Tuesday, May 31, 2016

So You’re a Critic—Now What? A Note on Barry Schwabsky and Critical Distance

What is a critic supposed to do? If I know anything about critics, you could put a dozen of them around a café table and at the end of the evening have at least two dozen opinions, and as many excuses for not picking up the tab for all those bottles of Pinot Gris that disappeared in the interim.  So let’s skip the big gathering, and go straight to Barry Schwabsky, who not too terribly long ago wrote a piece called “A Critic’s Job of Work” for The Nation, where he raises a tremendously important question about the role of the critic, and the very idea of critical distance.

Schwabsky begins by saying how much he’s always admired Marcel Duchamp’s dictum about the viewer completing the work of art—“the creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” declared Duchamp, “the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”  It merits attention, this notion of the audience participating in, rather than passively receiving, the creative act.  For one thing, it sets art apart from something like science.  There are, Schwabsky points out, no science critics.  There’s peer review, of course—that’s central to the whole scientific enterprise.  But scientists review each other’s work as fellow practitioners.  Although some art critics are also art makers, the relation of the two activities is accidental, rather than of the essence. The art critic, in his or her role as critic, doesn’t identify as a fellow art maker, but keeps a certain distance, and identifies as a spectator.  Indeed, the critic is, according to Schwabsky, “the self-appointed representative of the audience.” And despite the audience’s creative role, this means being something other than being an artist.

Schwabsky points to how, back in the 1960s, Allan Kaprow (godfather of the “happening” as artform) called for an art that had only participants, and no passive observers—he wanted what he called “the elimination of the audience,” if what was meant by the audience were people whose involvement with the artwork was to be nothing more than “empathic response.”  Everyone involved in a Kaprow happening was to be a co-creator, and the distance between artist and audience was to be collapsed entirely.  This is not where Schwabsky wants to be.  If Kaprow wants to recruit the spectator as a fellow artist, Schwabsky envisions the critical spectator as someone who isn’t caught in the binary of creative artist/passive spectator.  Instead, the critic maintains a degree of distance, but from this perspective adds something new to the work, in part by virtue of maintaining that sense of distance.  “I still prefer Duchamp’s model of the spectator who, through his or her distance from the artist’s creative act, nonetheless makes an independent contribution to it,” says Schwabsky, “and my experience tells me that a great deal of art is still being made with this kind of viewer in mind.”  One could make an analogy to a good relationship between a baseball catcher and a pitcher—it’s not that they’re both pitchers, but it’s not that the catcher is entirely passive, either.  He watches what’s going on and makes a real, if largely invisible and certainly unglamourous, contribution to the team, largely through analysis of what he sees.  He needs a bit of distance to do this—he’s not preparing a pitch, he’s watching the batter and the pitcher interact, and communicating what he sees.

I found Schwabsky’s article fascinating because it enters into a very long conversation about the nature and meaning of spectatorship, and does a great deal to redeem the conceptual respectability of the spectator.  Western aesthetics, after all, begins with contempt for the spectator—or perhaps not so much contempt as fear, specifically fear of the spectator’s passivity.  Plato argues in the “Ion” that the spectator is as easily moved by the poet as iron filings are moved by a magnet, and in The Republic he condemns the audience of poetry as ignorant, emotional, and dominated by the worst part of the soul.  The history of aesthetic thought largely continues in this suspicious mode, although sometimes we find someone who is optimistic about the audience’s presumed passivity.  Sir Philip Sidney, for example, thinks of the audience as every bit as passive as Plato does—he just sees the effects of art as salutary rather than deleterious.  But by and large the audience is seen as dangerously passive, and many thinkers seek ways to eliminate it (Kaprow is no innovator here, but a latecomer).  Rousseau, in his “Letter to D’Alembert,” condemned theater, and called for participatory entertainments that looked, for all the world, like a cross between a North Korean stadium rally and the Iowa State Fair.  Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, spoke of the pallid, tepid weakness of the Apollonian observer, who kept distant from that which he observed, and yearned to bring us closer to the condition of the Dionysian reveler who lost himself in the revels, becoming not an observer but part of the art—a gesture repeated at a higher pitch by Antonin Artaud.

It’s been difficult to find defenders of the kind of spectatorial distance Schwabsky upholds, although there is, of course, Duchamp—and one thinker of our time, Jacques Ranciere, gives, in The Emancipated Spectator, a powerful case for the spectator as making, from the position of distance, an interpretation of the work of that is also a kind of participation, analogous to the creative contribution made by a translator.

Schwabsky’s article occasioned a fair bit of controversy, samples of which appear (along with my own short note of appreciation andhistorical context) in a later issue of TheNation.  They’re well worth checking out, and not just for the kind words Schwabsky has for me—which I’m planning on plucking out of their present context and using on the jacket of my next book of essays, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme (out this fall! makes a great gift!).


In addition to a few humble words in The Nation, I’ve written a few humble words in the May/June issueof The Boston Review about Johannes Göransson’s collection of poems The Sugar Book.  If, in the manner outlined by Schwabsky, I’ve made any contribution to the thing, I hope it’s been by linking it to a tradition that runs back through film noir to the novels of An Radcliffe.  Göransson’s  book is gothic, immoderate, and very good.  The review begins like this:
The Swedish word lagom, meaning something like “just right” or “perfect moderation,” might well describe or even encapsulate Swedish culture.  But it is not a word that applies to the poems of Johannes Göransson’s The Sugar Book, which seems to have been cooked up to create antibodies to inoculate us against a creeping case of lagom.  Göransson— Swede by birth, a Minnesotan by background, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—writes as if he were on a mission to destroy our preconceptions about all three places.


  1. I think it's interesting that we do generally view poetry-reviewer as poetry-writer, partially, I suspect, because there's not enough interest in poetry to write about it if you're not already part of the system producing it. That said, how much does that create a separate spectator? If you're also writing poems and reviewing books of them, are you not immediately involved in the continuum? My point is more that they seem to be linked in some ways through an idealized exchange system, which is not expected of other arts (like what BS is talking about in his article). I think we can point to recent writings and consider how reviews are viewed within that system of exchange. I think it would be great if there were more people who just reviewed for review-writing sake but one could probably argue about reviewers as practitioners of that art form for sometime without getting anywhere.