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September 17, 2006

This art really sucks (eggs)!

Today's question is: Do different forms of art have different approaches toward criticism?

If you've been around here regularly, you'll know that I occasionally write about classical music. I'm not even close to my wife's standards -- she's an excellent amateur pianist -- but I have some modest training in that field. I was pretty good on a musical instrument in high school and was chosen for some selective orchestras and bands. I took some music theory courses in college. (You will not be shocked to hear that for one of my final projects I set to music an off-color poem from Joyce's Ulysses.) Nowadays, I don't play my instrument much, but I still listen to classical CDs in the car.

Recently, after writing about excellent 20th-century music, I bought a few CDs, including a recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, which was on my list. The Ninth was coupled with Mahler's First Symphony, a piece I once listened to fairly often, when I was younger, but haven't heard in about 20 years.

I've described my modest background in order to show I'm not totally a boor (which is the word a friend of mine from college, an English and art history major, used to call people who didn't appreciate great art). But when I listened to Mahler's First Symphony, my reaction was this: This piece really sucks eggs!

I could give you a couple of technical reasons for my judgment -- a few things I think Mahler tried that simply don't work musically (e.g., interminable harmonics on A out of proportion to the length of the first movement, hokey bird calls also in the first movement, and heavy use of the theme from Frère Jacques in minor mode -- seriously -- in the slow movement) and one that I think is totally tacky (having the horn section stand up near the end of the last movement) -- but I doubt you'd be interested in reading about them. And then, if I'm lucky, I'd be trashed by a bunch of snoots who think I really am a boor.

But this got me thinking about whether it's ever appropriate to say, about the work of a great master, that it sucks eggs.

Take literature. Is it fair to look at the work of a great writer -- for example, Poe or Melville or Fitzgerald -- and say that one of his novels or short stories sucks? Let's assume you have thoughtful, if contestable, literary reasons for your judgment. Suppose you make your argument this way: It sucks, because he tries to accomplish X and it simply doesn't work for these reasons....

I don't see why there's any problem with treating the greats of literature this way, and it seems as if it's done all the time. Assignment 1: Start a review of Philip Roth's latest novel this way: "Philip Roth's novels continue to suck eggs for the following reasons..."

Now, here's where I show off that I'm a boor. Let's consider the great French painters.

Here's Assignment 2: Walk around any major museum and eavesdrop on the conversations of people looking at the paintings. Tell me whether you ever hear anyone say, "This painting sucks!" And I don't mean that pimply 14-year-old wearing his cap on backwards and being led around by the scruff of his neck by his angry schoolteacher. I mean, instead, someone saying, "This Degas sucks, because the lighting he uses . . . blah blah blah."

I don't think so.

Now, I imagine if you went back to when Degas was painting, you would find well educated and erudite art critics saying that his paintings sucked eggs, or, in French, "Les peintures de Degas, ils suckent des oeufs." If my French is a little rusty, pardonnez-moi.

My point, and I think I do have one, is this: Is the art world afraid to admit that the greats of history made have painted some clunkers, because, if it did, it might have to admit that currently it's chock full of cretins who smear feces on the Virgin Mary in order to win an NEA grant? (We exclude the New Criterion, of course.)

Or am I just a total boor?

"Both of the above" is a permissible answer.

Note: The expression "suck eggs" was one that my high school friends and I used to use, for reasons I can't even imagine. It turns out, however, that it has a Shakespearean pedigree. ("I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs." As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 5) In my house, we have pretty strict rules about the use of foul language. My kids know I don't want them to use the word sucks, but I told them it's OK to says "sucks eggs." A losing cause, but it keeps the suck-word to a minimum.

UPDATE (10/26): A visitor arriving here through a search for "'philip roth' sucks" has completed Assignment 1 in the comments. This impressive response certainly doesn't suck eggs itself, and one might even call it a masterpiece.