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“Surely you know,” said M. Croche, the dilettante hater, “that a genuine appreciation of beauty can only result in silence?” But then, of course, M. Debussy, M. Croche’s inventor, went on for many pages, following the counsel of the mysterious M. Croche who has told him:

In all compositions I endeavour to fathom the diverse impulses inspiring them and their inner life. Is not this much more interesting than the game of pulling them to pieces, like curious watches?

Most artists would agree with M. Croche, first of all that silence is a proper response, and second of all that silence is intolerable. Any kind of criticism is better than none, than silence. Tolstoy understood the artist’s ambivalence, and also his hunger for a response. When Vronsky and Anna in Anna Karenina pay a visit to the uncouth painter Mikhailov, they are accompanied by a tendentious and tedious intellectual explainer. Mikhailov, although he knew better, “always attributed to his critics a more profound comprehension than he had himself,” but when Vronsky complimented him on his “technique” he was not pleased. On the way home, the visitors were, Tolstoy tells us, particularly lively, talking of the artist and his paintings:

The word ‘talent,’ by which they meant an inborn and almost physical aptitude apart from brain and heart, and in which they tried to find an expression for all the artist had gained from life, recurred particularly often in their talk, as though it were necessary for them to sum up what they had no conception of, though they wanted to talk of it.

Talking, which is what criticism is fundamentally, has always been with us. Probably the painter in Lascaux had someone making remarks over his shoulder. The question posed by this symposium, “Thought in danger?” contains its own answer in its subtitle, “The essay as an open and critical method.” To me, the essay is in effect an estompage, something that has dim outlines and shades off, even unto silence. Moreover, the essay form—if it has one!—is to me a kind of conversation. Always there is another, somewhere, with whom I am conversing. Those critics who have a “critical theory” and stay within its doctrines seem to me to be putting a grid over living materials—a practice which allows them to treat oranges and lemons in the same terms. It is in the digressive that conversations subsist, and I am a patient and appreciative reader of the digressions of the great interpreters of visual art—Baudelaire on Delacroix, for instance, or Zbigniew Herbert on Flemish still-lifes. Baudelaire was the first to question the pretensions of critics, and in the Salon of 1859, he speaks of the school of the pointus in which “the object of erudition is to disguise a lack of imagination.” Pointus for Baudelaire seemed to be those who concentrate on minutiae.

“Please don’t be angry with me for so continually wandering from the point,” wrote the political revolutionary Alexander Herzen. “Parentheses are my joy and my misfortune . . . It is for the sake of digressions and parentheses that I prefer writing in the form of letters to friends; one can then write without embarrassment what ever comes into one’s head.”

But even digressions and parentheses are subject to fundamental constraints. Those exist in language itself. And here I would like to emphasize that speculation, thinking, musing, parenthesizing and being elliptical—all characteristic of the essay form—finally submit to what Noam Chomsky has established as Universal Grammar. As his disciple Stephen Pinker puts it: “One of the most intriguing discoveries of modern linguistics is that there appears to be a common anatomy in all phrases in all the world’s languages.” Chomsky himself was gracious enough to concede that there is a “mystery” in all this, and I would add that the mystery will never be solved. They can study cognitive processes, and identify millions of cells in the human brain, but they will never be certain about what transpires among those cells to produce thought, or art.

So I am speculating about speculation. And a propos: the word “speculate” has vague origins related to the word “watchtower,” and to the idea of peering through a glass (but not necessarily darkly). I long ago concluded that as deeply as I admired Chomsky’s thoughts on linguistics (and also his views on politics), the mystery would remain. What I found was a perfectly and eloquently argued theory of language, and I wished to believe it because of its eloquence. I felt, and still feel, quite certain that none of Chomsky’s or Pinker’s observations could be definitely proved.

The point is that for all the collateral allusions to scientific principles in Chomsky’s essays on linguistics, it was finally Chomsky’s essay—his attempt to persuade, first himself and then me, the reader—that beguiled me. He is persuasive, not definitive.

I have noticed among my academic colleagues an affection for the word “discourse.” To me, the word does not invite conversation. A discourse usually has a development in logic and brooks no interference from asides and instant aperçus, and certainly avoids digressions. But oddly enough, the Latin origins of the verb “to discourse” suggest a quite different connotation: it comes from a word meaning to run to and fro. Now, running to and fro may sound the very opposite of a cogent critique, but it can be the heart’s blood of an interpretive essay. If we are talking about the interpretation of one medium through another, then running to and fro is a given. If we accept that painting is a language, or, as Merleau-Ponty said, “So very like a language,” then the critic quite naturally is running to and fro between the language of the painter and the language of the critic who by any definition wields words. When Chomsky said, “Creativity is predicated on a system of rules and forms, in part determined by intrinsic human capacities,” he was naturally thinking of creativity in terms of language whose characteristics are words and grammar and syntax.

But—yes, all good essayists think towards the buts and the ifs—even though every painter and sculptor I have ever known considered himself a shaper of a pictorial language, and never gave a second thought to strict definitions of pictorial language, I was born into an era when defying the rules became the first obligation of a good painter or sculptor, or, for that matter, dancer, composer or actor. Yet the best of the visual artists always carried just enough recognizable formal principles to be intelligible, at least to the few who cared to respond. Those few are often critics, so-called, and even more often, advocates. The American gangster in his lingo called his lawyer a mouthpiece. Too often, what is considered criticism is really propaganda, or, if we wish to be generous, how-to instructions as to how to read or interpret this work or that. All writers about the visual arts, including me, have been guilty of such utilitarian process.

It is not only art critics who have contributed to the interpretation of the arts as mysteries. One of the best definitions of the functions of the artist I have ever encountered was offered by none other than Karl Marx. He said, “Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature.” If that sounds like a huis clos, well, it is. The general assumption of this gathering is that the essay as a kind of writing is in jeopardy. I agree. As far as I know, the first writer to pointedly call his works essays was Montaigne. He explained that he wrote the way he wrote because “I have an impulsive mind.” That mind, and its impulses, communed with itself first and then with the unseen others. His digressive tendency was pronounced. Just one example: in an essay titled “Of Coaches,” which purportedly referred to the history of vehicles of transportation, he muses about the limitations, or rather, his limitations of knowing:

If we saw as much as the world as we do not see, we would perceive, it is likely, a perpetual multiplication and vicissitude of forms.

That is precisely what the 21st century writer on the arts must contend with: a perpetual multiplication and vicissitude—which means, fundamentally, change—of forms. But that being so, criticism is not possible without the memory of many past vicissitudes, and above all, an awareness of the innate existence of forms.

What I have noticed in the so-called postmodernist criticism is a marked tendency toward theory—not the ancient Greek notion of theoria, in which there is a suggestion of looking outward toward something, which after all is open—but the positing of a fixed structure to which all experiences must submit. We all know how many professional and academic writers title their works “The Work of Art and Society,” “The Work of Art and the Family,” “The Work of Art and the Gallery,” or “The Work of Art and the Elephant.” Such specificity in allusion is highly regarded. But not by me. Each person, as I see it, builds his own culture. He grasps materials according to his temperament, his background, his education, his own nature. In order to survive in a world of others, he knows he must acquire a knowledge of a number of things just because they are there. But in order to respire in a world of thought, he is always the hunter and the shaper, wielding both the bow and the lyre. The lyre, alas, has been repressed; in other words, the lyrical is usually derided. I can speak of my own case in which I have more than once been dismissed as an “impressionistic critic”—something quite expendable in my country. I often think of the definition of the lyrical poet given by a very logical and commonsensical thinker, John Stewart Mill. “The lyrical poet,” he said, “is not heard. He is overheard.”

I believe the best writing—or, if you prefer, criticism—about the visual arts is done by he who is explaining first to himself, and only then to the others. He asks himself why he responds so passionately to this or that painting or sculpture. I sympathize with artists who so often find the words about their works wanting. A painter, James McNeil Whistler, remarked: “A life passed among pictures makes not a painter—else the policeman in the National Gallery might assert himself.” Of course Whistler was an injured party, having been demeaned by a very famous critic, John Ruskin.

But words there must be. They hover always over experiences to which we give the name art. The kind of essay I like recognizes its innate limitations or shortcomings but strives nonetheless—perhaps unreasonably. Dostoyevsky asks, in Notes from the Underground, “What does reason know?” His answer:

Reason knows only what it has managed to learn . . . while human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously.

He granted that “man is partial to systems and abstract conclusions,” but for himself, at the very last of this strange book, he was a “paradoxalist”—and a paradox, as the Oxford dictionary defines it, is “apparently inconsistent with itself or with reason, but in fact true.”

At this point I shall indulge in another digression. Our American philosopher Emerson could be playful and liked puns, apparently. He said: “The borer on our peach trees bores so that she may deposit an egg; but the borer into theories and institutions and books bores that he may bore.” The double entendre is at home in an essay.

The true essay reflects exuberance of mind. It is always, and deliberately, conjectural. The nature of conjecture imposes on the essayist a kind of rueful modesty. It is a very old activity and reflects what the ancients called docta ignorancia or “learned ignorance.” This was very well explained by Nicholas of Cusa:

Since exact knowledge of the truth cannot be achieved, every positive human assertion about the true is a conjecture.

In the essay, which I think of as a kind of incipient dialogue, there are quite naturally overtones of judgment. In the activity we call art criticism, the nature of judgment varies greatly. In some authors, we find the judicial tendency in quite ordinary ways. These critics set up, so to speak, a body of laws against which they judge a work of art, often to condemn it. In other art critics, judgment takes on a more intuitive tone. The nature of their judgments is not so much tentative as arising from almost biological reflex. For instance, we learn very early that we must judge distances. When we step down from the curb into a busy thoroughfare, we make a judgment which requires little overt thought. Critics who respond to a work of art in a mighty rush of sentiment and directly purvey their response in words exercise this natural human judgment. If they are given to introspection, they may later weigh their words, or weigh the matter at hand, and have, as we say in English, second thoughts.

I have had many second thoughts. I offer my own conjecture here. It seems to me that the best essays on the visual arts derive from an entirely natural desire for intelligibility. Moreover, in the most enduring works of art, especially in painting, and no matter how far fancy takes the painter, there is always an increment of intelligibility, and that element, no matter how obscured, must be identified by the critic. This is not the old wrestling match between tradition and innovation, but rather, quite simply the exercise of what Baudelaire elaborately discussed as imagination. There is, I conjecture, in all true works of art an intelligibility.

All the variants in the magnificent procession of hallowed works of art in history must reveal the germ that I call the element of intelligibility. “Give an example,” I hear you say with considerable asperity.

Well, to speak in a Platonic rather than a Kantian tone of voice, here: Think of beds. Think of all the variants from the Greek to the Etruscan to the Roman to the late 20th century with its inflatable and waterbeds. They are all still beds, constrained to serve a purpose, and answering the human necessity to recline, or to sleep (if not to dream, as Shakespeare said).

So it is with works of art. Their purpose is to incite, to nourish the imagination, offering an element of intelligibility that is the critic’s task to identify. This cannot be done with academic jargon. Again, I’ll give only one example: when I skim the learned journals I often encounter certain terms designed to keep out unspecialized readers like me. I offer only one example: critics often speak of something they call “overdetermined.” This awkward word means nothing to me, and even seems oxymoronic. Or, how about “indexical interaction”?

Of course, the “interpreter,” who usually deals with spoken language, while the translator deals with written language, has many resources. If he is well schooled, he has a knowledge of several languages, and there he can discover that certain experiences can be had in certain languages not available to other languages. Again, I will give only one example. You have in Spanish the wonderful word ensimismiento. The nearest I can come to an English rendering of this word would be: putting oneself into oneself. Its very existence has opened a whole range of experience to Spanish speakers and writers that we poor Anglo-Saxons cannot have. One of Spain’s most enchanting writers, Ortega y Gasset, would never have been able to meditate on the Quiqote with such psychological precision without the existence of that one word. You might say it is an idiosyncrasy of the Spanish language, yet each language, including the language of any visual art, has its idiosyncrasies.

Now, by way of conclusion—which an essayist never relishes—I offer some remarks about my own experience. I only write when I have been moved, it doesn’t matter to where. I immerse myself in the work, and everything that might pertain to it, including the artist himself and his particular way of being. I believe I have intuitions. If, for instance, I were writing about the tragic painter of the post-WWII period who called himself Wols, I would track down his inner thoughts as nearly as possible. I would place considerable weight on his brief Poème Triste in which he says Un chien ne voir [sic] son collier (“A dog cannot see his collar.”) I would feel my way into his oeuvre the way a cook tastes a sauce. He tastes it not with dialectical reasoning but with reserves of intuitions built up over time. At the same time, I always bear in mind the advice of the great Japanese poet Basho:

Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.

Each particular situation for a true critic is novel, and each has overtones of previous situations. There is no degree zero.

A good essay has character and uses words as magic, such as Baudelaire’s remarks on Daumier, that he “drew because he had the need to draw . . . ineluctable vocation.” His words also reflect his ability to listen, as when he paraphrases Delacroix who said “color thinks for itself, independent of objects it clothes.” And when he says that Delacroix was “passionately in love with passion,” as all good art critics should also be.

And, as I circle around like a bird seeking a conclusion, I remind myself of a great essayist whom I knew, who published a book toward the end of his life titled Sombras de Obras. And he, Octavio Paz, who never failed to speculate, became intrigued with an old saying of Democritus, “Las palabras son la sombra de los hechos” (“Words are the shadow of facts”), which carried him on to other versions in the 19th century, such as “Las palabras son la sombra de las cosas” (“Words are the shadow of things”), which was happily reduced in the 20th century to “Palabra, sombra de obra” (“Word, shadow of a work”). Paz concluded his little digression saying:

Nuestros comentarios y reflexiones ante una obra de arte: Qué son sino sombras? (“Our commentaries and reflexions before a work of art: what are they if not shadows?”)

And finally—truly finally this time—I offer you an extempore remark made by John Cage in a symposium I organized many many years ago. He said:

I think this business of coming together and using our language, exchanging remarks and so forth, can be called a kind of entertainment.


Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

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