What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Julian Bell's Thrilling "The Flash of the Blade"

Lucian Freud, "Naked Portrait" (1972-3)

Most great critics have two sides – positive and negative. They can celebrate and they can eviscerate. Until now, I’d seen only Julian Bell’s affirmative side. But in his riveting “The Flash of the Blade” (The New York Review of Books, June 22, 2017), he’s on the attack. His target is Julian Barnes’s Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art. I admire Bell’s writing immensely. It’s fascinating to see him in cutting mode. His weapon of choice is irony. For example, he opens his piece by saying, “I enjoyed an essay about Lucian Freud that Julian Barnes published in 2013—a piece brought together with sixteen others on art and artists in his collection Keeping an Eye Open.”

But then in the next sentence, he says his enjoyment is sourced in his realization that Barnes’s comments “corresponded pleasingly to those in an essay on the artist that I myself contributed to these pages back in 2008.” He writes,

Remarking on Freud’s midcareer lurch toward the influence of Francis Bacon, or on the way that the tortuous stylisms of Freud’s later portraiture are thrown into relief by other people’s photographs of the sitters, or on his greater empathy with still life subjects, Julian the celebrated British novelist seemed, whether by coincidence or design, to walk step by step with Julian the British part-time art writer.

Is Bell hinting that he thinks Barnes’s essay is a rip-off? That word “design” is loaded. Then Bell makes another move – this one more overtly assaultive. He writes,

Barnes, however, had unlike me “met Freud a few times” before the artist’s death in 2011, and these memories sharpen his account, lending it the edge that fills a room when two nervy males enter it and circle it for advantage. Barnes was “struck by the fact that [Freud] never smiled, neither on meeting, nor at any point in the conversation when any other, ‘normal’ person might smile: it was classic controller’s behavior, designed to unsettle.” Barnes’s bid to posthumously outflank the painter leans on Breakfast with Lucian, an indiscreet memoir by the journalist Geordie Greig. Not only will Greig’s gossip “do Freud’s personal reputation harm,” Barnes declares, it will “harm the way we look at some of his paintings, and perhaps harm the paintings themselves.” He transcribes two tales of Freud’s misogyny too demeaning to bear further repetition and submits that

once we know these two stories, we can’t unknow them, and they seem to change—or, for some, confirm—the way the female nudes are to be read…. It is hard not to ask oneself: Is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?

“Can’t unknow”: what more could art writing aspire to than to make such an indelible dent on “the paintings themselves”? The butchering of Freud is all the more stylish for the sagacious shrug with which Barnes’s closing paragraph extracts the blade: “Perhaps, in time, all this will cease to matter. Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography.” Until that day, however, Barnes’s censorious vocal performance, his scolding more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, will linger resoundingly in his readers’ ears.

That “butchering of Freud” leaves no doubt where Bell stands. He’s against Barnes’s biographical readings of Freud’s work. He calls Barnes’s approach a “censorious vocal performance.” Later in his piece, he writes, “Close reading, however, is merely one weapon, occasionally reached for, in Barnes’s authorial armory. The story-chaser in him has the upper hand.” And later still, he cuts to his core criticism:

For if Barnes the close reader of paintings makes way for Barnes the inquisitive storyteller, the latter in turn defers to Barnes the moralist. Just as he “can’t unknow” the artist’s life, he can’t help couching it in plaudits, exonerations, and sideswipes.

“The Flash of the Blade” is a spirited attack on art criticism as moral judgment. I found it thrilling and laudable.

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