt you'd write so much about those poems that had been critiqued. That a single poem could attract two totally different critical responses is not unusual--it happens all the time. The artist, and the reader, have to simply look at them and see if there is anything intellectually justifiable in the critiques.

Nobody can achieve total objectivity, but if someone says there is a bad line break, that is something very specific that can be looked at. Is it bad, or isn't it? If someone comments on the musical aspects of the poem--can those musical effects be discerned, and are they used to good effect? Or not?

Sometimes there are people who are not well-equipped to deal with poetry that is 'beyond' them--there are many examples from history. But I know of two poet/critics that you also know who have shown that they have the capacity for it, and have a huge body of criticism that proves it, and provides readers with excellent poetry (and films, and novels, etc.) as a result of it. So why not forget about the 'formalists' that you've been showing your work to, and stick to those critics who have the proven track record? It's not about saying someone's 'always right'.

A real artist and and a real critic are both after the same thing: excellence in the arts.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Wish you'd been there to see events as they unfolded. Then you might have a clue as to what was going on.

The point, which I already stated, was that this instance demonstrated extreme responses in both directions. It was quite an unusual experience. As to the formalists, try posting on any given online poetry board and avoiding them; like real life, they're in the mix. You imply I went out of my way to engage them. In fact, this one formalist who initiated the most extreme attack went out of HIS way to make the attack. He could have simply ignored the poem, like he ignored most others of mine.

But whatever.

2:32 AM  

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