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Monday, October 11, 2004

Why We're Called "From the Floor"

Two seemingly disconnected experiences I had yesterday--stumbling across a review of Roger Kimball's new book, The Rape of the Masters, and reading Jacques Derrida's obituary--brought to mind once again my reason for naming this blog "From the Floor."

Please bear with me while I reminisce a bit.

When I was in graduate school, a senior professor in my department invited me to attend a seminar series he was organizing. The participants met every few weeks and focused on the development of modernism across art forms. Professors from different language departments (English, Spanish, and French) attended, as did representatives from the art and music departments. Every so often a historian joined us. Also in attendance at every session were some of my professor's buddies--the editors and critics of The New Criterion.

Each session followed the same format. Hilton Kramer, editor of the journal, would lead small talk with the more reserved academics until everyone had arrived. (That's Kramer on the right in the photo.) On his cue, his alter-ego Roger Kimball (at left) would meticulously open a few bottles of cheap wine with a waiter's corkscrew. He would fill plastic cups halfway and pass them around the table.

One of the attendees would then give some prepared comments on his work--a recently published essay or a work in progress that we had all read--and the group would start discussion.

The art professor didn't say a thing all semester. At each meeting he sat leaning back in his chair, headphones draped around his neck, doodling mythical beasts in a sketch book. I always wondered why he bothered to come.

As the half glasses of wine were refilled, spirits rose. At each session, no matter what the topic, either Kimball or Kramer would inevitably bring the discussion around to a group rant on how politically correct academics and their partners-in-crime the deconstructionists were destroying the canon of western literature and culture. I don't remember Kimball using the word "rape" back then, but maybe I've repressed that part of the experience.

These meetings weren't about scholarship, and they weren't about art or literature. They were about the politics of aesthetics, but the participants never acknowledged that fact. The aesthetic beliefs they held in common were particularly reactionary, exclusionary, and (to me) offensive. I remember the occasional derogatory comment about a woman or minority artist or scholar bubbling up from beneath the tightly self-policed surface of their rhetoric after the wine bottles had been emptied. When I was invited to participate in the seminar for a second semester, I arranged to teach a course on the same night that it was held so that I had a reason to decline.

At the same time that these reactionary morale building sessions were going on, Jacques Derrida was leading another seminar across campus. In the early 1990s, he did a well paid, four week residency at my university every fall before his classes started in Paris. I would see him on the street every so often, usually early in the morning, his short stature and head of thick, white hair marking him in the crowd. Students flocked to sign up for his class, even though after he left in October a lesser-known theoretician took over for the rest of the semester.

I remember that Derrida's subject during the semester I spent with The New Criterion crew was "the crypt." (This was during the period that he was working to resuscitate Paul de Man's reputation, trying to get at what was buried beneath the dishonorable tombstone created by de Man's recently discovered pro-Nazi writings.) I would overhear my student colleagues muttering about the hidden, the repressed, what was down there in the crypt and arguing about what Derrida had really said in class the night before.

To be honest, I think I got more out of my seminar with the shrill new criterions than they did from theirs with the name-brand theoretician. At least I learned how to use a waiter's corkscrew by watching Kimball work that mysterious device so masterfully. I'll bet they've all forgotten by now what was so important about Derrida's crypt.

Most learning we do comes from seeing others perform tasks well--like my learning to use a corkscrew from watching Kimball. We watch and then mimic their behavior. During this period of graduate study, though, I learned in another way--from negative examples.

Both my semester with the aesthetic fascists and my second-hand exposure to Derrida's hit-and-run pedagogy showed me the type of criticism I didn't want to write--criticism that was abstruse, that ignored its purported subject as it focused on its own process, that used works of art to further external political agendas, and that--frankly--no one wanted to read.

Kimball's diatribes and Derrida's dissembling showed me that I wanted to engage, really engage, with works of art. I wanted to look at them closely. To situate them firmly in the richness of their historical context. (If race, class, and gender were involved there, OK.) To ask what their creators were trying to do through their creations. To trace what happened once the works left their creators' hands and went out into the world on their own. And to understand how viewers related to these works in our age.

When I write about art today, I try to write about what happens when real viewers--naive or informed, curious or apathetic--take a moment to have an experience with an art object. That moment doesn't happen in books, academic journals, or on the web. That experience occurs when one person stands on the floor of a gallery, a museum, or someone's home and looks--really looks--at a work of art.

When writing for this blog, I try to remind myself of the importance of these experiences. Not many critics, and even fewer scholars, write from the floor anymore, and that's too bad. It's a good place to be. There's real feeling to be had there--passion and disappointment, both--and we could use more feeling in criticism today.

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