Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Critical Matters?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Critical Matters?

Article excerpt

Matthew Reisz talks to creative writers and artists about what it is like to be the subject of academic commentaries and theories, and whether it is ever useful to read the criticism

Dominic Johnson's recent book, The Art of Living, is subtitled "an oral history of performance art". It includes 12 in-depth interviews with figures who "exert massive influence upon peers and younger artists", many of them for pretty "extreme" work. One man "becomes a Goddess, a silhouette, and a channel for the passage of dead legends, less a shaman than a creature of the night. Another turns his asshole into a tribute, temple, target, totem and tomb. An artist slathers her husband in food, and feeds him through a tube, after secreting him in bondage in the darkest basement of her love."

Johnson - senior lecturer in drama at Queen Mary University of London - is explicit that he has chosen artists who he thinks are important but who have been rather neglected within the "standard history of performance art". On the face of it, therefore, one might have expected his interviewees to be pleased that they were included. The book gives them recognition, lets them explain their work on their own terms and might even lead to fresh commissions. Yet several seem suspicious and almost irritated by academic attention.

"Interpretation is always the last word," says one interviewee, known as Ulay. "I want to remain difficult to capture - and art history is an instrument of intellectual capture." Anne Bean, reports Johnson, "refused to allow her work to be documented for several decades, and disengaged from the critical reception of art, leaving her work to percolate, untouched and unmarred by scholarly custodianship, with the ambition of not 'being part of an art-historical way of seeing'". Perhaps, he reflects, there is something about "the attention of scholars" that brings a "sense of containment or predation" that these artists find uncomfortable.

Unlike obscure performance artists, many of those who produce "mainstream" novels and films attract reactions from ordinary punters, newspapers reviewers and academic critics. The first category have paid their money and can obviously say what they want (although film directors sometimes report how strange it is to work intensively on a project for two years and then get comments along the lines of "How did you get that dog to run uphill so fast?" or "Wouldn't that actress have looked better in a blue dress?"). Many people claim not to read reviews of their work in the national press, although these can clearly have a direct impact on book and ticket sales. Academic articles and monographs seldom matter in the same way.

So what is it like for creative writers and artists to be "captured" or "contained" in the academic spotlight? Do they seek out such criticism or make a point of avoiding it? Academic criticism is sometimes attacked or mocked for being overingenious or insufficiently aware of the concrete realities of creative work, not to mention the financial and logistical constraints of media such as the cinema. But is it sometimes also useful for creative people to read the results of academics' serious critical engagement with their output?

Interviewed by Times Higher Education last year, author David Lodge was very clear that reading academic commentary on his novels made him uneasy: "Although I wrote academic criticism myself and taught other people how to write it, it's always trying to exert and exhibit a kind of professional mastery over the subject, whether it's critical or laudatory. Though I was grateful for the attention and the implied value it gives to [my work], it's a slightly uncomfortable feeling when that kind of grid of interpretation is put over [it]...If I disagree with it, even if it's complimentary, it irritates or distracts me or affects what I am trying to write now. If I read it, I've got to give an opinion about it, but I don't want to do that. …

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