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.

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…).

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).

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.

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.

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.

Oedipus in Art

Like so many figures in Greek mythology, Oedipus has been the subject of numerous works of art down the centuries. In this post I’ve collected together a few examples of depictions of Oedipus that I find interesting as part of my ongoing project to keep the experience of reading Sophocles’ play fresh for me after five straight years of doing so.

An immediate thought about bringing these pieces together is that this isn’t the sort of collection one would expect to see in a typical display in a gallery or museum. Museums and galleries (at least in my experience) tend to group artwork by period or by artist. Thematic organisation – the tracing of depictions of a famous mythological figure, such as Oedipus, over time – is not something I’ve really seen very often. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention: in any case, for me as a student of history interested in the longue durée, this is a nice way to approach art history.

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A depiction of Oedipus and the sphinx, taken from an Attic kylix produced by an artist known to modern scholars as ‘Painter of Oedipus’.

My first piece is taken from ancient Greece. It is an Attic kylix (Attica being the land around Athens; Kylix being a type of wine-drinking cup) which was produced around 470 BC. It can be seen today on display in the Gregorian Etruscan museum in Vatican City. In this scene, Oedipus is addressing the Sphinx, the mythical being – half-human and half-lion, who blocks the road to Thebes, refusing to allow anyone to pass unless they can solve its riddle. Oedipus – uniquely – manages to solve the riddle: as a consequence, the sphinx (dramatically) kills itself. One thing I like about the scene depicted here is Oedipus’ contemplative pose: his hand is on his chin, his legs crossed. The sphinx, meanwhile, is in a sense unreadable: he has no eyes! He also stands high over Oedipus, on top of a column, but of course his supremacy will not last. Contemplative Oedipus – who certainly doesn’t look like any kind of aggressor or dethroner in this scene – will emerge triumphant over the sphinx in due course.

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (completed in 1827)

There have been many artistic depictions of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx. Perhaps the most famous is a painting by the French symbolist Gustave Moreau. I happen to prefer this, by another Frenchman, Ingres. It’s a rich scene: the use of light and dark colour is obviously striking, and the narrowness of the pass into Thebes (which can be seen in the background) is clearly evident. Oedipus himself attracts the eye: he is quite young here, but strong, and his pose exudes confidence and boldness. He also looks like he has no trouble being matter-of-fact. He’s dealing here with a riddle you almost sense he can solve – and I think the rather perturbed expression on the face of the sphinx reflects this. What, meanwhile, is the reaction of Oedipus’ colleague in the background supposed to signify? Fright, in all likelihood: at the bottom of the picture, a skull and crossbones clearly show the unfortunate fate of those who fail to solve the sphinx’s riddle. This draws Oedipus’ phlegmatic daring all the more clearly into focus.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Francois-Xavier Fabre (c. 1806)

A quite different depiction of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx is presented by Fabre here. Here again Oedipus is strong and muscular, but this time he seems assertive rather than contemplative. He is also set more against the background of the wider (pleasantly rustic) landscape, high up in the mountains, with the city nowhere in sight. The body position of the sphinx makes it look almost ready to pounce on Oedipus, yet this sphinx seems somehow less imposing and menacing: its bodily dimensions aren’t as intimidating as they might be, and (for me) it doesn’t command the space of the painting in a way the sphinx of Ingres – from its dark corner – does.

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Antoni Brodowski, Oedipus and Antigone (1823)

Brodowski’s Oedipus and Antigone (above) depicts a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. Here Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, guides her father as he wanders around in exile outside his city. The dark clouds and dark rock in the background betoken the gloom that has descended upon Oedipus, but also the darkness that affects him personally: he is now blind. The pair look courageous and strong, despite Oedipus’ predicament. Other paintings of this scene depict Antigone looking lovingly at her father: here she is unabashedly leading the way, looking ahead (or to the side), perhaps, to see where they might go next. She, the daughter, is now the lead figure in their relationship.

Oedipus and Antigone by Christian Wilhelm Eckersberg

In this quite different painting of Oedipus and Antigone from 1812, Eckersberg presents a more doting and concerned Antigone and a more elderly Oedipus who is visibly more frail. This Oedipus nonetheless shoulders the burden of carrying some heavy clothing on his back, while Antigone walks more freely, albeit while expending energy tending to her father. I love the bright colours in this scene, but also the way Eckersberg manages to capture the melancholy of both characters and the tenderness between them. On they go, in sadness, across the bridge.

Charles Francois Jalabert, Oedipus and Antigone (1843)

My final Oedipus and Antigone conjures an altogether different impression. Here, in Jalabert’s painting, they walk together through the crowded and chaotic city streets. Antigone leans in toward Oedipus, as if for protection, while towering Oedipus stands strong and tall over the other figures they pass by. His dominant physique suggests his regal credentials and yet, of course, he is now blind and dependent on his daughter. Others – presumably aware that he is a cursed figure – pull away from him in seeming disgust, or, in the case of the woman depicted in the bottom right of the painting, stare at him forbiddingly while pointing toward him. This is a sobering reminder of how Oedipus, once the hero of his city, is now an outcast.

Blind Oedipus commending his children to the gods, by Benigne Gagneraux (1784)

Gagneraux here presents another scene from Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, mourned by his distraught children, seems on the brink of death here. A number of others – a soldier, a beggar woman, a mother and child – loiter around the edges of the family, perhaps in sympathy, perhaps in confusion. We see the city once more in the background, and the artist conveys with clarity how deeply loved Oedipus is by his family members.

Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

Another French neoclassical painting with some very clear stylistic similarities to Gagneraux, Giroust’s Oedipus at Colonus depicts a similar scene of mourning. This time only Oedipus’ son Polynices and his daughters Ismene and Antigone attend to him in his distress, while he sits outside what looks like a temple. Polynices wants Oedipus to return to Thebes: he needs help to defeat his vengeful brother Eteocles, who has seized control of the city since his father’s departure. (Tragedy, alas, will mar the fortunes of both brothers, and indeed both sisters: it is not just Oedipus who will suffer).

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Max Ernst, Oedipus Rex (1922)

From French neoclassicism, I turn now to this quite different piece by the surrealist Max Ernst, which was composed at a time when the work of Sigmund Freud (featuring the Oedipus complex) had caused the Oedipus story to be viewed in new and different light. An extended reading of what might be going on in the painting is offered here. Simpleton that I am, I find it baffling.

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Salvador Dali, Oedipus Complex (1930)

Continuing the Freudian (and surrealist) theme, here is Dali’s Oedipus Complex. This painting seems to be not so much about Sophocles’ Oedipus as it is about Freud. As with so many of Dali’s paintings, it’s difficult to figure out what is going on and I would be lying if I said I found it one of his most captivating pieces. I am tempted to speculate, though, that the large yellow object depicted at the top of the painting could be a depiction of the human brain, with holes signifying areas of unconsciousness. But I shouldn’t speculate, as I’m probably wrong.

Linda Mota, Oedipus Rex

Linda Mota’s terrifying contemporary piece marks a renewed focus on Sophocles’ Oedipus himself, here depicted in frightening agony. Blood streams down his face and his facial features are distorted, in a way that reminds me of the facial disfigurement experienced by the central protagonist of the film Vanilla Sky. This Oedipus seems almost trapped within the painting itself, stuck there in agony.

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Alicia Besada, Oedipus

Finally, Alicia Besada’s recent Oedipus evokes the pity of Sophocles’ character. He cowers, shielding himself from the light, apparently naked. I particularly like the funky elements in his skin tone here, but also the way Besada offers a vision which is somewhat redolent of older depictions of Sophocles’ hero, which capture his sadness, desolation and misfortune.

So that’s it: my (very) brief and incomplete survey of Oedipus in art. Perhaps I should just add that I’m certainly no art historian – but I guess that will be obvious to anyone who has read this far.