On Criticism

“It stinks!” – Jay Sherman

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately; art, music, movie, literary, theatre – the litany of demesne for the modern critic. Now, it is fair to say that criticism has been a deeply contemplated field since not long after someone developed the written word. I’m sure there were raucous debates about the epics of Homer in the meeting places of ancient Greece. But of late, there has been a renewed interest in the place of the critic in art.

I have noticed two fronts of debate but they are both centered on what the purpose of the critic is. The first, and perhaps most vociferously argued about, is about the critic as taste maker. There is a long history of this. Indeed, the critic as taste maker  is the primary cause of the slow uptake in popular culture of new forms of art. It seems now that the thought that the critic should not be an arbiter of taste is, rightly in my opinion, being strongly pushed back against. Taste is a highly individual thing and I don’t feel it is the place of the critic to impose their taste upon their readers.

The second front of this debate then focuses on what the critic should be doing, namely whether criticism is about interpretation and contextualization, or whether criticism is really about giving an evaluation about artistic achievement. That is, is the importance of the thing about how we read the work in question, or is it really about how well the the work is made/performed/written/executed. You can probably guess where I fall in this argument.

If criticism is about interpretation and contextualization, I’m afraid that we return to the place of critic as taste maker, with the even more pernicious undertone of the critic being the only true arbiter of meaning for art, a stance I feel is patently silly. Jay Lake often said, “The story belongs to the reader.” The same sentiment can really be expanded to all art. The painting/film/television show belongs to the viewer. The music belongs to the listener. While the creator of work can intend to infuse meaning into art, they can not control what meaning the consumer takes away. Sure, there are many techniques that any artist, any producer of art, can use to guide the consumer to their desired interpretive objective, but every consumer will necessarily bring his own experiences to that experience. Those unique experiences color how the consumer views the world around them, and thus color the way the consumer inevitably views the work.

Thus we have to look not to interpretation and context as the primary role of the critic, but rather, to a reasoned evaluation of the quality of the making of that thing being reviewed. With a little training, and a fair bit of experience, most of us can learn to discern the quality of something upon close examination. I’ll grant you, it is more complicated as works include more elements to examine. In fact, what makes most critics stumble, in my honest opinion, is that they leave out one more elements of the work in their evaluation, leading them to a foreshortened view of the quality of the work. Perhaps that film is not artistically successful because the camera angle is distracting. But maybe, it’s distracting because the critic didn’t process the story as he was processing the rest of the film. Maybe the camera angle is utterly necessary in service to the story. And we won’t know if the person doing the criticism doesn’t tell us.

Let’s face, being a really good critic is hard. Even good critics miss things that they should be evaluating. And, the reality is that there aren’t a lot of good critics anymore. It’s a thankless job for the people who aren’t critics because they want to be taste makers. It’s especially thankless for those people when they are accused of only wanting to be taste makers (an accusation that is constantly thrown about, usually be people who have had their work evaluated to be less good that they themselves think it to be). What’s worse, the readers of critics tend to cling to those critics whose perceived tastes match their own, whether consciously or not, and that will limit their exposure to art they may challenge them, that may open their horizons. Not that art has to have such grand aspirations, but even humbler art may have a broadening effect.  And people who get into the field to simply be taste makers are, in my experience, not very good critics. Rather they are simply cheerleaders for their own form of taste, strongly reinforced by the echo chamber they surround themselves with.

So, you might ask, where does that leave us. Well, my answer is that I don’t much look for critics anymore. Rather, I turn to reviewers. Now, in truth, most reviewers think of themselves as critics, but I don’t believe they are. Their purpose isn’t really to evaluate the artistry of what they’re reviewing. Their purpose is to evaluate the entertainment value. It takes us back to that elusive matter of taste again, but it’s simpler then because you aren’t trying to find the quality of the work, but simply whether you might enjoy it or not. And, it perfectly fine to regularly read reviewers whose perceived taste mirrors your own, because, after all, you are trying to find things that you are likely to enjoy, not things that are artistically meaningful.  You will have to decide for yourself what is artistically meaningful.

On My Prolonged absence

Everyone has trouble getting into habits that they want to acheive. The habit of writing regularly was something I was aiming for, I’ll admit.

However, there was a time shortly after my last post in 2014 that my world suffered some severe upsets and I lost my equilibrium. I certainly lost the impetus to write or even think about things. I’ve been in the mindless state of reacting to need, doing work, and going home to sit restless but uninterested.

I think that time is now coming to an end. At least, I have interests again. I will once again try to aim to make writing a habit, which is the reason I maintain this space.

Here’s to a world with fewer upsets for a while.

Herbed Potato Salad

I made a dynamite potato salad for supper tonight. Served warm, it was a delight to the taste buds, and made up the main portion of my supper (I had a lot of steak left over).

The key to this salad is to use fresh herbs. They have a brighter taste than their dried counterparts and make the salad really dance on the tongue.

Herbed Potato Salad

56 ounces golf-ball sized red or white potatoes, scrubbed
1/3 cup good olive oil
1/3 cup finely diced shallots
3 tablespoons sherry or champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon

Place the potatoes in a large pan filled with heavily salted water. I used 1/4 cup of salt to 3 quarts of water. If the water is well salted enough, you won’t need to add more salt at the end. Bring the potatoes to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to medium and boil for about 15 minutes, until a paring knife can be easily inserted into the potatoes.

While the potatoes are being boiled, whisk the oil, shallots, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper in a non-reactive bowl and set aside.

When the potatoes are ready, drain them and layer in a single layer on a baking sheet. Set aside until cool enough to handle, but still warm, 15 to 20 minutes. Slice the potatoes into half in rounds and put in a large bowl.

Pour the vinaigrette and herbs over the potatoes and toss to combine. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper as needed.

I really loved this potato salad, which has a great contract between the acid of the vinegar and the brightness of the fresh herbs. It’s especially good still warm.

As She Watched the Petals Fall

Roses climbed the red brick wall
to kiss the stormy sky. There,
as she watched the petals fall,

he softly whispered one small
promise of devotion. Where
roses climbed the red brick wall,

with grasping thorns, both long and small,
her guarded eyes met his stare.
As she watched the petals fall

around her, she counted all
the reasons she did not care.
Roses climbed the red brick wall.

A thunderclap, sudden squall,
stripped flowers of his love bare.
As she watched the petals fall,

she heard her father call,
and they climbed the garden stair.
Roses climbed the red brick wall
as she watched the petals fall.

© Michael Fay 1989

Missing Stanza

–And if, indeed, it were you,
I, at loss for someone to be
or something to do,
would simply gaze, not wanting to be free
with pleasure unforetold
and with love, brilliant and intense,
upon your visage, bright and bold,
while around me collapses my last defense.

© Michael Fay 1990

Thirteen Ways to Kill A Blackbird

(With Apologies to Wallace Stevens)

1

Upon the wintry mountains,
when you see him move,
shoot him with your shotgun.

2

I was hit, once,
with a stick,
like yon dead blackbird.

3

The blackbird fell in the autumn wind.
It had been hit with a rock.
4

A man hit his woman
and choked her.
He then went after
the blackbird.

5

I am of two minds.
First, there is
the carrion and then
there is the cage.

6

The snow on the sill
was disturbed by the
blackbird as he begged
to be let in.
I sat and watched.

7

The thin men of A.I.D.S
die slowly, in pain,
and never dare look
at the woman, but only
at the blackbird in the rafters.

8

The pounding of hillbilly
upon my ears annoys me,
like the singing of
that blackbird in the courtyard.
Kill it.

9

As the blackbird flew from sight,
the peregrine struck him,
and carried him back to the falconer’s hand.

10

A clatterous roar descended
with the blackbirds’ ascent,
and the with the boys, their guns ablaring.

11

He rode on the street,
going very fast,
and fear took him as he
mistook the blackbird for a child.

 

12

The river is moving.
The blackbird is drowning.

 

13

It was dark with the coming of winter.
It was snowing and blowing.
I threw out the dishwater.
It hit the blackbird and froze him.

 

© Michael Fay 1989

The Reaver Never Returns

A lantern hangs from a hook by your door,
swinging in the wind, flickering in the night.
I stand beneath the light, swaying in time
to its pendulum count. The soft breeze sings
in my ears, kissing my cheek. Memories
of your lips linger with the scent of rain.

The steps are slick and clean, washed with the rain.
I shook mud off my boots, climbed to the door.
You didn’t answer my knock. Memories
of our last touch, our last sigh fill my night.
I lean on the door and the bell-chime sings
from the back porch.
I remember that time,

hanging the bells. We lost track of time,
delighting in dancing bells and the rain
of songs around us. In rain, each bell sings
about that day. When I wandered, the door
was left open. I could see, through the night,
the room where you knitted your memories
in scarves and sweaters.

And the memories
in the damp wool around my throat, the time
spent by the fire when I took you for the night
and from your knitting, glisten with the rain
beneath the lamp light. I knock on the door
again. A brave, damp night bird sits and sings
on your roof.

Around me, the breeze still sings
about its stolen kiss and memories
tingle on my cheek. I turn from the door
and wander on. The echos of our time
together mingle on my face with rain
and I fade from the lamp glow into night.

I still dream we are dancing each night,
dancing on the back porch. The bell-chime sings
|n gentle breezes and the regular soft rain
misting down on us. I have memories
and wool. This is all you’ll leave me of our time,
all I have to help me face the unopened door.

The rain picks up as I walk into the night.
I keep listening for the door. The night bird sings,
unweighted by our memories. I wonder if I’m gone for the last time.

© Michael Fay 1994

Gallstones change everything

I’ll admit, I’m from a meat and meat and potatoes tradition of eating. After a wild last couple of months, I have found that I have developed gallstones. So my normal way of eating right now induces incredible pain, that can require multiple doses of potent narcotics to get under control.
Summarily, this has changed the way I eat quite a bit…no more marbled steaks and greasy casseroles and deep fried delights. At least not of I want to avoid an intense, and unpleasant pain.
So, I will be experimenting with what I can eat until the surgery to remove my gallbladder. Which isn’t scheduled yet and will wind up having to be sometime later this summer.
One thing I do know, I will have to lean much more on fish and seafood, given that I have had no serious attacks from eating those so far.

Great Gratins

We’ve all had something called potatoes au gratin. It comes from that Betty Crocker box and I’ve never really been sure of the difference between it and the similarly boxed scalloped potatoes. But, a real gratin is something of an unctuous marvel. All cream and melty cheese with a little bit of a crust on top, it’s marvelous. If I didn’t have to share, I could eat a whole one by myself.

Here’s the thing – gratin is kind of a method, not just a dish. You can make gratins out of most any vegetable. Here in the states, we seem to call most of these casseroles, but there are a fair number of gratins that we lump into this list.

From what I can tell, any dish of a vegetable baked in milk and/or cream, and topped with cheese is pretty much a gratin, so I’ve been eating them all my life and just didn’t realize it until I started paying attention.

Tonight, I made a wonderfully simple potato gratin, but I also make them with leeks, brocolli and cauliflower, and sweet potatoes. I just change the amount of liquid and the kinds of cheese.

Potato Gratin
1.5 pounds of potatoes (you can use any kind you want, I used Yukon golds)
2 cups of cream
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
4-5 oz of shredded Gruyere
4-5 oz of grated Parmesian

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

The key to the great potato gratin is to have thin, even slices of potato. I use a mandolin and slice them to about 3/16″. I wouldn’t make them any thicker than 1/2″.

Arrange the potato slices in layers in a 13×9″ baking dish. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the layered potatoes. Pour the cream over the potatoes. You want the cream to come about 2/3rds of the way up the potatoes in the pan, which can be kind of hard to tell. I used about 2 cups in mine. Sprinkle the nutmeg and pepper over the top. The even scatter the cheeses over the top. Assembly is easy here.

Put in the oven for about an hour – you want the cheese to be melted and starting to brown, and you want the potatoes cooked through.

You can play with the cheeses. Use cheddar or comte or other strongly flavored hard cheese.

This is an marvelous side and I really encourage you to try it from scratch, instead of out of the box.

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