Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Crooked Road

An open mind and a critical mind. Too often in the arts these seem to be mutually exclusive traits. I'm reminding myself constantly that they are not.  Cliché Watch, for instance, is only fun as long as it isn't catty and criticism in general is only meaningful as long as it starts neither with crossed arms and a frown, nor absolute doe-eyed subjectivism. A man who succeeded in his day to be both open and critically minded was the genius of Russian Formalism, Viktor Shklovsky who writes this on the nature of art in Theory of Prose:
Every person who has ever examined art closely, apart from those led astray by a defective theory of rhythm as an organizational tool, understands this question. A crooked, laborious poetic speech, which makes the poet tongue-tied, or a strange, unusual vocabulary, an unusual arrangement of words - what's behind all this?

Why does King Lear fail to recognize Kent? Why do both Kent and Lear fail to recognize Edward? So asked Tolstoi in utter astonishment about the underlying laws of Shakespearean drama. This comes from a man who knew greatly how to see things and how to be surprised by them.

Why does the recognition scene in the plays of Menander, Plautus and Terence take place in the last act, when the spectators have already had a presentiment by then of the blood relationship binding the antagonists, and when the author himself often notifies us of it in advace in the prologue?

Why is it that, in fashioning an Art of Love out of love, Ovid counsels us not to rush into the arms of pleasure?

A crooked road, a road in which the foot fells acutely the stones beneath it, a road that turns back on itself - this is the road of art.

What Shklovsky is getting at in this passage is the essential otherness, the necessary difficulty of art as opposed to what Peter Brook calls "any-old-how," that is, real life. For art to work, you sort of have to know it's art.  A teacher gave me a great example once.  If you're sitting in your apartment and you look across the street into the window there, and you see a man smothering his wife with a pillow, you will not call your friends and say "Hey, you gotta come over, I'm watching this great tragedy."  But if Othello is playing somewhere nearby, you might make that call.

Can we acknowledge these formal demands of art and still be astonished?  Be at once open and critical?  Yes, yes, yes.  Well, my God, let's hope so.  

Also this. (Do ignore the study questions.)

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