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November 29, 2006

He's beboppin' and scattin', and I'm losin' it!

"Critics should probably stay out of the predictions business," Tribune Entertainment Editor Scott L. Powers writes, "but I predict in the articles that follow, the Chicago Tribune arts critics will have a wide variety of TV shows, movies, plays, architecture, music, dance and art that they will argue deserve another look."

A bold prognostication? Really, he's just laying the formula bare: "Critical Reversals" was the watchword of the day in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment, "Upon further review..." was the headline.

It was a clever little weekend feature, offering the paper's arts critics a chance to reconsider some snap judgments and to otherwise humanize their opinions. A chance for candor and a chance, perhaps, to even eat a little crow.

The motto: "Critics change their minds. And they can be just plain wrong."

In probably the pithiest piece in the section, Chris Jones says he "blew it" when it came to MacArthur genius Sarah Ruhl, "inarguably one of the leading contemporary American playwrights." He also, for good measure, apologizes for urging readers to give Twyla Tharp's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" the benefit of the doubt. "It was one of the worst shows I have ever seen in my life."

Blair Kamin shares his realization that his response to Rem Koolhaas' IIT Campus Center was clouded by ideological preconceptions and explains how he's warmed up to the structure since its 2003 unveiling.

Greg Kot admits he was mistaken in doubting U2's "Achtung Baby," misguided in his praise of R.E.M.'s "Monster" and just plain wrong to take Jesus Jones over Oasis in the Britpop sweepstakes.

Sid Smith admits that "A Chorus Line" is probably not all that when all's said and done, and that Michael Bennett is no Bob Fosse.

Michael Phillips, doing little to overcome my impression of him as a bit of a benign jackass, confesses to a misplaced faith in the taste and discrimination of the greater movie-going public (as well an underestimation of the appeal of Borat).

Maureen Ryan goes sour on Studio 60 and Phil Vettel regrets giving a gimmicky, derivative crab shack three stars ("that lack of perception still rankles").

Michael Wilmington tells of his change of heart concerning "Waiting for Guffman," Howard Reich tells us that a singer whose schtick quickly wore out its welcome in 1990 is now among his favorite performers, and John von Rhein assures us that, his early praise for it aside, the acoustics of post-renovation Orchestra Hall are atrocious.

Ah. But I hear you asking, "What, pray tell, is our friend Alan G. Artner rethinking?"

Why the Imagists, of course, Chicago's very own homegrown art movement (if you dare to call it such).

Never mind that Alan is reaching back a quarter century in search of his critical faux pas. The Hairy Who, Nonplussed Some and their cohort are certainly a promising enough topic, if only for the prospect of seeing this renowned crank with heavy formalist sympathies and serious-art pretensions—our tireless guardian of the high against the creeping incursions of the Entertainment Culture spectacle—revisiting his animus toward a fundamentally anti-serious, pop-culture-inclined set of rabble-rousers.


Might he really recant? Really? Is this a come-to-Jesus moment, however slight? A great metaphorical deathbed confession?

Are you crazy?

No. The message of Alan G's "Critical Reversal," titled "Early attacks on Imagism lacked reason" and conveyed with that trademark weary irritation we've all grown to tolerate, is as clear as it is ridiculous... My only regret is that I cared too much:

I set out to do things differently, as an outsider, thinking my words were motivated solely by the work I saw. But the language in which I wrote about my recoil from Imagism was wrong because it was vehement. And that vehemence came from the mistake of reacting as much to the environment Imagism had caused as to the work itself. Imagism was only a style, here for a moment and, even among those who made up the "movement," soon gone. Art was not brought low by it. Art is more resilient than is thought by would-be protectors and defenders. Art in Chicago simply would move on.

...What did I think would happen if an art greater in appetite, deeper in thought and subtler in feeling had attention instead of Imagism? The history of Chicago art might have recognized sooner that the city's greatest aesthetic achievement lay in photography, not painting. But the rest of the world already had started to see that and, really, the biggest change would only have been that power and money would have been distributed differently, providing ego gratification, unnecessary possessions, drugs and cosmetic surgery for a whole other set of players. I am embarrassed not to have seen it.


If I remained in agreement with critic John Canaday's early-'70s verdict that Imagism was "greasy kid stuff," I don't believe the tone of my writing about it was as wrong again as it was in the beginning. Anger in criticism initially may sweep a reader along, but it seldom ages well because the emotion behind it seems to have gotten the better of reason, hobbling the argument. A particularly regrettable mistake is to go with that feeling over a finely reasoned argument—and in regard to Imagism, I made it.

He was right all along, see, and remains so. He just regrets his failure to appreciate that the rest of the world would eventually catch up (so says Alan) and he now just wishes that he hadn't been so "vehement" in his dismissals.

Quite a reversal there, Al.

This is all so self-evidently and embarrassingly asinine, I'll keep my response brief.

I don't doubt the value of a fire-breathing iconoclast taking aim at market-driven consensus. Nor do I question this erstwhile outsider's earnestness in countering the Great Malignant Hegemony of Vulgar Taste. But to be waging the same battles and gouging the same eyes 23 years after the fact—and, what's more, to be couching it in terms of a critique of incivility—is a wee bit perverse.

To further seize upon an editorial exercise undertaken in a spirit of critical humility as an opportunity to take a bitter, self-regarding victory lap? That's nothing short of classless.

But, then, Jim Nutt was a total dick to Alan once during the intermission of Cav/Pag. Yeah, and this one other time, on a Wisconsin pleasure cruise, Nutt laughed at him...

"He's beboppin' and scattin', and I'm losin' it!"
Posted by Dan at 11:01 AM | Referenced URL's | Comments (2)