Not Contrary to Mary: the Art of Criticism

A couple of months ago, some words in print from two writers whose work I enjoy – the classicist Mary Beard, and the Observer writer and TV critic Rachel Cooke – caught my eye. In essence, something of a dispute between the pair had emerged. The source of the dispute was Beard’s recent TV series on artistic nudes, The Shock of the Nude.

Cooke hadn’t enjoyed the series and had set out some reasons why in one of her New Statesman TV review columns. Beard duly responded to Cooke in her TLS blog, A Don’s Life (which I’ve enjoyed reading since its earliest infancy). Cooke, for her part, responded at length to Beard in a revealing and thought-provoking piece.

The common thread in all three of these pieces of writing is criticism (a subject I’ve discussed in the past on this blog). With each piece, there are questions to ask about the making of criticisms, the nature of acceptable criticism in our print (and other) media, and the way one handles criticism that has been dispensed.

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Rachel Cooke

At the heart of the debate, for Cooke at least, is the question of telling the truth: ‘what is the point of a critic’, she asks in the final piece, ‘if not to tell the truth?’ But beyond this, some further questions might seem important too: what does the job of ‘telling the truth’ involve for the critic? Is it safe to assume, for that matter, that telling the truth is criticism’s central function? And what (if any) ‘truths’ might criticism wish to exclude from its purview? Finally, what – if anything – qualifies one to make criticisms?

The dispute between Beard and Cooke touches, then, on some undeniably important questions. Rather than address these questions directly myself (I need to keep this post manageable!), I want instead to explore some of the points raised by Cooke in her initial review of Beard’s TV series.

When I first saw Beard’s response to this review, I thought she was being prickly and even a bit precious (her admission that the central thrust of Cooke’s review is ‘not stupid’ didn’t exactly seem overly magnanimous). It seemed rather that Beard had simply taken badly to some not-very-constructive criticisms. I’ve since, however, changed my mind.

So, then, to Cooke’s review. The headline is ‘Mary Beard’s Shock of the Nude was both weird and exasperating’. The subtitle elaborates: Beard’s ‘conviction that her own ideas are vastly more thrilling than those of the artists she is investigating’ is what will be at issue. Hardly the gentlest of beginnings, then (hat-tip, perhaps, to the sub-editors!) – but hey, this is criticism. And in a negative review, we’re well accustomed to serious negativity!

What to say about this? Probably a major aim – the major aim – of such negativity is to entertain. A key role of the critic might just be to disabuse the criticised of their pretensions and delusions, and to expose them to some stark home-truths. We, the readers, get to look on at this spectacle as it unfolds. Truth? Well, maybe… but a good proportion of readers likely won’t have seen, and may not even wish to see, Beard’s TV series. How, then, can they form an opinion as to the truthfulness of the review? Not easily. What this means, I think, is that the truth or otherwise of the criticisms ventured in most reviews will likely be a secondary (if not entirely irrelevant) consideration for many readers. Perhaps also (dare I say it) for some critics?

Returning, though, to Cooke’s opening salvo. A negative tone is established early. Next, Beard is accused of chutzpah: she’s borrowed part of the title of her series from an earlier 1980s TV series about modern art by Robert Hughes. But she lacks the breadth, wit and pizzaz of Hughes, says Cooke. Tut tut, Professor Beard, for whom my guess is that the accusation ‘lacks breadth’ is not one she has fallen victim to often (quite the opposite, in fact, I would imagine…).

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Robert Hughes

Now, a new line of attack: ‘I accept that our culture rates self-involvement increasingly highly. But still, I find the way that Beard keeps putting herself, almost literally, into the picture both weird and exasperating’. This criticism applies, Cooke says, to the TV series under review – and to Beard’s ‘self-involved’ style within it – but it seems to have a more general application. Beard’s attempts at public history (in toto) seem to be the object of criticism here: Beard herself is too much to the fore in these attempts, Cooke seems to be suggesting.

In this respect, we are told, Beard is symptomatic of a more general cultural trend (i.e. putting oneself at the centre). It’s a well-worn point – the pervasive (western) obsession with the self – but it’s a point many would concede. At the same time, though, my instinct is that in all kinds of ways Mary Beard is in fact utterly asymptomatic of general cultural trends. Why not mention this too? (Answer: there are good rhetorical reasons not to interrupt a nice, punchy negative flow – or perhaps Cooke simply doesn’t believe it).

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Titian’s Venus D’Urbino

Cooke doesn’t like the way Beard asks her audience to consider what exactly Titian’s Venus of Urbino might be up to in her naked state (see above). She certainly doesn’t like the way Beard reveals that ‘in my fantasy, I’m with this naked lady’ and ‘we’re both giggling at men leering at us’. Is Cooke prudishly uncomfortable with this idea? Apparently not, but she says she doubts the sincerity of Beard’s claim on the basis of the way she delivers it.

Here I think Cooke could be missing something important. What Beard may be trying to gesture toward with her statements about Titian’s Venus is a sense that she – like Venus – is both subject to, and maybe even drawn to, the male gaze (which is what she is trying to discuss). This might just be an uncomfortable thing to admit (hence the appearance of lacking sincerity, which in fact could be discomfort misunderstood). One can, of course, be sincere in one’s discomfort.

Naturally I could be wrong about this, but it’s my own best guess. (Before I go on… the ‘male gaze’: this is a phrase the determined liberal in me bristles at. Aren’t there many male gazes? Well yes – but I find my own stern inner critic advising me to accept that we can and – alas – must generalise about gendered activity when we try to decode cultural psychology – even if we hasten to add that generalisations don’t apply universally across the board).

Returning to Cooke’s review, where Beard is next taken to task for her discussion of Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (1866). Cooke (rather hastily) concedes that this piece of art ‘does further her [Beard’s] argument that the line between pornography and art is at times non-existent’, before turning to voice some criticisms. In essence, Cooke is underwhelmed because of what Beard neglects to mention: ‘there are other things at play here, too’, she says.

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A sleeping nude by Courbet (not Origin du monde)

What she has in mind is that Courbet produced his art at odds from ‘what he regarded as repressive bourgeois taste’; that his paintings were ‘often deemed unexhibitable on political grounds’; that he both embodied and was at odds from his time. Cooke wants a richer, more layered discussion of Courbet.

She anticipates that Beard might counter that she isn’t trying to present all available interesting detail about her subject matter: she’s pursuing a single theme. This, for Cooke, won’t wash: it’s boring! Cooke wants Beard to capture the ‘multifaceted’ nature of ‘great art’, whose meaning changes all the time. Beard seems only to be interested in her own point of view.

I think a more interesting take than this is possible. A counter-argument in favour of Beard’s emphasis on her own perspectives might be that she’s trying to model for her viewers what an active, 21st century engagement with the artwork she’s discussing might look and feel like.

The richness, the detail, the multifaceted nature of the art: sure, yes – Cooke isn’t wrong – this all matters. But what might matter also is trying to engage people for whom the art under discussion is all a rather impenetrable and not very interesting set of historical artefacts.

Beard wants to show the visceral ways in which the past can live and speak to present-day subjectivities not so different from those of ordinary viewers. Complex lessons in art history can wait for another day. This, I think, is the nub of the matter – and it is a shame that Cooke doesn’t engage with it in her review.

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Hylas and the Nymphs by Waterhouse

Cooke’s final charge is that Beard is lily-livered, in that she doesn’t make her case clearly, and that she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. She hangs these claims on the observation that Beard isn’t sure whether Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs should stay up on the wall of Manchester Art Gallery. Beard should (but doesn’t) challenge the interviewee who claims this is a painting which is ‘symbolic of some problems’, Cooke thinks.

But, then, if there is a blurred boundary between art and pornography, and if for many people pornography is ‘problematic’, why not treat the interviewee’s statement as a simple illustration of the issue? As Beard does.

Beard’s (slightly, if understandably, prickly) response to Cooke’s review was barely longer than a sentence in length. In return, Cooke penned the long piece I’ve linked to above, insisting that critics are truth tellers who need to be respected. It’s a good piece but it strikes me rather as overkill.

I certainly don’t always find myself in agreement with Mary Beard, much as I admire what she does as a public face of classical studies. On this occasion, though, I find myself very much in sympathy with her.

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