My Wall Street Journal review of Kate Whoriskey’s Shakespeare Theatre production of The Tempest, in which I suggested that audience members wait to read her program notes until after they’d seen the show, has inspired a couple of very interesting posts elsewhere in the blogosphere. (You’ll find them here and here.)
These postings put me in mind of H.L. Mencken’s saying that criticism is “prejudice made plausible.” He had a point, but some prejudices don’t lend themselves to such treatment, or at least shouldn’t. I don’t like all art, I’m pretty sure I don’t like all good art, and I think it’s the better part of wisdom for me not to pretend that all the art I dislike is bad. Like everyone else, I have my share of aesthetic allergies, which may or may not necessarily correspond to the Truth About Art.
All other things being equal:
• I prefer short plays, films, novels, and pieces of music to long ones. (I also prefer small paintings to large ones, which is not exactly the same preference but probably a second cousin to it.)
• I prefer comedy to tragedy.
• I prefer prose to poetry.
• I prefer simplicity to complexity.
• I prefer realism to fantasy. (This is why I prefer comedy to tragedy, by the way: I think it’s truer to life.)
• I usually have major problems with “documentary” art, or any other kind of idea-driven art. Marcel Duchamp said that he inscribed sentences on his “ready-mades” in order to “carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal.” That sums up the kind of art I like least.
• I loathe “artiness.”
• I tend not to like camp.
To some extent these prejudices can be made to add up to a rough and ready philosophy of art, but the alert reader will note that they also contain some built-in contradictions. O.K. by me. As I’ve said time and again, art is empirical: first you make it, then you decide whether it works, then you try to figure out why it works. Similarly, criticism starts with the critic’s spontaneous, unmediated response to an aesthetic experience. If it doesn’t, it’s bad criticism–period.
One of the reasons why I trust my taste is that it not infrequently leads me in surprising directions. I’ve reviewed more than a few plays and productions for the Journal that didn’t conform to my list of prejudices, but which I loved anyway. (Among them were Anna in the Tropics, Charlie Victor Romeo, I Am My Own Wife, Intimate Apparel, Jumpers, Nine Parts of Desire, Private Jokes, Public Places, Rose Rage, and Small Tragedy.) A critic who always knows in advance what he’s going to like–or dislike–is writing about the show in his head, not the show in front of him. One sure way to increase the likelihood of surprise is not to look at the printed program at all, and sometimes that’s just what I do: I go in, sit down, and see what happens.
In the case of The Tempest, I knew that Ms. Whoriskey claimed to have interpreted Shakespeare’s text in a highly political way, which is definitely not my thing–but I’d also been told in advance by a person whose taste I trust without reservation that the production was first-rate, so I split the difference, went in cold, and didn’t crack open the program until intermission, by which time I was already head over heels and happy to be. So much the better. It’s not uncommon for me to have clear-cut advance expectations about the shows I review, but I’m always willing to be proved wrong, and delighted to admit it in print.
I’m sure several of you out there are already thinking the same thing, and I’m a half-beat ahead of you: doesn’t it matter that Kate Whoriskey superimposed a political interpretation on The Tempest and came up with a beautiful production? Duh, yeah, of course. To be sure, my experience suggests very strongly that politicizing Shakespeare (or any other great playwright) tends not to yield good results, but if it works for her, it works for her, regardless of whether it works for anyone else.
As for me, all I care about is the end result. Bore me and I’ll fall asleep, even if I agree with every word you say. Astonish me and I’ll sit up and take notice, even if I think you’re dead wrong. In art, the only unforgivable sin is to be dull.
UPDATE: Mr. Superfluities has posted a list of his own prejudices. While they tend not to run in very close sync with my own, he says some things with which I couldn’t agree more enthusiastically. Among them:
Theater’s strengths, in this technological age, are that it’s simple, it can be cheap and it appeals to a very basic need for physical communion….
Campy popular cultural references mire a work in its own time. It’s one thing to offer comment or criticism of the world in which we live; it’s another to unthinkingly exploit the popularity of junk in an effort to make our own shows more accessible….
Artists can’t afford to be without a familiarity with the other art forms in which they don’t work. It also helps when they have a good broad basic understanding of philosophy, psychology, history and science: sometimes to inform their own work, sometimes to be aware of the questions which these disciplines don’t answer.
Hear, hear! (Do I smell a meme coming on?)