I’ve always found great difficulty in describing the kind of struggle an critic or teacher goes through when analysing and critiquing an artist’s work. I have started many a post to tackle this subject, to quickly abandon it when I choke on my thoughts and eventually lose the ability to express myself with any hint of eloquence or at the very least, coherence.
Until I came across this letter. Written by Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin, two literary giants who had an intense friendship and tumultuous love affair centered on their shared passion for writing. In the letter, Miller defends his critiques of Nin’s writing, and I felt it beautifully describes my thoughts about critiquing artists or students. I’ve highlighted some of the more perfectly coiffed sentences in his letter- it is Henry Miller after all.
October 17, 1933, Clichy
Crticism is always a thankless task. Unless one is going to do a piece of aesthetic creation, which amounts to a piece of creation. What I’m trying to do for your manuscript is very much like what a maestro does in an academy of art—and that’s an important distinction. When the latter sits down to write a book on art, say a critique of a contemporary, or a study of a period, or anything you choose, he calls into play more subtle faculties. In the studio, the classroom, he may often seem brutal, pitiless. He does not say to the student—this is wrong, this is bad, but I appreciate all you are striving to say, etc. He harps on the faults, with an occasional word of praise for a good stroke—like salt and pepper, a seasoning of the spicy sauce of creation.
That’s what I’m trying to do with you. No doubt it is wrong of me to get behind the actual technique occasionally, as I do, and criticize the thought, the tendency. I notice that when all is right between us you say—hit me hard, say the worst, etc.! As you did Monday morning. But if you sense the slightest injustice you retract, you grow sensitive, you shut me off from your work. You must make allowances for me, too—as a teacher. Teaching isn’t a profession with me, or I would have ironed out these faults, no doubt. When you grow despairing you must remind yourself of what I have said again and again, and which stands: one, that I accept your diary in toto! Two, that I say it is a great human document, with all its faults, and perhaps just because of its faults, because they are as revelatory of your personality as the perfections! Three, that I want you to drop your god-damned diary someday, and that in helping you to perfect yourself as an artist I am aiding you in the accomplishment of this. Fourth, that whatever you present to me as art I must view as art, not as diary, not as intention—but as the thing-in-itself, the work of art. Fifth, that you will make no progress as artist unless you constantly regard your writing from that angle—and no other! Unless it cause you pain and annoyance, unless you be thinking constantly and forever of technique, which if it isn’t ninety percent is certainly fifty percent of the story.
Sixth, that as an artist, you have more handicaps than the usual worker, than even a cheap, hack writer, for example. You are artist through and through, as Rank quickly perceived, but you are working with bad implements, with the worst materials. The goal is to become unconscious of the medium—or as much so as possible. But this can never happen until you are master of your medium—and even then one is never wholly unconscious. I mean, specifically, that when a da Vinci or a Dante or a Michelangelo seems, to the ordinary observer, to the average artist even, to be quite sure of himself, only the private documents, the personal statements, the private admissions of these men later reveal to us how tremendously they were concerned about things which apparently gave them no thought. That is why I keep saying that Lowenfels has a big idea behind his general thesis. He is terribly one-sided, terribly fanatical, but he has a big truth in his hands. He would say that the form of expression is the poem—always. Only what is there! The possibilities that lay unexpressed, the ideas that did not quite come off, they exist, to be sure, and may be the basis of other poems, other paintings, other music. There is no ideal, no perfect work of art. All is approximation, compromise, an is rather than an ought or a could be. Credit only for what comes off.
All of us know, when we do a thing, how much we left out, how greatly we failed, and we carry around inside us an image of the perfect thing that failed to materialize, and that we regard as the poem, that is what we demand credit for. This is our pride, our ego, demanding its full recognition. And it is difficult to separate the work of art from the man or woman who produced it. We tend to confuse the two. After all, I suppose, the story of the struggle that the artist went through to give birth to his idea is so patent, so intense that even though we wish to remain critical—at times—we find it almost impossible to do so. But just because art is not life, we need to make great efforts to isolate the art element rather than the life element. Sometimes it seems almost ridiculous to me that we say this man is more human than that, reveals more of life, etc., in his work. How can one really say that—if one pursues this to the very limit? Because the least stroke of the pen is revelatory—it is all revelation. It is all a clear record—to him who can read—of the struggle of the individual with life. Exactitude and authenticity—these words to express the degree of vital relation between the two, art and life, the degree of measuring the struggle. (Badly stated—but you get what I’m driving at.)
So if I have the temerity to say “this sounds weak and sentimental,” consider it rather as too true than the reverse. Because I am reading your work, prejudiced in your favor, not against. If therefore a thing strikes me, your ardent reader, as false or weak, watch out. Don’t get angry with me too easily. I may be unjust. You may be able to convince me that I was wrong. I hope you can—I would like you to. But don’t evade the conflict by retreating into your shell—for that is why you wrote the diary—to evade the problem of writing, the problem of art, which is an expression of the personality, a symbol of the struggle, and a challenge for further struggle. When you employed the image of the “prize-fighter”—saying, “amuse yourself with a prize-fighter”—I say, “Good! You are the prize-fighter!” The servitude of art is, in a way, like one long training bout for a fight that never comes off. You have to take it on the chin occasionally, you have to be knocked out, you have to be defeated over and over, in order to acquire the necessary ring tactics, the strategy, the art of fighting—and the real fight is always indefinitely postponed. But training for a fight is different from shadow-boxing in your room. The one is actual preparation for combat; the other is exercise, pure and simple. You could learn to do the most fantastic, the most wonderful things in the privacy of your room—as a shadow-boxer—and you might not last two minutes when you step into the ring.
There are two distinct attitudes, and at bottom they fuse into one. That art is long and painful and never-ending. That you need not become an artist to give yourself great pleasure, or even to express yourself. […] Does this say anything?