“The Critic: How is he made?”

May 19, 2010 — Leave a comment

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s A Testament (1957):

The Critic

How is he made? Oftentimes bitter, sometimes sweet, seldom even wide-awake, architectural criticism of “the modern” wholly lacks inspiration or any qualification because it lacks the appreciation that is love: the flame essential to profound understanding.

NYTimes: "The Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium was a tourist destination designed by Frank Lloyd Wright but never built."

The other day I was writing an application for a large grant to support the development of literary arts publications on campus. I cited stats from the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) web site, and made note of this quote, which described the situation of 1967 when AWP was founded:

English departments included few living practitioners of the art of making literature, although they included many practitioners of criticism and scholarship. The founders of AWP argued that the understanding and appreciation of literature could be enhanced by having practitioners of that art teach that art.

Today I’m reading Frank Lloyd Wright:

Only as criticism is the fruit of such experience will it ever be able truly to appraise anything. Else the spirit of true criteria is lacking. That spirit is love and love alone can understand. So art criticism is usually sour and superficial today because it would seem to know all about everything but understand nothing. […]

AWP was founded 10 years after Wright wrote his Testament. Now, 43 years later (53 since Wright’s book), there remains a tension in English Departments between literary practitioners and critics. I’m not even talking, as Wright is, about a tension between writers and reviewers, since the only people who really bother to do reviews anymore are writers, aspiring and established. I’m talking writers and critics.

Critics may have minds of their own, but what chance have they to use them when experience in creating the art they write about is rarely theirs? […] Truth is seldom in the critic; and either good or bad, what comes from him is seldom his. Current criticism is something to take always on suspicion, if taken at all.

I’ve learned a lot from literary critics/scholars, but it’s too often a one-way street. And The Writer is just a New piece of Historicism waiting to be fit into the Jigsaw Puzzle of the Past.

Where, Wright (or Roberta Flack) might ask, is the love? The fruit of experience, the flame of understanding?

The love Wright speaks of is, I think, the feeling a future writer gets when she reads a story or poem or chapter and knows she must somehow try to do this thing. And in trying and failing and failing better, in attempting to do it in a way that connects to others, the writer/artist achieves the fruit of experience, the flame of understanding, and speaks of art in a different way than its non-practicing critics.

The critic/scholar feels love, I believe, but a different kind of love. Agape vs. Eros? All I can think of is an autopsy–of a medical examiner studying a dead body. But no…now I’m thinking of what my former department chair said about how every literature professor has “a novel in the drawer.” (Except him, was his point.)

Which brings us to fear. And into the difference between the fear a writer has when she shows her work to someone VS. the fear that keeps someone from ever sharing her work, i.e., the fear that keeps the novel in the drawer.

What I believe is that the love the writer has is so strong that it overcomes any fear.


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