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Dove Sta Memoria

Any writer worth their salt knows how to pan someone or something. If they don’t let me direct them to Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective wherein every major composer from Beethoven to Berlioz to Bartók is summarily trashed with readable zest by a critic of their era. Or consider the put-down as practiced by Roberta Smith, who has made it her stock in trade if not her life’s work. Who else beside her predecessor at the New York Times, Hilton Kramer, has gotten such career mileage out of slamming artists, curators, and other critics or gained such rapt readership among the resentful and such a dubious reputation for being a “good writer” as these two peas-in-a-pod of the Great Gray Lady?

Portrait of Robert Storr. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

But there I go practicing that minor art myself.

“Doctor heal thyself,” you say. Indeed, any writer capable of genuinely rigorous judgment should know how to look in the mirror and train their sights on their own flaws, though few do. But as Aretha Franklin remarked in a recent tribute to Whitney Houston, when all is said and done, it’s the hits not the misses that count. She was right. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” redeems all the excesses of Houston’s uplifting, over the top hymns to love and self-love, just as Franklin’s own full-throttle saintly-to-sinful-and-back-again best makes one forget the most ill-chosen of her pop digressions, and enjoy the soulful underpinnings of those with a good hook and a good chorus. Indeed, the value of talking about creative weaknesses is not the “Gotcha!” pleasure it gives hostile commentators and rubbernecking fans of artistic spin-outs and pile-ups but the light it sheds on the creative strengths of those who really have them, those who go the distance.

For this issue of the Rail I have challenged colleagues to attempt the difficult task of bestowing just praise on art and artists that elicit their enthusiasm, admiration, even reverence. The risks entail undermining the positive things one wishes to say by choosing the wrong words, framing the issues in the wrong context, hitting the wrong emotional chord or register and, most damagingly, misranking them as a result of hedging one’s bets through misplaced caution or, indulging in hyperbole through unbridled zeal. Meanwhile, the cost to the critic of such miscalculations is to render him or herself vulnerable to counter attack without being fully committed to the position taken. The after life of such lapses can be truly embarrassing; being dogged by the bold record of an ambivalently held view or worse publically recanting an ostensibly firm conviction.

As a tuning fork for the exercise I offered two passages from the “Pisan Cantos” by Ezra Pound, a man possessed by rotten prejudices who was nonetheless among the most generous critics America has ever produced, “il miglior fabbro” as T.S. Eliot called him. Torn from the patchwork fabric of longer poems and repeated as a mantra without going back to the original, these citations are as follows:

“What thou lovest well remains,
The rest is dross”

“Nothing matters but the quality of the affection—
in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria”


Robert Storr, March Art Editor


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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