The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance or What We Talk About When We Talk About Art

December 20, 2014

There is a terrible song my father loved.

It was written and performed by Harry Chapin, who may be best known for a good/bad song called “Taxi,” about a guy who couldn’t achieve his dreams and ended up driving a cab in San Francisco. I used to dislike that song because it seemed like what we these days call “a humblebrag.” After all, the guy singing it hadn’t failed to achieve what he’d set out to achieve, he hadn’t compromised and given up on his talent and ended up doing something quotidian that almost anyone could do for a living. He’d ended up a successful folksinger-type with Top 40 hits like “Cat’s in the Cradle” to his credit.

But I like “Taxi” now, because I understand that all of us are like the guy driving the taxi who never learned to fly. All of us have had lots of options foreclosed on our lives. On more than one occasion I have “stuffed the bill in my shirt.”

But anyway, the song my father liked was not “Taxi,” but a song called “Mr. Tanner.”

It was about a midwestern dry cleaner who sang in amateur productions, who was encouraged by his friends to rent a hall in New York and try to make a career as a professional singer. But when he got to the stage , he wasn’t so good as his friends believed he was. He was succinctly destroyed by the critic who “only took four lines.” Chapin helpfully gives us the review in a spoken word interlude — “Mr. Martin Tanner, a baritone, of Dayton, Ohio, made his town hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards. His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it consistently interesting. Full-time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.” — before hitting the payoff couplet:

He came home to Dayton and was questioned by his friends

But he smiled and said nothing and he never sang again

My father thought it horrible what the critics did to Mr. Tanner.

Were he alive (and not my father) I doubt he would approve of what I do for a living. He was an athlete and a military man; an autodidact who only earned a college degree after he was fully adult, with a family. Thanks to the Air Force, he traveled the world and grew used to living and working with people much unlike himself.

I believe he was very bright, but his personal library was small and eclectic, and he tended to re-read the books he loved — Tennyson’s poetry, Bulfinch’s Mythology and Mickey Spillane’s paperbacks. He admired John Cheever, he thought Norman Mailer was a boorish clown. He liked cowboy movies, especially those with Dean Martin, but he didn’t care for John Wayne, who reminded him of a swaggering football coach. He liked Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins; the Beatles threw him. He preferred Charles Bronson to Clint Eastwood, Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford to Carrol O’Connor’s Archie Bunker. He watched ball games and sometimes Johnny Carson. This is how I’d map his taste — he did not think about these things.

My father was not trying to project a brand image or advertise his erudition. There were three channels and, like a good Depression child, he was trained to consume what was put before him. He was more Huntley and Brinkley than Walter Cronkite, part of Nixon’s silent non-complaining majority. He grumbled about politics, but was not completely parsable. I was very surprised to learn — in the last weeks of his life — that he had taken steps to keep me from going to Vietnam (the war, and the draft, ended before I turned 18).

In many ways, he is mysterious. He could not tell me who his father was, or what it was that I should do with my life. And though I am probably more like him than not, there were parts of each of us that the other could not know. And like probably everyone else whose father has died or is absent, I sometimes wonder what he might make of me. While he was somewhat sympathetic to artists and receptive to their work, his general attitude toward critics hovered between indifference and disdain.

His favorite president, after JFK, was Teddy Roosevelt. He could quote from TR’s speech at the Sorbonne in 1910: “It is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … and who at the worst … at least fails while daring greatly.”

I know those words well. (I keep a copy of the entire speech in my upper left desk drawer.) Three or four times a year someone balls them up and throws them at me in an email or a letter, with the implication that it is not my words that count. They are trying to hurt my feelings, usually because I have written or said something about a movie or a book or a piece of music with which they do not agree. Maybe they think I was trying to make them feel stupid for liking or not liking whatever it was that I liked or didn’t like. I don’t know. I’m not responsible for them.

I almost agree with them.

I am responsible to myself, and to my small and wonderful family. I need to work and I like what I do, even if sometimes, like almost everyone else, I feel I am constrained by convention and that there is too little time to say exactly what it is I mean. I sometimes feel that readers and editors are playing defense against me. I more often feel completely and utterly inadequate to the task of breaking through the shell of reductive cliché and facile assumptions and telling the truth about what is, after all, a commercial venture.

It’s not my job to shame you for liking what you like or for not liking what you ought to like. It’s not my job to tell you what to think, only to remind you that thinking is an option. It is my job to hold art up to the light, to look for the flaws — the cracks that let in the light, to paraphase Leonard Cohen — but not to precisely weigh, measure and declare it’s worth. All I want to do is to say something interesting. On a good day, perhaps I can point something out you haven’t noticed.

I review movies and books and music because that is what newspapers still do — out of a poverty of imagination perhaps — but also because it’s fun for me to think about things, because considering art is one of the great pleasures available to sentient beings. It is good to think about what things mean, and to play with meaning and perception. To switch off the light and see if the damn thing glows. To switch the light back on and watch the roaches scuttle.

But damn it, T.R., I feel like I am in the arena. Not as a referee either, but as a performer, in another, admittedly lesser ring of the circus. I may not be an aerialist or an acrobat or a lion tamer, but I am at least a clown. Mr. Tanner is not my prey. He’s my peer.

•••

There’s a critic friend of mine who likes to say that the stereotype of the critic as a failed artist is by and large inaccurate, but I’m not so sure that it is. Some critics, I’m sure, are driven by curiosity and a desire to know how things work, but I do this because I am paid to do it.

But it’s not all I do. I also dabble. I write stories and songs. I paint. I take photographs. I play guitar in first position and I’ve released two albums of my own music in the past couple of years. I don’t make movies and I’ve no real desire to be a filmmaker, but I acted on stage when I was a kid and if the opportunity ever presented itself I’d do it again.

Audi ©2013 Philip Martin

Audi ©2013 Philip Martin

Not everyone believes dabbling like this is the mark of a serious person. The great artist Nicholas Sparks once told my wife one of the reasons he was such a great artist was because he “didn’t dabble.” He was perfectly capable of directing the smash hit movies that are made from his bestsellers, he just didn’t because to do so would distract from his higher purpose. OK. So maybe one of the reasons I’m not Nicholas Sparks is because I dissipate my energies in activities that are ancillary to my main work. Maybe I’d be a better writer if I didn’t draw or bang on a guitar. I sort of doubt it, but maybe it’s true.

I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe that to make art you have to have a number of ingredients, including oxygen, but the main two are what I’ll call powder and spark.

The powder is the preparation, the education, the hard and difficult work of training your muscles to precisely drag a pencil across a page or to efficiently play a scale. Powder is technique and theory — the submerged intellectual acumen that connects the artist to the great human tradition. Powder is the part you think about; all the failing you do to put yourself in position to fail better.

Spark is the ineffable quality that explodes expectations. Some people might call it genius, but it’s really not that uncommon. Other people might call it talent, but I think of it as something rarer than that. Talent is cheap. Talent is everywhere. Spark is talent plus aspiration plus something else. Maybe guile. Maybe self-delusion. Maybe obsession. It’s just what it is — an accelerant.

To make the flashy noise we call art, you need both powder and spark. Maybe you’ve got a lot of powder, maybe you can burn for a long time. Maybe you’ve got a big spark. Maybe the proportions determine how commanding or enduring the noise you make will be.

You have some control over the powder you stockpile. I don’t know about the spark.

•••

One of the movies that made a little bit of noise this past year is Birdman, a black comedy co-written, produced, and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It stars the former Batman Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, an aging actor who once played a popular superhero — the title character — in a series of successful Hollywood movies. Now, 20 or more years removed from his greatest popular success, Riggan is trying to re-invigorate his flagging spirit, recover his credibility and perhaps even become relevant in a digitally blinkered world by staging his own adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway.

In this instance, maybe my verdict on the movie itself isn’t all that important — I was impressed by Birdman but didn’t love it, which is a little unusual because I’m a pretty big Iñárritu fan who thinks a lot of the criticism of his films as “pretentious” and gimmicky as specious. I understand why people think that about his films, but I think they’re wrong — or at least I think that the things that bother those people about Iñárritu’s work don’t really matter than much to me. I perceive a big-hearted ambition married to a tremendous technical gift. People don’t think Iñárritu is a particularly subtle director, and I think maybe that’s true, but neither is he cynical, and I almost always experience his work emotionally. I love his naivete, which seems genuine and brave, as much as his color palette and willingness to engage “big” themes.

I understand why some people perceive him as more spark than powder.

What most folks who see Birdman will probably remember is the fierceness of the acting by Keaton and Edward Norton, who convincingly upshift from playing actors to playing actors playing characters in the play within the movie (the satire wrapped within the satire), and the virtuositic camerawork that creates the illusion that the film was executed in a single take, a brilliant move that seems to grab the audience by the ear and pull them through the backstage drama, directing them to look at this — and this —and this.

Now I could tell you why I think Birdman isn’t a completely successful movie — and maybe before I get through with what obviously is going to be a pretty long and rambling essay I’ll touch on that — but right now I’m more interested in saying what I think it’s trying to tell us. Birdman is about a hack who wants to be an artist. About the anxiousness when you discover there’s a gap between your taste and your art. When you’re spark isn’t up to snuff.

It’s about that feeling of inauthenticity that some of us feel when we realize our work isn’t what we hoped it would be. So maybe I should have managed a more satisfying connection with the movie. Because I am Riggan Thompson.

Now if you’ve seen Birdman, maybe you think that’s not really right. Maybe you think, “Well, sure, he identifies with Riggan, but that’s because Riggan is the protagonist, the vehicle designed to transport the viewer through the movie. But who he really is is Tabitha Dickinson, the gatekeeping New York Times theater critic played by Lindsay Duncan.”

But I’m not Tabitha, and I think by now you know that. I think you are just thinking that to hurt my feelings.

•••

Tabitha, you see, is one of the bad people in Birdman. She threatens to pan Riggan’s play before she sees it. She resents Riggan using his residual Hollywood clout to crash the theater world, which she sees as a purer, higher art than Riggan’s blockbusters.

Tabitha is a caricature and a weak character — probably the weakest character in the script — but not a completely incredible creation. By that, I mean I understand there are people who might behave as she does. Every kind of crime — journalistic and otherwise — that can be imagined has been committed somewhere by someone. So it’s fair to imagine a critic who behaves like Tabitha, just as it’s fair to imagine a crooked cop or a deceitful husband.

I suspect I’ve read reviews written by people who really didn’t sit through the play or movie or read the book they’re allegedly reporting on. I’ve certainly known critics (well, “reviewers”) who obviously made up their minds about works of art before giving the work of art a chance to work on them. It’s not wrong for people to suspect that a critic might have an ulterior motive for panning or praising a work of art. I’m sure that happens all the time.

I’ve even had conversations with writers who’ve told me they don’t have to see a given movie to know it’s bad art. (And they’re probably right — just as the best Academy Award forecasters pay more attention to the metrics of the movies they evaluate than the content, you probably can safely judge a film by the promotion campaign the studio wages on kits behalf and its Metacritic number. Not all the time, but mostly.)

Tabitha is not interested in whether Riggan’s play succeeds as a work of art — in whether it causes her to think interesting thoughts about the elusive concept we call “love,” or lights up unexpected parts of her brain — she’s interested in protecting her turf and serving notice that if one wants to fret and strut upon her boards, then there is a tariff to be paid. She is the troll beneath the bridge demanding a tribute which, by her lights, is too dear for a Philistine like Riggan to pay.

She doesn’t think he has the powder to do justice to his ambition. By her lights, Riggan is not an artist. No matter how serious his intent, no matter how bright his spark, he can never convince her that he’s good enough — sensitive enough — to create something authentic.

One of the problems with Birdman is that Tabitha is not a terribly interesting character. She’s a cliché. We don’t know anything about her other than she’s powerful and wicked. She’s a stand-in for the forces that conspire against the interloper; her actions are those of a defender of the faith, someone who regards Riggan as a kind of artistic infidel.

On the other hand, she is granted more integrity than critics who appear in movies and plays are usually allowed.

Most of the time when you see a critic portrayed in a movie, it’s because the director wants to rail against the very notion of criticism. Because they want to avenge Mr. Tanner.

Take, for example, the way the food critic is portrayed in the 2007 film Ratatouille — as a snobbish egoist more interesting in self-aggrandizing careerism than honest assessment. Or, for a more recent example, in Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh treats the art critic John Ruskin — who was the inarticulate Turner’s greatest champion, by the way — as a pretentious (and prudish) salon rat.

In Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, conservative New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) fares only a little better; the real man’s deep respect for the discipline and work of art-making is obscured by his rage at the audacious emptiness of commercial Keane-eyed urchins.

Then there’s the case of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2006 film The Lady In the Water, where a film critic serves to insulate the director from criticism. In that movie, the excellent Bob Balaban plays a critic named Harry Farber (after Manny Farber, who’ll we’ll get back to in a little bit) who priggishly rails against movies that indulge clichés and embed exposition in dialogue in an apparent attempt to inoculate the ham-fisted affair from just that sort of criticism.

Farber is the closed and rigid adult Superego figure, the repressor of fun inclined to pull the wings off the butterfly of art. Of course he’s eventually torn to shreds by one of Shyamalan’s dark mythical beasts. But not before he’s lectured by another character (played by Jefferey Wright): “What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?”

Let me say for the record that I was among the few people (film critics or otherwise) who saw much to like in The Lady in the Water. It was an ambitious failure, but it was probably as good a movie as Shyamalan could make at the time, and I appreciate the obvious effort. He was building up his powder, he may very well become a better artist for having made what I’m sure he considers a criminally misapprehended movie.

There is nothing wrong in failing, it’s what most of us do most of the time.

•••

Anyway, when Riggan’s play finally opens, Tabitha (spoiler alert) ends up praising Riggan’s production.

Like the food critic in Ratatouille, she’s apparently overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. But even in the few lines of the review that the audience is let in on, it’s apparent Tabitha has misunderstood what she experienced.

In her review, she writes about Riggan digging deep down and uncovering something she calls “hyper-realism” or some such twaddle. What he’s really done — whether because he’s deluded or because he sees it all too clearly — is attempt suicide right on stage.

This is another flaw in Birdman. This is not a terrifically original idea. It was anticipated in the the Rolling Stones’ anti-critic screed “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll” from 1974— “If I could stick my pen in my heart, And spill it all over the stage/ Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya, Would you think the boy is strange?” — and, as indiewire.com’s Jeff Beck has pointed out, in the 1957 Looney Tunes cartoon Show Biz Bugs.

While the movie goes on to provide us with a superfluous though understandable final scene, Birdman ends a lot like Taxi Driver: The dangerous crazy guy winds up as a hero of sorts. And not because he meant to.

This lack of intention is underlined by the headline that runs above Tabitha’s review: “The unexpected virtue of ignorance.” This tortured phrase is apparently important to our understanding of the film — the full title of the movie is Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.

It’s also a phrase that has caused some problems for some people — including for me, at least until the moment it actually turned up in the film. At least one filmmaker and writer whose work I deeply respect saw it as so much occluding nonsense, an opaque koan hinting at a depth that just isn’t there. He said he didn’t believe any of the people who wrote the movie could explain what it means.

Well, while I’m not sure I can defend the subhead (it is a little precious and Bernie Taupin-esque), I do think I understand it. While in the real world Tabitha wouldn’t have written the headline (and might not have even seen it until it was published), I think we can assume that it’s reflective of the content of her review. It’s a clumsy newspaper critic’s way of summing it up. It’s a joke within a joke. It’s purposefully awkward and dense. What she’s talking about is Riggan achieving an artistic accomplishment despite his lack of talent and sensitivity.

What’s she’s saying is that he’s all spark and no powder.

This is a backhanded compliment, somewhat akin to calling a black athlete “a natural.” It discounts Riggan’s intention, what he would call his “motivation” to make art. She does this even though Riggan has provided her evidence of his sincerity, he has shown her a cocktail napkin on which Raymond Carver once scribbled a note of encouragement to the young Riggan Thompson. Riggan’s reasons for adapting and mounting a production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” are complicated and various, but among them was a genuine desire to make something that would cause people to think and feel things they wouldn’t otherwise, to be a catalyst for human connection.
What Tabitha is saying is Riggan has made what the critic Manny Farber called “termite art.”

Here’s the part where I refer you to Farber’s famous essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, which originally appeared in 1962 in Film Culture. In that essay, Farber — who was a very good painter, an artist with a lot of powder, who wrote film criticism on the side — makes the case for B movies and what came to be known as “underground” cinema as opposed to the monumentality of big Oscar-seeking movies. If you don’t know the essay you should read it, but what I take from it is that Farber is saying that some of the best art happens in the margins, when the artist isn’t trying to be an artist, when he isn’t trying to make a statement but is just trying to make something entertaining.

Or is just following his own eccentric obsessions.

And I believe termite art exists, and that its wonderful. Just look at the early work of Howard Finster, or the anonymous Philadelphia artist they call “the wireman.” Look at a lot of rock ’n’ roll — great things can be achieved by enthusiastic children with a dubious grasp of their chosen instruments. “The unexpected virtue of ignorance” is a quality that termite artists share. They don’t think about art. They are art.

•••

I’m not sure I buy the idea that the best art is only created by oblivious genius. I don’t think that’s what Iñárritu believes either. Some really good art is created by people with a lot of spark and little powder — if you have an obsession and are indifferent to the gaze of others you have a chance of creating something that will touch off vibrations in other hearts. Termite art happens. We ought to prize all accidental miracles.

But I more believe in work. Hard work. Powder that, alas, means nothing without spark You can feel as deeply as anyone, that makes you human. But not an artist. Not a genius. Tabitha and John Canaday and Harry Farber are right — there are standards, and there is a price to pay.

Birdman is not termite art. Iñárritu is not a termite artist. Birdman is precisely the sort of movie Farber would have called White Elephant Art, with its aspirations for Oscar glory and high-minded talk about the nature of art and artists. It is a wobbly movie, really, it’s not as slick and smooth as some insist it is. I do not presume to tell you what Iñárritu is trying to say with it. Only that he’s trying to say something. Like Riggan Thompson, he’s trying to be an artist.

And that there’s something noble in that.

And that’s the thing — being an artist is like being an intellectual. You don’t get to decide that that’s what you are; you just do your work and let people look at it and say what they will, whether it is good or bad (and some of it is good, and some of it is bad), whether you are authentic or a fraud. You open yourself to the critics.

To people like me.

Who, in their spare time, are maybe trying to scrape together some powder. Who, in their waking hours, grieve for their puny spark.

I’m not fooling anyone. It’s all the same to me: poems, songs, stories, columns. I’m trying to connect with something inside myself. And write well enough that if anyone reads it, it might make sense to them, it might connect with something inside them too. Which is exactly the thing we talk about when we talk about art.


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