Monday, January 22, 2007

On developing a critical eye

For my course in Arts Criticism, each student chose a single text of criticism in their field to present to the class. I selected a collection of essays by Edward Said called "On Late Style." I wasn't familiar with Said's work as a music critic, but I knew his name from his writings on Middle East affairs and on global politics in general. He was a music critic for The Nation and a professor at Columbia, and he was working on this book when he passed away from leukemia in 2003.

The essays, though not all of them address music, concern the element of "lateness" or "untimeliness" in works across many disciplines. He examines the sense of freedom and the breakdown of limitations that inhabit the works of composers, playwrights, artists and others as they near the end of their lives.

In last semester's class, we discussed the distinction between a "reviewer" and a "critic." A "reviewer," at the most basic level, merely evaluates a work (a movie, a play, a book, etc.) and states whether it's worth the price of admission. A "critic" places a work, or a series of works, within a larger context (the time of its creation, its subject matter or its historical setting) and makes statements that go beyond simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down. It's difficult to achieve in short-form writing, though the best writers today, e.g. many of the critics at The New Yorker, reach that level at less-than-book length.

In the essays in "On Late Style," Said seems as thorough a critic as I've ever read, informed by knowledge in philosophy, literature and the larger world of 20th century culture. The entirety of the book is grounded in the writings of Theodor Adorno, an influential critic and philosopher of an earlier era. When he discusses the late works of Beethoven or Strauss, he places them in history, in the space of the composer's career and in the realm of commentary by other critics. Though the passages from Adorno that he cites are often dense (I checked out a copy of Adorno's "Philosophy of New Music" as a companion piece), his own writing is graceful and sheds brilliant light on the words of Adorno and others.

I've been inspired by Said's authority as a critic to re-visit an analogy I first heard as a sophomore in college, regarding the two-fold analysis and explication of a single work of art (at the time, a poem). The work, the object, is a gem, and the critic holds a loupe, a jeweler's lens. First, hold the lens up to the gem and look through it. Note its internal structure, how it is organized, how many facets it has, how it compares to others like it you've seen. True criticism begins here, but some "reviewing" never reaches this level at all. The second step is the level at which Said writes: to hold the gem itself up to your eye and look at the world through it. How does it change or comment upon what you see? How do its facets line up with the elements of everyday life?

Said posits a model of this mode of analysis: "I think it is right... to see Adorno's extremely intense lifelong fixation on third-period Beethoven as the carefully maintained choice of a critical model, a construction made for the benefit of his own actuality as a philosopher and culture critic in an enforced exile from the society that made him possible. " - Said, pp. 21-22 (italics mine)

More tk on Said and "On Late Style." By the time my turn comes to present (two weeks from this Wednesday, I believe), I hope to be looking at things through the lens of this book.

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