Be here Wednesday for a big surprise!
(Well, maybe not that big, but it’ll still be cool….)
Be here Wednesday for a big surprise!
(Well, maybe not that big, but it’ll still be cool….)
Here’s the latest from the world of art:
– I scaled back my performance-going in preparation for the coming torrent of work, but I did get to Central Park on Saturday to see the Public Theater’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I’ll be covering for The Wall Street Journal.
– Though I spent much of the rest of the weekend blogging, I did make time to watch three DVR-stockpiled movies, the best of which was Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes. Even though I’m a devoted balletomane, I somehow made it to the age of 48 without having seen this most celebrated of highbrow backstage movies, and Toni Bentley has been pushing me for months to plug that hole in my cultural armor. Now I’ve done so, and loved every minute of it, for The Red Shoes mixes over-the-top and stiff-upper-lip in a way I found irresistible. What nobody ever told me is that it’s also a smart movie, smart in a way to which (say) the preposterous The Turning Point can’t even begin to compare, firmly rooted in sharp-eyed observation and executed on the highest possible level of craftsmanship. I suppose it’s better to have seen it as a teenager, but I wouldn’t have missed my belated first viewing of The Red Shoes for the world.
I also looked at two well-known Hollywood movies of the Forties, Michael Curtiz’s no-nonsense adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (strong performances by Edward G. Robinson and Ida Lupino, plus one of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s best scores) and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (high-minded treacle, compellingly acted and accompanied by another superb score, this time by Hugo Friedhofer).
– Now playing on iTunes: Constant Lambert‘s score for Tiresias, a 1951 ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton. It was the last composition Lambert completed before dying of drink that same year. Between watching The Red Shoes, re-reading Anthony Powell’s Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (in which Lambert figures prominently, thinly disguised as “Hugh Moreland”), and watching the Lincoln Center Festival’s Ashton Celebration (which featured Dante Sonata, set to Lambert’s orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Apres un lecture de Dante), it was inevitable that I’d want to hear some of Lambert’s own inimitably piquant music. What a tragedy his early death was!
“I was moderately happy. At least at the moment I was happy, but not for the reasons given above. The reason I was happy was that I was reading for perhaps the fourth or fifth time a Raymond Chandler novel. It gave me pleasure (no, I’ll put it more strongly: it didn’t just give me pleasure, it was the only way I could stand my life) to sit there in old goldgreen Louisiana under the levee and read, not about General Beauregard, but about Philip Marlowe taking a bottle out of his desk drawer in his crummy office in seedy Los Angeles in 1933 and drinking alone and all those from-nowhere people living in stucco bungalows perched in Laurel Canyon. The only way I could stand my life in Louisiana, where I had everything, was to read about crummy lonesome Los Angeles in the 1930’s. Maybe that should have told me something. If I was happy, it was an odd sort of happiness.”
Walker Percy, Lancelot (courtesy of Eve Tushnet)
A reader asks:
Have you written about the state of music criticism in major daily newspapers? The realization becomes stronger with every review that I read, especially of those specific concerts that I attend, that the “music critics” [of my local newspaper] are not critics, but occasional reviewers and mainly typists. One in particular writes like an adolescent. How does he get away with it? He writes as if he has no editor. He is condescending, limited, contradictory and flatulent with zircon-encrusted notions about relative value/new music/warhorse programming and other phony issues. He does not know much and it seems that whatever editor he has knows even less.
Is this the case in most cities? I mainly read the New York Times and do find individual writer bias. But the quality of writing is much higher than in —–. Please review the reviewers some time. Maybe I am out of touch and what I read in —– is as good as it gets. But I am disappointed that the newspapers get away with pretending that their coverage is real or useful. If you have a comment, please relay it.
I edited out the name of the city in question because I’ve never read the work of the critics to whom my correspondent refers. In any case, much the same thing could easily be said of countless other provincial arts critics. It’s a chronic problem, one that will never be cured, though it can be ameliorated to some extent, at least for a time.
My correspondent puts his finger on one part of the problem when he remarks of a particular critic that “whatever editor he has knows even less.” Of course there are any number of honorable exceptions–I wouldn’t care to tell you how often my own editors have saved me from dumb blunders–but given the way newspapers operate, it’s inevitable that many, perhaps most of their arts critics will usually be hired and supervised by editors who simply don’t know what they’re writing about.
What to do? I blogged
about the problem of incompetent critics a year ago, and offered this partial solution:
It’s not a popular view among my colleagues, but I think most of the best critics–not all, but most–have had at least some professional experience in at least one of the arts about which they write. I know I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of ballerinas and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his entire adult life immersed in the world of art, both as a critic and as a practitioner. I was also fortunate to have served my apprenticeship as a critic in a middle-sized city, because it taught me that criticism is not written in a vacuum. It touches real people, people of flesh and blood, and sometimes it hurts them. If you don’t know that–and I mean really know it–you shouldn’t be a critic. And you’re more likely to know it when you’ve lived and worked in a city small enough that there’s a better-than-even chance of your meeting the people you write about at intermission.
Unfortunately, such critics are rarely content to stay in the middle-sized cities where they’re so desperately needed. Instead, they get pulled up the food chain to big-city papers, leaving their former readers bereft.
So is there an alternative to bad newspaper criticism? Of course–and you’re looking at it. Those who know better than the maladroit critics of their hometown papers should put their money where their mouths are and start arts blogs. I’ll tell you a little secret: newspaper editors and publishers are incredibly thin-skinned, so much so that they’ll do anything to avoid answering their detractors, at least in public. But the recent experience of media-savvy political blogs suggests that an alert, aggressive, well-informed blogger with patience and determination can make a difference, and I think that’s no less true when it comes to the arts. Even if you don’t persuade the local paper to hire a better critic, you’ll have created an alternative voice, one that might in time become important and influential. Believe me, stranger things have happened in the blogosphere.
I was reading Anthony Powell’s At Lady Molly’s as I ate lunch at a neighborhood restaurant the other afternoon. A waitress approached the table and asked, “Hey, whatcha reading?” Long experience has taught me never to answer this question other than noncommittally, so I showed her the spine of the book and said, in a fairly friendly tone of voice, “Oh, just a novel.” She lit up like a sunbeam and replied, “Wow, that’s cool!”
The week before, I’d had a less satisfying encounter with a waitress who took an interest in my bound galley of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Collected Stories: A Friend of Kafka to Passions. She asked what I was reading. “A book of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer,” I replied. She looked at me blankly, so I added, “He wrote in Yiddish,” to which she responded, “Yiddish? What’s that?”
In Manhattan, encounters like these are the price you pay for reading in restaurants, and they usually make me squirm. I think the origins of my discomfort must go all the way back to my small-town youth, when I was rarely to be seen without a book in hand. Even as a child, my reading habits were fairly advanced, and I got kidded mercilessly for toting around such triple-decker novels as Moby-Dick and Les Misérables. The teasing of my peers had an aggressive edge (“Hey, man, Teachout reads the encyclopedia!”), whereas my elders were merely puzzled, but the net result was to make me self-conscious whenever anyone asked what I was reading. Nearly four decades later, that question still makes me tighten up a bit, fully expecting to be razzed, and though it rarely happens nowadays, the resulting exchanges nonetheless tend to leave me feeling like a lifetime member of the awkward squad.
From childhood onward, I was acutely aware of the gap that separated me from my classmates. It’s not that I was treated badly, because I wasn’t. Most of the residents of Smalltown, U.S.A., treated me quite nicely, rather like a cute little dog who could extract square roots with his paw. The problem was that they treated me differently, and once it was clear that I was also musically talented, my situation became impossible. By then, everybody in town knew who I was—Bert and Evelyn’s boy, the smart one—and there was no hiding from my citywide reputation as Smalltown’s number-one egghead.
What saved me, paradoxically, was that I was physically clumsy. Even if I’d wanted to be a rebel, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do other than read, write, and play music, a state of affairs that forced me to accept myself as I was. What’s more, I was always sensitive to beauty—first in words, then in music—and so I derived boundless pleasure from my strange appetites. In any case, I was never wholly without friends, and I even managed to find myself a girlfriend midway through high school, a development that made my father breathe easier, he having been deathly afraid that his oldest son would grow up…well, peculiar. (That was never in the cards, but it wasn’t something I could have discussed with him, even reassuringly.)
Once I left Smalltown for the big city, I started to make friends whose interests resembled mine more closely, and in time learned to suppress the self-consciousness of my childhood. Yet it can still be inflamed by a certain kind of kidding, some of which has lately been occasioned by the blogosphere-wide spread of the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. You’d be surprised–or not–by how many bloggers have posted comments about the TCCI that basically boil down to “Dude, this thing’s soooo highbrow!” Such talk rarely fails to trigger the same squirmy sensation I experience whenever a well-meaning stranger asks what I’m reading. Even now, there’s a part of me that wishes I knew all about baseball instead of ballet.
I’m sure this is part of why I later fell in love with westerns and film noir, and it probably also has something to do with my youthful decision to concentrate on playing jazz instead of classical music. I don’t mean to denigrate those pop-culture pursuits—far from it—but for me, they were as close as I could come to being a regular guy, and I was distressed to discover that they didn’t do much to narrow the gap. Being a John Wayne fan (which I am) helps a little, maybe even more than a little, but being a Raymond Chandler fan does nothing to disarm those who don’t read any books at all.
If I sound neurotic about my interests, I’m not. I like being a drama critic who collects American prints, hangs out with jazz musicians, and writes books about people like George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken. I wouldn’t have me any other way. But you never get completely over your childhood, and my guess is that I’ll spend the rest of my life being evasive whenever a waitress asks what I’m reading–at least until one glances at my copy of The Locusts Have No King and says, “Cool, but I like A Time to Be Born better.” As the Duke might have said, that’ll be the day.
I’ve been preoccupied (my mother broke her arm yesterday) and only just read about the widely reported skirmish in which Stanley Crouch took a slap at Dale Peck.
I’m no admirer of Dale Peck, so this is presumably where I should toss off some witty plague-on-both-your-houses crack. Unfortunately, I don’t think what Crouch did is even slightly amusing. I think it’s disgusting–though not exactly surprising. As owners of A Terry Teachout Reader are well aware, I think Crouch is a musical ignoramus with an embarrassingly purple prose style. Among other repellent things, he flirts avidly with reverse racism in his jazz criticism. He’s more than happy to play the race card whenever it suits his interests (as he has done with me), though he writes contemptuously of others who do the same thing. Some, I’m told, find him a charming rascal, but I’m not nearly enough of a hypocrite to be charmed by people who make nicey-nice in private after they insult you in public. I didn’t think my opinion of him could sink much lower. I was mistaken.
I decided some time ago to have nothing more to do with Stanley Crouch. Since then, I’ve declined invitations to appear with him in public and on radio, nor will I knowingly participate in any published symposium in which he takes part. As far as I’m concerned, he’s an unperson. And instead of tittering over his latest escapade, I think the rest of the literary world would now do well to do likewise.