Week 1: Steven Wheeler – Response to readings

Perhaps Lee Siegel’s “Burying the Hatchet” should have been titled “Swinging the Wrecking Ball.”  From the get-go, he seems more interested in tearing down some aspects of his own industry than in turning his back on his time as a hatchet-man.

He has some valid points.  Criticism should be more expansive.  An extended review that situates the piece clearly in its cultural milieu strikes me as far more enriching than offering a mere précis, no matter now pithy or incisive it may be.  And while it may be difficult to envision, I find his suggestion of evaluating artistic works in conjunction with other art forms intriguing.  Such a comprehensive critique could prove a flaming wreck, or it might shed some interesting light on the Zeitgeist that inspired the works in question.  Either way, it would be fascinating to see.

On the whole, however, I think Siegel has misjudged the state of the art.  He blunders when proclaiming the death of the book review and when announcing that the old critical standards are “in the process of vanishing and being reinvented.”  Despite the “quick, teeming Internet response,” or maybe because of it, readers are desirous of some solid critical ground where they can sift through the mess.  Hence the interest in aggregating sites like www.complete-review.com or www.idreambooks.com: they provide an organized plurality of educated voices, as opposed to a cacophony of shouts that drown out whatever voices of reason are contained therein.

But it’s his advocacy of aesthetic relativism that I find most egregious.  As Clive James observes in “Whither the Hatchet Job?”, one can’t ignore the negative, as it “accentuates the positive.”  In suggesting that we abolish one end of the spectrum in the hopes of encouraging someone of “writing even an inferior book”, Siegel has done a great disservice to all artists.  He’s devaluing their work, creating a world in which, to use a quote he himself paraphrased, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”

It seems as if Siegel has forgotten a fundamental dynamic of the lynchpin of his dyadic world: that critical praise can in fact valorize the artistic process.  Some works are simply bad, regardless of the phenomenological context that spawned them, and while it would be nice to simply ignore them and hope they go away, I think we ought to recognize them for what they are.  I would think that most artists feel the same.

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