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Friday, September 28, 2007

The New Criticism

posted by on September 28 at 12:53 PM

The problem with criticism in all of its forms (art, film, literature) has been its susceptibility to the charge that, ultimately, it is nothing more than the product of someone’s opinion. Criticism is not truth; it is an opinion—or what the Greeks called doxa. We can all agree that opinions are no good.

Kant tried to solve this problem by universalizing subjectivity. He failed miserably. Marxist criticism tried solve this problem by politicizing the function art. The art object, according to this school of thought, was like any other consumer object and so could be analyzed as such. As Marx removed the fetish magic from consumer products in Das Capital, the Marxist critic attempted to remove the aura from the art object. Also, the Marxist critic tried to expose the art object’s idealogical function—to show that the art object was made to reinforce certain beliefs, ideas that supported the reproduction of a given society’s means of production.

But the problem with the Marxist approach is this: it cannot make sense of the fact that some art objects made in societies dominated by the capitalist mode of production are great (Blade Runner) and critical of the system from which they arise; and some art objects made in former socialist societies are very weak (Cement) and support the anti-capitalist system from which they arise.

Though the best of all modes of criticism, Marxism is still too loose, too vulnerable, too inconsistent. If art criticism is to become invulnerable it must be grounded not in economics but in the body, the head, the physical brain itself. The critic must argue that this or that thing is good because the biological processes that made it happen are good processes. But how does one do this? Neurology offers the critic a solution.

To become valid, art criticism must turn to the biological processes of memory retention and retrieval. What we know about this process is that not single or individual neurons react to single or individual complex images, faces, experiences, but instead a network of them. Memory is associational. Memory patterns are formed from short and long term storage potential. Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s are unable to make connections between these short and long term memory patterns. They suffer from weak or broken associational powers.

The French sociologist Gabriel Tarde had the right idea at the end of the 19th century when he called all things, all ideas, inventions, a matter of associations. Everything is a society. The brain is a society of cells. And the way the cells work, and the way memory works, and the way art works, is by associations. As there is bad food and good food, there are strong associations and weak ones. Here are some examples of weak associations.

The new criticism is not emotional or personal but associational. We can say that a bad work of art is much like Alzheimer’s: it is the artist’s failure or inability to make good or new associations. Here is our ground! A work of art is an association. An idea is an association. All is made from associations. We critics can judge every art object on this biological basis and no longer be vulnerable to our enemy’s sole weapon: “this is just an opinion.” From now until the end of all time, this is bad and that is that.

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Those statues may or may not be good art, but they make excellent bike racks. Last time I walked by them, there were three bikes attached to them.

Posted by JC | September 28, 2007 1:01 PM

WOW. This piece by charles makes everthing else ever posted on Slog crap.

Posted by gj | September 28, 2007 1:03 PM

Ayn Rand on a cellular level.

Posted by smade | September 28, 2007 1:03 PM

you are being mechanical in your application of marx....

in fact, marxists rail against dogmatic, mechanical and empiricist uses of marx.

the DIALECTICAL part of marx shows that DURING capitalism, we see the emergence of that which will bring capitalism down... so anti-capitalist/pro-socialist art emerges.

Posted by dialectician | September 28, 2007 1:06 PM


Posted by Raindog | September 28, 2007 1:08 PM

Prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ, that is to say, that its religion was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity. Special schools existed in this prehistoric Egypt which were called ’schools of repetition.’

Posted by folklife | September 28, 2007 1:10 PM

I give this slog post a 3 out of 5

Posted by a | September 28, 2007 1:17 PM

If art is masturbation, criticism is voyeurism.

Posted by Greg | September 28, 2007 1:19 PM

In all seriousness though, this came up today. I said I didn't like that show Heroes because it is just a bunch of events occurring. They said, "But you like Twin Peaks and other complicated stories, what's the difference?" I said that it's because a show like that doesn't make you think about anything else, or relate it to the world, or your world, or any other world. No new associations are made. Same reason I don't like Harry Potter.

Posted by a | September 28, 2007 1:21 PM

I read cement in college, it was pretty entertaining example of Stalin approved literature.

2 interesting posts in a row Charlie. Me thinks we're due for a Star Wars post any moment now....

Posted by Rotten666 | September 28, 2007 1:22 PM

Um, how do you decide if the association is bad again? I missed that part. Oh, you pull it right out of your ass, like you do with everything else you post.

Posted by NaFun | September 28, 2007 1:25 PM

no, criticism will allways seperate those who do and those who figure out why others do.

in the infinite wisdom of obi-wan:

"who's more foolish? the fool or the fool who follows him?"

but seriously- art is a form of communication that expands our experience of reality. sometimes it communicates well, other times it does not. on a personal level, if it communicates well and expands our consciousness, we consider it to be "good art." otherwise it is lost on us and we think it is bad.

on a societal level, if lots of people connect with it, it is good, if not, it is bad. this is all subjective.

if you dont like this particular piece of art is because even if there is an association there, it does not expand your experience of reality in any meaningful way. however, it does have potential to expand someone else's, so it is not objectively "bad," unless you consider it on the level of statistical analysis.

Posted by Cale | September 28, 2007 1:26 PM

What on Earth? "Associations" are what makes art criticism new? As if people haven't been forming associations, making comparisons, and engaging in basic dialectical synthesis for thousands of years.

This "Mudede" character grows less plausible by the day.

Posted by mattymatt | September 28, 2007 1:29 PM

New Criticism with capitals, from the 30s-40s, was an isolating or nonassociative approach to literary (or art) crticisim. Do you mean New Criticism, or new criticism? Can we have some terminological clarity, if nothing else?

Posted by Simon MacGry | September 28, 2007 1:33 PM

This post has a very intriguing buildup and then collapses at the end, because you do not touch the concept of what a good association, or mental process is, which is really the underlying issue. Is there a universal function to measure the quality of the neurological reaction to a piece of art? Or at least a few functions along different dimensions that will encompass all defensible measures of quality?

Posted by tsm | September 28, 2007 1:49 PM

One of the most famous Marxist critics, Walter Benjamin, didn't try to remove the aura from the work of art, but instead complained that capitalist, Fordist models of mechanical reproduction were responsible for removing the aura.

Posted by Jim C. | September 28, 2007 1:53 PM

Ah, for the day that critics secretly long for and artists dread, when critics can not only claim to always be right (which, honestly, they already do with some frequency), but to be incontrovertibly, empirically right. Using science!

Posted by flamingbanjo | September 28, 2007 2:14 PM

A note of the geologic tune
Which plays, the long still song of the orb
Of lives, the seven-second tone,
The held gaze of the great blue eye

The noise which now at last will take over
In the Western silence, pressing
Invisible motifs on the sky.
Every thought is a corporation

Every syllable an ad
For the patented situation of cells
Which now divide and swim under glass...

Posted by Grant Cogswell | September 28, 2007 2:26 PM

What are the sculptures in Charles' picture suppose to represent? Angels?

Posted by ohjoihj | September 28, 2007 2:52 PM

The sculptures are representations of the King County Dept. of Transportation's crappy taste in art.

Posted by E. Steven | September 28, 2007 3:45 PM

Now I want to see a picture of a scantily clad woman of East Asian or African descent.

Posted by frederick r | September 28, 2007 4:17 PM

I am flattered- an entire new theory of criticism, based on my work- what artist could ask for more?
I will be available to pee in your fireplace immediately- in order of the best offers of food and drink.

But please, dont blame these on Sound Transit- I am the artist, you can dump right on me, personally.

I made these things, because I wanted to. They are personal images that I made, based on growing up in Seattle, and seeing the changes wrought by high real estate prices, nice white people who work in "innovative" high tech jobs, and too much coffee.

I think of these as a lighthearted riff on totem poles, a bit of playfulness with downtown Seattle's current enshrinement of shopping and gourmet dining, and a sop to my own love of big shiny things.
Plus, I am at heart a pop artist, and these are pop art, 3D collages of bland consumer objects, reimagined as animated by desire, or greed, or just as the next stage in evolution, ready to step in when we all kill ourselves off...

But now, I learn, I am bad, in so many ways. Perhaps if I joined the Elks, or the Rotary, or some other good association- or perhaps, I should just go sit in the corner.

At least I will have the solace of being at the founding of a great new theory of art criticism- Delouze and Guittari, get out of the way- Mudede is coming, and he's badder than ever!
Oh- wait- he's gooder than ever- I get to be badder than ever.

Any press is good press.

Posted by Ries Niemi | September 29, 2007 7:43 AM

art isn't subject to whatever marx said, dickweed. art is either pretty or not. an even that doesn't matter. and neither does marx.

Posted by jeremy | September 29, 2007 10:16 PM

I approve of anyone trying to come up with a coherent THEORY OF ART. I certainly have tried.

So a bad artwork that you see today is something you've already forgotten when you wake up tomorrow (weak associations - as in one short nail connecting each piece to the next, holding them together, instead of two heavy-duty screws?).
A pretty good artwork is one you still remember a week later? A world-beating artwork you remember 20 years later?
So what is so radically new about this? What am I missing?

INNER-INTEGRITY. The artwork holds together. Is a complex network of interacting units. The concept's been around awhile, so why not title it that? INNER-INTEGRITY?
Or is that not "good or new" enough?

The title of Ries Niemi's Pop sculpture, you feature above, is "EAT, DRINK, & BE MERRY." A parody of consumer culture (and where it leads ..."for tomorrow we..."). The imagery is as modern and urban as a Starbucks Café, but parts are constructed of 'totemic' details so as to be able to hold within-itself DEEP CULTURAL MEMORY. So the image-associations are very new and very old at the same time. Long, long memory back in time. Associations that reach into the deep past. But image-associations with breadth, able to connect with bars and Internet cafes and music clubs across the globe. It connects with the ancient NW Potlatch. And with contemporary Globalization, and satirizes that world at the same time.
(A lot like your "good" example, the movie BLADE RUNNER by Ridley Scott. Or were you referring the William S. Burroughs novella?)
In short, your pictured example of BAD is actually an excellent example of GOOD - by your own definitions.

Come to think of it, point out the difference between your ASSOCIATIONAL Theory and mainstream POSTMODERN Theory? Postmodernism's big embracing arms - 'the more references the artwork makes to more parts of our experience, the better'? And if you can 'throw in some irony and social criticism,' better still?
But there is no absolute science, either there or in your theory. What one person remembers, another forgets. Is "good art" a long-term memory by popular consensus? A vote? Or do just critics get to vote? And what if they disagree? And still disagree after two years, or twenty years? Give them all brain-surgery to check on the health of their neurons?
And isn't the real problem with Postmodern theory, that it is just Marxist esthetic theory looking itself in the mirror, inverted?
If you want a really novel theory, don't you have to step beyond the HUMANISM of Marxist (Dialectical) and Capitalist (Postmodern) theory both? Since both are destined for the circular file of history anyway?

Mr. Charles Mudede...
Toss away your Dialectical Idealism and get real.
Read some modern, pragmatic, scientific rationalist theory:
NEUROPHYSIOLOGY (Pibram and others)
Society, the brain, computers all have two things in common.
On the Macro-level, they are dynamic ecological systems (many interconnecting units - with directionality, and the ability to make decisions and thus change direction).
On the micro-level, they operate by switches - which are, at the most basic level, ON and OFF. Pass the impulse on, or stop it cold.

The artwork is an eco-system in itself, but also functions as one unit in larger eco-systems. Strong artworks, like strong eco-systems, have DIRECTIONALITY ('point to a future') and have made clear DECISIONS (they are 'vivid').
And on the micro-level of the artwork: green is juxtaposed to blue, a loud high-pitched noise is followed by a soft low-pitched noise, a swatch of red sits next to another swatch of red, a warbled D-flat sits next to another warbled D-flat. And the finished artwork is a cascade of such incidents (on canvas - in concert, but also inside the brain of each audience-member) - incidents which are built up of these 'contrasts' (ON) and 'continuities' (OFF). (Digitally speaking, 'binary' associations are the only genuine associations - regarding art, memory, or whatever.)

So throw away your philosophy books, Charles Mudede, and start reading up-to-date science. Rationalists. And as you build your theory, remember that a theory is just a theory. Next year a better one will come along.

And next time you wander out to look at ART, realize that every artwork is always - at first glance - a mirror. If it looks BAD, you are seeing something BAD IN YOUR OWN BRAIN. Analyze what that is all about, first. Then take a second look at the artwork. With luck, you will then be able to see it with Zen-eye, the artwork 'just as it is in-and-of-itself.' And not in terms of the PRECONCEPTIONS (the jumble of competing theories) that you - that we all - carry inside our brain.
You may be correct about GOOD ASSOCIATIONS and BAD ASSOCIATIONS. But first you have to do something about the GOOD THEORIES and BAD THEORIES in your own brain.

Then, you just might begin to bring credit to your job-title, as CRITIC.

Posted by JB | September 30, 2007 9:47 PM

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