29 June 2015

Disqualified as a critic

The Guardian review published every Saturday is a strange beast, full of heavyweight articles by big names but somehow thrown together. Take the issue on 20 June, for example. Kathryn Hughes reviewed The Invisible Woman by Helen Walmsley-Johnson, a memoir of a life not without its ups and downs including having “landed the job of PA to the editor of the Guardian” and having to deal “with the shock of losing her innards: 20% of women are, like her, surgically relieved of their wombs by the age of 60.” At this point the print edition had the bizarre misprint “surg5ically”. How this can happen so long after the days when apprentices used to drop type on the floor, Grauniad only knows (or was it an in-joke?).

Odd too was the review front page which promised an article within: Howard Jacobson Art’s uncomfortable relationship with social media. However, to be found on page 16 was The art of distraction, with a banner above:
You can no more disagree with a painting than you can with a flower. Howard Jacobson on how artistic creation frees us from ‘right thinking’.
On the Guardian website the same article uses this last sentence as its title: Howard Jacobson: artistic creation frees us from ‘right thinking’, and is subheaded:
Art can’t be judged by pressing ‘like’ and ‘not like’ buttons, and it should stand outside of ideology. Let’s forget thou-shalt-nots and remember the necessity of play
Not to worry, in both cases the article turns out to be “an edited version of a speech delivered by Howard Jacobson at the Royal Academy”. Social media gets a brief mention at the start:
What a piece of work is man, how infinite in faculty, in apprehension how like a god, but the minute he tweets us what he thinks in 140 characters the god goes out of him …
Jacobson regards Twitter (and presumably by implication other social media) as a vehicle for “Periodical fits of morality”:
Convictions, nostrums, the censorious baggage of the doctrinaire – it is from such profanities against art that we need to be diverted.
and it is this tension between art and convention that the article is about rather than social media per se. Jacobson then relates that:
Once, to the consternation of reviewers, I published a novel in which the protagonist asserts that every man secretly longs to see the woman he loves in the arms of another man; not because this leaves him free to bugger off into the arms of another woman, but because of the vexed pleasure there is in jealousy.

This was a “take on the Candaules story”, as portrayed by William Etty’s Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed (1830, above, now in the Tate collection, linked on the website, not shown in print). Jacobson explains that it received mixed reviews, one or two of the critics
… reported taking straw polls among their friends to ascertain how many wanted to see their wives without their clothes on in the arms of other men. Whatever the reliability of the sample, none among those polled owned up to any such ambition, or succeeded in imagining its appeal to others. Indeed – ignorant of Othello and Leopold Bloom, to name but two – they doubted such men existed.
(A famous pun on the King James’ Bible by Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses: “Greater love than this, he said, no man hath that a man lay down his wife for his friend.”) But this sort of criticism missed the point:
Everything is allowable in literature, but what is not allowable in criticism is objection on the grounds of probability. Can a man really metamorphose into a cockroach? Whoever thinks that life, crude life, can verify so fine a thing as fiction – as though what is true is something that can be decided on before art makes it so – disqualifies himself as a critic. 
In art, where we play in order to discover, there is no “in advance”; no intentionality that will survive creation; no thou-shalt-nots advanced in the name of religious or social rectitude; no theme so important that it will of itself confer importance on a work, or so apparently trivial that it won’t; nothing – in the language of social media – to like or not like and press a button to show which; nothing, in online-speak, to agree or disagree with and tick a box – for you can no more disagree with a painting than you can a flower. No certainty other than the certainty that we can’t be certain of anything. 
No traveller ever sets out with so little idea of where he is going or how he is going to get there than an artist does. And no traveller ever gets to a more wonderful place. Not everyone is fortunate enough to earn their living playing. But what draws people to art and artists is a desire to enjoy the propinquity of play. For it is the very freedom of the imagination. And what else were we born to do, but imagine freely?
In posts here about films I am almost certainly guilty of having objected “on the grounds of probability” at times (possibly recently on Clouds of Sils Maria), so I took Jacobson’s assertion of consequently being disqualified as a critic to heart. But I’m dubious about the core of his argument. There is no probability of a man metamorphosing into a cockroach – it is an impossibility, as is RenĂ© Magritte’s depiction of The Wonders of Nature (1953, below).

But no one would object to this picture or other surrealist masterpieces on grounds of probability. It is a marvellous exercise in imagination, ‘play’ if you like, as is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for that matter, or Judith Kerr’s The Tiger who came to tea. Perhaps that is acceptable in literature where, at least according to Jacobson, everything is allowable. Michael Rosen, in two recent posts on his blog on the subject of The Tiger who came to tea, takes this a stage further, although Kerr says the Tiger is just a tiger:
Yet, it has to be said, at some level, any of us who write things don't actually know what our characters, motifs, and scenes represent and symbolise. We don't fully know ourselves so why would we or should we fully know what the images we create represent? 
So this is a 'book tiger', not a tiger…the kind of tiger that it's OK to find in art and literature. Surrealist if you like. So, that's yet another reason why we can ask, 'what does this tiger represent?' We can speculate about what it might represent for Judith Kerr….and we can investigate ourselves to discuss and wonder what it might mean to us and to our children. Two separate things that may or may not overlap. And whatever it means to Judith, may or may not have bearing on what we make of it. That's up to us to decide.
So I just have to admit that when a film which, ostensibly is not a fantasy, and purports to be about the lives of adults, resorts to magic, it jars with me, however imaginatively done, and I will say so.

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