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Reviewing Or Enjoying A Work Of Art. Are The Two Mutually Imcompatible?

May 9, 2007

In his latest blog posting, Wall Street Journal theater critic and Commentary music critic Terry Teachout makes a brave observation (which he dubs an "embarrassing confession") about his relationship to culture these days:

"The sad truth is that I now spend more time reading and listening for professional reasons than I do for pleasure. As one of the characters in The Long Goodbye remarks to Philip Marlowe, "I make lots of dough. I got to make lots of dough to juice the guys I got to juice in order to make lots of dough to juice the guys I got to juice." That's not a bad description of my aesthetic life: I spend too much time having experiences in order to write about them and not enough having them purely for their own sake. This isn't to say that I never enjoy myself--I very much enjoyed the afternoon I spent reading Donald Westlake's new novel, for instance--but it strikes me that my priorities have gotten slightly out of whack."

Kudos to Mr. Teachout for noticing this about his life and also for wanting to do something about it (a point he goes on to make in the post) by engaging with various cultural experiences purely for pleasure rather than professional research.

The post got me thinking about my own relationship to the culture that informs my professional work. It's true that I experience many live performances, concerts, films, art exhibits and books for professional reasons. But in any given week, I'd say that at least a couple of experiences are personal. Take last week, for instance, when I went to see Morrissey in Santa Rosa, rehearsed for and performed in a concert with my vocal ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, watched To Catch A Thief on DVD, read a couple of Grimm's fairytales, and played the oboe. And let's not forget all the fabulous culinary experiences I had over the course of seven days, from the cleansing simplicity of the bowl of tea soup I ate at The Samovar Tea Lounge after a yoga class, to the pungent Pasta Puttanesca I ate at a wonderful Italian restaurant in Santa Rosa, pre-Morrissey.

I think the best way to restore the balance between pleasure and work when it comes to writing about arts and culture professionally, is by participating in the arts oneself (e.g. by playing a musical instrument regularly, making short films, being a slam poet or whatever.) Another method I employ to I make sure that I'm not only experiencing cultural events in a purely professional way is by frequently going to see plays, dance performances, readings and concerts etc. simply because they sound interesting, rather than because I'm writing about them.

While it's true that every show I see could be considered a tax write-off in the sense that all cultural experiences inform my writing about culture, I feel very different sitting in a theater when I don't have to write directly about the play before my eyes than if I do. So in the coming week or so, I'll be seeing Blackbird at ACT, Prince at the Orpheum Theatre (a fiendishly expensive ticket but worth it, I think, to experience one of pop music's most charismatic performers in such an intimate setting) Dancing Henry V at ODC, Notes on a Scandal on DVD, and the Picasso exhibit at SFMOMA all without the least intention of writing reviews about these experiences (though, who knows, one or two of them might end up with a mention on my blog.)

I salute Mr. Teachout for thinking about his life in such an unflinching way. Critics are natural navel-gazers, but I wish that more of us would have the presence of mind to take a look at how we're living out lives more closely. Doing so might make all the difference between being a stale writer and one with sparkle.

Postscript: Mr. Teachout just posted an interesting piece of news on his Blog: He's being commissioned to write the libretto for a new opera (a musical version of Somerset Maugham's "The Letter," a 1924 short story that Maugham turned into a play three years later) for Santa Fe Opera . I rest my case.



  • In undergrad, I studied French Literature, and by the time I graduated, I was so tired of analyzing other people's words, that all I wanted to do was take a stab at writing my own. Also being overly critical of others started to annoy me, because these artists are really taking a risk by putting themselves out there, and we're go and criticize them (sometimes constructively).

    By Blogger Kristin Tieche, At May 10, 2007 at 1:20 PM  

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