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Is There A Critic In The House?

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 2, October 1997
pp. 368-375 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0052

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Philosophy and Literature 21.2 (1997) 368-375


I must confess that I have neither seen nor heard David Helfgott, real or represented. But with the Helfgott stories -- of stage and screen -- I am familiar, and I accept that he is an adored, despised, mumbly, deeply troubled, flashy, sloppy piano player. That's all on the record. What seems equally clear to me is that, aesthetically, none of this counts much against him. Why? Because, for certain consistently enraptured witnesses, "Helfgott" names neither person, persona, nor performer, but a complex of events, images, interviews, impressions, to the totality of which aesthetic attention has been fixed. In "In Memory of Sigmund Freud," Auden wrote: "To us he is no more a person / Now but a whole climate of opinion." So "Helfgott" names a recent however passing piece, Helfgott being but one of its facets. This, at any rate, is my theme. To get there, I must ford a few streams to reach the critics, for it is they, most of all, who need reminding that we may these days be getting past music, and on the way to another place.

Why isn't there just one single novel, poem, play, musical work or performance in existence? Should there be just one of each, somewhat in the way that, for some religions, there is just one Holy Book? Could it be that all the novels, poems, and plays are meant somehow to converge finally upon the one novel, poem, play or musical work or performance? If not, why do we persist in offering more performances of the same works? Are we trying to reach some goal in so doing, to achieve the performance (or at least some privileged cluster of authoritative performances) after which our performance effort is finally done? What, if anything, do we keep trying to do?

Whereas some understand the exercises of science in terms of a long-sought convergence upon a final science reflecting and constrained by the truth-about-things, no campaign exists for the novel-to-end-all-novels or performance-to-end-all-performances. No artistic initiative is meant finally to close the accounts by displaying what all that effort has been for down through the centuries. Indeed, art would truly be at an end were it ever thought that some ultimate end-state somehow drove and determined the direction of artistic enterprise. We would be doing something else. Presumably, this is because art serves no fixed and final purpose, performs no single function, and hence has no definitive and determinable (let alone determinate) end -- like uncovering the way things really are or revealing the true faith -- to which it is aimed. Though any given work of art may be about something or other, art as such is about nothing particular at all. But, lacking any determinable aim, art, unlike science, can never fail in its mission, can never be just halfway there, can never really be launched forward by an experimental breakthrough or driven to instability by an accumulation of anomalies. Yes, there are revolutions in art, but they are not revolutions on the way to some final destination. However engaging, these are just overturnings which hopefully freshen the air gone stale by overworked habits.

The best of science is self-correcting. It looks out for and after itself, checks itself for imperfections, and seeks approval or disapproval in its "encounters with nature." It must, given its end, be governed by a regime, and must maintain a regimen amongst its practitioners. Art, ever and (even) essentially a maximally multiplicitous enterprise, cannot be self-consciously self-correcting if it is not self-consciously going anywhere. Art and science undoubtedly share certain functions; e.g., both provide "a grasp of new affinities and contrasts, cut across worn categories to yield new organizations, new visions of the world we live in." Still, lacking convergence upon a destination like truth-about-things and, more, lacking anything like evolving, self-correcting methodologies constrained by a regard for the truth-about-things, art appears to lack anything analogous to the external policing imposed by "encounters with nature." True, where the arts are organized like professional communities, internal regulation mirrors...

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