Peter Schjeldahl is a pretty big deal. A Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, he has received the Clark Prize for Excellence in Writing from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Carleton College and is the art critic for The New Yorker. A big deal, for good reason – but he won’t let you say so.
“I’m a college dropout and have a high school diploma along with my honorary degree,” Schjeldahl said to begin his talk on revisiting “The Critic as Artist,” Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay on aestheticism.
So how does one write about Schjeldahl? His bio and all his awards are listed in his New Yorker profile. I’m stuck. I write about art that I see – it’s hard (and daunting) writing about another writer, especially one I’ve looked to extensively to shape my own writing. But I will say, after Thursday, that Schjeldahl is just as good as he is on paper, if not better. That is, he’s an absolute wit, and not only presented a hilarious, sharply considered talk on the role of the critic, but also spoke to what life has been like as a writer.
Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” champions criticism as being outside of the object it criticizes, not necessarily subject to it; Schjeldahl clearly emphasized the point that critics are individuals, and work through processes like artists do, albeit different ones.
“Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamor of criticism? Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work?” Ernest asks his friend Gilbert in “Critic.”
Good question. But perhaps a bit misspoken – “cannot create?” Schjeldahl responded beautifully, defending the role of the critic respectfully but not vengefully.
“If we are writers, we keep framing sentences in our mind, each with a tone of confidence and conviction even when a moment’s reflection proves it weak or false. We grope for a sentence that advances the argument we are making, reads well and, we hope, surprises us. We live to be surprised.”
Throughout the talk, which only lasted about 20 minutes – Schjeldahl doesn’t “lecture,” calling it “bad writing and tight-ass talking combined” – he deftly quoted Wilde and followed with his own pointed thoughts, a repartee between two critics past and present, if you will. Gilbert speaks:
“Bad artists always admire each other’s work. They call it being large-minded and free from prejudice. But a truly great artist cannot conceive of life being shown, or beauty fashioned, under any conditions other than those he has selected.”
That is, artists are individuals, and they make work – show life – how they see it. Schjeldahl further clarified his position as the critic, mentioning that the “unskilled” – people like him who do not create art – “must bow to the skilled.” It’s clear that critics are and will be unqualified to understand artists’ work as they themselves do, however:
“I can understand it in a way that they don’t, as myself – whoever that that turns out to be in a given situation,” Schjeldahl said.
Like the artist, the critic creates and affirms value as an individual; they write on work – show life – how they see it. It’s this individuality, this ability to see things from an outside perspective, which sometimes leads critics to “cultivate [their] hysteria with terror and delight,” as Schjeldahl quoted fellow critic Charles Baudelaire. In other words, being a critic isn’t easy.
“It’s hell. I don’t know that I’d ever finish anything without a deadline. If I had time, I’d work two weeks on a short column.”
Schjeldahl followed Baudelaire with something I don’t think I can indirectly or even partially quote. And such has been this whole article, tough to write because it’s already been spoken, been written by Schjeldahl. But anyhow:
“You may be a poet, or the kind of critic I’m talking about, or you may be both. Your potential reflects a heightened degree of outsiderness that your early life has left you with, along with an itch to crash the circles of insiders, and teach them a little courtesy toward the likes of you. You will endure as much loneliness as you can, to the verge of panic. That verge is your limit – you have to feel liked by somebody.”
Schjeldahl concluded his talk by speaking genuinely of what every critic needs – a loving relationship with an ideal reader whom they never have and never will meet, but who constantly accompanies them in imagination, a mutual, devoted bond between writer and reader. He ended with a speech from Shakespeare’s King Lear which speaks symbolically to this relationship. Lear to Cordelia:
“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison./ We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage./ When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down/ And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,/ And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/ At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues/ Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too –/ Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out –/ And take upon ’s the mystery of things/ As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out/ In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones/ That ebb and flow by the moon.”
Edmund, the main antagonist of King Lear, responds: “Take them away.” Schjeldahl: “Away we go.”