BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Play Write

Quotation: ‘The act of repeating erroneously the words of another’

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 OCT 08

Scene: 3am. The Poisoned Barrel Pub, Hackney, London. A group of friends are crowded around a table. We join them halfway through their conversation.

Oscar, experience without theory is blind and theory without experience is mere intellectual play.
OSCAR WILDE (yawning)
My dear Immanuel, experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
Yet all human knowledge takes the form of interpretation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.
SUSAN SONTAG (suddenly impatient)
Oh come on Walter! Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.
We must be careful what we say. No bird resumes its egg.
PAULA ABDUL (more earnest than KANT)
I think criticism is about finding something good and positive to soften the blow to the real critique of what really went on.
OSCAR WILDE (more earnest than KANT and ABDUL)
With respect, Paula, criticism is more important than you give it credit for! It can annihilate race prejudices by insisting upon the unity of the human mind in the variety of its forms. Creation is always behind the age. It is criticism that leads us.
MILAN KUNDERA (melancholy)
Yes Paula, without the meditative background that is criticism, works become isolated gestures, historical accidents, soon forgotten.
FRANK O’HARA (staring into his drink)
Goddam critics! They’re the assassins of my orchards!
Pot calling kettle, Frank!
THEODOR ADORNO (pounding his fist)
Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth!
ROBERT SMITHSON (pounding harder)
Oh for Christ’s sake, Teddy. Art’s development should be dialectical, not metaphysical.
THEODOR ADORNO (pounding really hard)
Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Bob. Obviously dialectic thought is an attempt to break through the coercion of logic by its own means.
Yeah, sure, but criticism really used to hurt me. Most of these critics are frustrated artists, and they criticize other people’s art because they can’t do it themselves. It’s a disgusting job. They must feel horrible inside.
DJUNA BARNES (intoning)
But Rosanna, to love without criticism is to be betrayed.
JEAN BAUDRILLARD (smoking, thoughtful)
I agree, Djuna, I have found a negative judgment gives you more satisfaction than praise, provided it smacks of jealousy.
FRANK O’HARA (frightened)
Do not frighten me more than you have to, Jean!
Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.
BJÖRK (muffled, through feathers)
The English can be a very critical, unforgiving people, but criticism can be good.
CECIL BEATON (sniffing)
I have the worst ear for criticism; even when I have created a stage set I like, I always hear the woman in the back of the dress circle who says she doesn’t like blue.
Björk, Americans are very friendly and very suspicious, that is what Americans are and that is what always upsets the foreigner, who deals with them, they are so friendly how can they be so suspicious they are so suspicious how can they be so friendly but they just are.
CLEMENT GREENBERG (like MOSES parting the Red Sea)
We may have differences but we’re not made different. If you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong.
BJÖRK (still muffled)
Simmer, Clem!
Failing to see that its ‘history’ is a perspective, my perspective – only, that is to say, a point of view – modernist criticism has stopped being suspicious of what it sees as self-evident, its critical intelligence having ceased to be wary of what it has taken as given.
GERTRUDE STEIN (really stern)
A vegetable garden in the beginning looks so promising and then after all little by little it grows nothing but vegetables, nothing, nothing but vegetables.
Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world – though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst – the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!
WINSTON CHURCHILL (almost bored)
Oh pull yourself together. Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
Yeah. And mistakes and dead-ends often mean more to some artists than any problem.
JAMES ELKINS (sighing)
While we’re on the subject, has anyone noticed that proposed solutions to the so-called crisis in criticism tend to be born from nostalgia?
DOMINIC EICHLER (nodding intently)
So true. There’s a real need for more vigilance or at least creative self-consciousness in the referencing of the work of artists and writers long-gone.
NOEL COWARD (yawning)
Oh please! Most reactions to criticism simply reinforce how discouraging it is that so many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.
DAN FOX (brooding)
You know what really bothers me, Noel?
NOEL COWARD (suddenly arch)
No, pray tell, Daniel.
DAN FOX (more earnest than KANT, ABDUL and WILDE )
It’s my sneaking suspicion that for many critics criticism is just a sideline to the their true creative ambition: an ingenious novel, say, set against the backdrop of the UK’s conversion to decimal currency in 1971.
Oh for goodness sake! You are all wrong! It is from the womb of art that criticism was born. To handle a language skillfully is to practice a kind of evocative sorcery.
ANDY WARHOL (chilled)
Chuck, if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning anyway, so who cares?
I’m hearing you, Andy. I was very much into buying contemporary art, but I’ve decided I want to get rid of it all. Not that it’s not great art, but all of a sudden my mood has changed, and I want to go back to 17th- and 18th-century masters.


Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s first podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.