Saturday, February 28, 2009

More on greatness, from the vast center of all that is periphery

There's an essay in the current issue of the New York Review by the guy who was my art history teacher in college, Sanford Schwartz, about poet and art critic Peter Schjeldahl. Well, Schjeldahl was an inspiration to me ages ago when as a sprout in Tennessee I imagined that poetry and the visual arts were connected; I left for New York City at the age of 17 only to discover that this hadn't been true for years. Schjeldahl is one of my heroes - and a kind of missing link. Here are a few things he's written or said that I wish someone had formulated from within our little poetry world:

"Greatness in or about art has little to do with being right. It has most to do with telling a story that imprints itself on the eyes and brains of your contemporaries."

"... all the cocksure movements of the last century have collapsed into a bewildering, trackless here and now."

"If you don't consent to understand a little, on its own terms, what you dislike, your love loses muscle tone."

"Beauty isn't beauty if it doesn't inspire awe for a specific proposition about reality."

Oh, and he nicely describes the Midwest as "the vast center of all that is periphery."

Photo by Alex Remnick, courtesy Thames & Hudson


AM said...

I devoured this book last August, and it seemed nearly every sentence could double for some insight into poetry. I do not exaggerate.

"Today it's a lot when new art simply pays its freight, in small change of intrigue or delight."

"Meanwhile, there exists at least one nice difference between art and baseball: in art, none of the players knows for sure what the game is. I enjoy pointing this out."

"Consider avant-gardism: a legacy of boys' clubs, in which women and minorities, to register, have been expected to enter pleas for their special identities. Concern for identity is murder on artists."

"... effective criticism usually has elements of performance art -- a little song & dance, some standup comedy."

"Art should be less trouble than it's worth."

"A cultivated appreciation of the pretty good sets us up to register the surprise of the great, which baffles our understanding and teaches us little except how to praise. Greatness, a bonus for those who are in the game, can only occur when the game is widely and gladly played." [hint: read this against the "greatness" meme...]

Yes, Schjeldahl is my hero!

Henry Gould said...

I've long felt that Schjeldahl's art reviews are just about the best thing in the NY Times.

(I heard him read his poetry once, at RISD, back in early 70s. We were all crowded into this small room, on the floor - I think somebody found him a chair. It was interesting - unusually cozy.)

Mary Meriam said...

"Schjeldahl is one of my heroes..."


" seemed nearly every sentence could double for some insight into poetry."


"....I've long felt that Schjeldahl's art reviews are just about the best thing in [The New Yorker]."



(Be honest. What you are given to believe about an art work is going to color your experience of it.)

The state of being oneself dies when set aside.

The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t.

Andrew Shields said...

I've been appreciating Schjeldahl's art reviews for a long time now. He has a very sophisticated but very down-to-earth approach to art, and unlike many contemporary art critics, he has a strong, well-articulated sense of the role of beauty in art (and in the experience of art).

I also like critics who admit to changing their minds, as he did with Roy Lichtenstein once (in a review that may well be in that book).

Somewhere I read an interview with John Koethe that outed Schjeldahl as a poet; they were friends (and perhaps still are, for all I know).

Omnivorously yours ...

AM said...

I'm pretty sure it was David Shapiro and Ron Padgett's New York School anthology that outed Schjeldahl, if he ever was in the closet. Another poet in that anth, John Godfrey, was Koethe's dorm-mate, according to NYS lore. There's a Princeton connection to rival Harvard's!

I'm always conscious of the hostility between magazine writers and academics ("bourgeois belle-lettrism" vs. "pedantry"). If Schjeldahl is bourgeois belle-lettrism, I'll take it. I just wish poetry had someone like him. -- Ange

Jordan said...

Schjeldahl's poetry is very good. "Dear Profession of Art Writing" is brash, but it stands up. (His line about Lowell is my talisman.) There's a little anxiety in his work about differentiating himself from heroes in his age cohort -- Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan -- but it passes just as his work fades out of linebreaks and into some of the best rhetoric of our empire.

Worth a close read in this wise is Barry Schwabsky's take on Schjeldahl for The Nation last July.

Andrew Shields said...

Jordan, thanks for the link to Schwabsky. I'm printing it out as I type, and I'm looking forward to reading it.