The Critic as Artist

Photo Credit: Getty Images

I think it’s about time we’ve re-navigated the line between the critic and the artist. It’s commonplace today for artists to bemoan the critic and to complain of their lofty ideals and petty taste. In movie after movie, the protagonist often shakes their fist at the nefarious critic, accusing them of derailing their big break — their one crucial moment in the sun.

In Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Dermot Hoggins, a man intimately familiar with the thug life, publishes a novel inspired by his experiences called Knuckle Sandwich. At an awards event, Hoggins comes in contact with Felix Finch: a classically renowned critic who pens Mr. Hoggins a harsh critique. Hoggins, then, in a moment of blinding fury picks up Felix and throws him off the side of a high-story building. From this moment forward, Hoggins is revered as the man who “showed it” to the hideous critic and literally put an end to the bane of all artists everywhere.

This is a prime example of the endless war as seen in film and literature against the critic. Here is the one person who derails the success of all artists, writers, and poets. They proclaim, “Not good enough. This is trash.” They are displayed as snobbish drinkers of champagne with long blue scarfs and pointed smirks and blue eyes.

In the Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde challenges the traditional relationship witnessed between the artist and the critic. During this dialogue, one of the characters, Ernest, proclaims, “Each new school, as it appears, cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin” (Wilde 230). Here, Wilde lays the framework for cultivating a new interpretation of the critic. Through his main character Ernest, Wilde presents the critic as a person central in the creation and later cultivation of the art and the artist as the art and artist appear to be inextricably women to one another; their fate and livelihood is simultaneous in this regard. In this manner, Wilde is cognizant of the nature of the critic and how their image and identity will always be bemoaned and critiqued. Even so, Wilde lays a case for the critic as seen throughout this dialogue.

As Ernest and Gilbert, the two main characters of the dialogue continue their discussion, they both arrive at a new understanding and interpretation of the critic. Dare I say it, they consider the artist as critic, or if you prefer, the critic as artist. (I’ll explain more later). During a pivotal scene, Ernest remarks, “The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not; that is your theory, I believe” (Wilde 240). This moment is crucial as Ernest argues here that the role of the critic occupies a critical, creative liminal space. In this manner, there is a kind of creativity, which weighs on the critic as they observe and account for the open space of the artist and their subsequent art. The artist cannot see their work’s shortcomings or even their unconscious contribution to the space of art, but the critic can. A thoughtful critic can. A discerning critic can. A compassionate, fair critic can.

I would argue that Wilde considers the role of the critic to be paramount to the creation, cultivation, and dissemination of art, for it is the critic who uncovers new beauty and “fills the [art] with wonder . . . [in a place] in which the artist may have left void, or not understood, or understood incompletely” (Wilde 240). This, then, solidifies the critic as crucial to the welfare of both the artist and the art. The critic celebrates the art, challenges the art, and disseminates and cultivates dialogue and discussion about the art. Moreover, if done well, the relationship between the critic and artist ought to be symbiotic and not parasitic.

As “the critic will [always] be an interpreter” it is necessary for the artist and critic to make peace with each other and set about forging a healthy, collaborative and cooperative relationship with each other, holding respect for the work each role serves in its place (Wilde 245). There is an air of respect Wilde leaves the reader with when in contemplation of the critic. In the text, through the mouth of Gilbert, he declares, “[The critic] may seek rather to deepen [art’s] mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker, that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers alike” (Wilde 244).

In a strange roundabout way, I return to contemplating if the critic and artist will ever find peace within their relationship — if the artist will ever feel strong enough in their ego to accept the critic’s criticisms and if the critic will look upon their role of judgment with a kind of collaborative compassion and wonder. I wonder if the space in which the critic and the artist lie will ever be a peaceful place.

I suppose, then, I’ll leave you with this final point of inquiry.

Is not the work of the artist the same as the work of the critic?

Do we both seek out and observe beauty?

Do we cultivate it?

Do we tend to it?

Do we honor it from an honest space?

Magic in The Secret Garden

Front Cover of The Secret Garden, 1911 US Edition

I’ve been thinking about a statement Mary Lennox declares in The Secret Garden. She says to Colin that if he “make[s] them open the door and take [him] in like that it will never be a secret garden again” (Burnett 130).

In the very beginning of The Secret Garden, Mary keeps the abandoned garden she has recovered a secret primarily because she wants to revive it and she witnesses and recalls herself in this piece of earth.

By tending to the garden, she inadvertently tends to herself and becomes less sullen, gloomy, and alone. Mary finds solace in the bit of earth she cares for as she finds solace and a kind of love in herself.

But, I keep returning to this point of the magic in a secret garden or any secret really. I believe Mary didn’t want to share the secret of the garden because she was afraid she would lose herself in being tender and revealing an undisclosed aspect of herself to another — a familiar, a stranger: her first cousin.

When I think of my own life, I often think of the secret smiles I’ve kept to myself — those memories I’ve shared with only another — a memory no one else will be able to recover.

I think that’s what Mary spoke about at the end of the day.

There’s magic in a secret garden. There’s magic in the parts of ourselves we thought were abandoned but then tended to and watched bloom.

And there’s magic in this ancestry and me and you.

Nostalgia’s Rosy Eyes

Romantic Soul by Ron Hicks

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the role nostalgia plays in our lives as we journey forward through all our challenges and respective triumphs.

I honestly believe nostalgia comes from a desire for safety and comfort. Every time I’ve felt nostalgic in the past, I’ve noticed how the feelings I experience aren’t necessarily a desire to return to the exact time I’m reflecting back on. Rather, these scattered feelings bring me to a place of deep and earnest longing for a time when everything felt certain, warm, and comforting.

Now, in light of the pandemic and the fight/flight responses our brains all are naturally working through, it only makes sense to indulge in nostalgia for a time before the pandemic and before masks and this madness.

Every day, it appears that another area of conflict appears on our door side. Another day equals another conflict —another concern, another worry, which appears insurmountable to even us.

Given this, I’ve been reflecting on why we are nostalgic over the course of our lives. What purpose does nostalgia serve? And why do we linger in past memories through tinted rose-colored glasses?

In the end, I consider nostalgia to be laced in a moment, which never truly existed — a moment when everything appeared to be certain, brilliant, and fulfilling.

And so we return to our childhoods. We return to the playgrounds of our youth. We return to the first kisses, which caught us head over heels. And lastly, we return to the moment before everything unfolded before us.

Because even now we desire to trace the elusive “what-if’s.”

What if I had stayed in his/her/or their arms?

What if I lingered another day in a moment of sustained comfort?

I highly doubt nostalgia will ever leave us, but we might reconsider how we utilize this emotion as we face every challenge in our lives.

The Weight of Memories

The weight of your memories can only embrace you for a little while before you let that furniture go.

Ilyssa Goldsmith, Goodbye (Hello),
”Beloved”
Miranda by John William Waterhouse

I’ve been thinking about how all our memories occupy a space in our minds and in our hearts, composing a sizable print of who we are — an endless cycling of people who loved us, who harmed us, who said beautiful and monstrous words, too.

What I mean by this is that we are the amalgamation of all the people who have come into our lives, for their imprint will stay with us to our very dying day. And, perhaps, this might sound dark or ill-brooding when pressed to the page, but I honestly don’t believe it to be that way.

See, I was discussing the weight of our memories with my friend Sierra yesterday and was caught by this idea. Oftentimes, we see healing pressed as a linear journey set with distinct trail markers. We are told to leave the past behind and to forget the weight of our memories at each passing juncture, but I don’t believe we should forget our memories.

I don’t think we should forget the memories of those who said one kind word  to us in one moment and another cruel word to us in the next moment. This, in the end, is the contrast, which comprises every moment of our lives. As human beings, I believe we are meant to sit with the moments, which made us feel good — the tender ones of first kisses, of late nights and early twilight conversations.

And yet, we are meant to sit with the weight of specters, too: of harsh words meant to sting, of the disappointments, which have marked us in the past by those we cherished as well.

Here lies the very principle of our lives. It is an act of proper unfoldment. It is to say I may not linger with you or keep you in my life, but I will remember you. 

I will honor you. 

I will cherish you because you have made me who I am today.

And to live in bitterness or to scorn the space of all these memories would be to say I might as well not have lived to this very day.

An Ancestor’s Kiss

My Grandma and Grandpa at My Parents’ Wedding

Today, I’ve felt such a warm current of love flowing through me. It feels like a kiss from my ancestors, reminding me they’re here with me now, despite the metaphorical and physical distance between us.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t believe energy ever really dies. I believe it continues onward and upward despite the transition some souls make from the corporeal form into the beyond.

Suffice it to say, this transition can be difficult for us to witness, especially when it comes to losing the ones we love in this life.

But, despite this, I’ve come to appreciate the energetic transience, which marks the constellation of memories and love, which exist to me even now.

I love the stories passed down to me of my grandfather, a dapper dresser and dancer. I love the stories of my grandmother, a compassionate elementary school teacher. And perhaps above all else, I love the silly memories, too, of my grandpa on my mom’s side who loved his whipped cream on his hot cocoa and sometimes drank it like a child.

I think I’ll always keep these memories with me.

And it’s on days like today that I’m grateful to be a purveyor of all these beautiful memories.

I’m grateful to keep them written on this page and in the silent, speaking corners of my heart and soul.

Riddle #2

Downstairs by Arthur Hughes

Dear Reader,

I’ve crafted a clever series of riddles with Easter eggs in preparation for the release of my first linked collection of short stories: The Council of Amara.

Here’s the second riddle. Follow the journey (with tons of goodies) on my Instagram.

BSYLI
⁣⁣
Riddle 2
⁣⁣
In order to recover my name, turn to page 22 of Goodbye (Hello) and contemplate these words;⁣⁣
⁣⁣
An Oracle.⁣⁣
A Prophet. ⁣⁣

Until we meet again,

Ilyssa

Dear Stranger

Leaving Signed Copies Behind

I’ve been contemplating the place the stranger occupies and our relation to it.

Who is the stranger? When does someone cease being the stranger, or the specter, in our eyes?

How did we come to calling the stranger our enemy? I suppose my spirituality predicates many of my views on the stranger as the one who is truly the familiar and it has informed my belief that we are all connected in our uniqueness — all divine expressions of the same source no matter what you want to call it.

In my first poetry collection, I consider the stranger my familiar — my lover, my beloved, and my dearest friend.

Today, my Dad asked me why I sign books for someone I’ve never met and left it there with no clue who may be receiving it.

And as I’ve told you now, I communicated the same message in kind to him.

I believe no one is truly a stranger.

I believe we share this moment and all the ones which came prior.

And if you greeted me on the road, asking for my solace and my embrace, would I not give it?

Would I not call you friend?

Oceanic Memories in Art

I’ve been thinking lately about my legacy in these poems and words I press to the page.

One of my favorite musicians, Zella Day, once spoke to the oceanic nature of her songs and how in time she will collect a catalogue of pressed moments, which she can return to any time.

Now, as I near the next poem of my life, I think fondly back on the catalogue I’ve created thus far within my poetry. It’s rather beautiful how I can return to any poem I’ve written, or any work for that matter, and find something new every time.

In the end, this is what I love about art in all its multifaceted forms. I love how artists show up for their art every day. I love how people can find some new interpretation in the words, which I press to the page (and the words you may press to the page).

I love how I can go to an art gallery and connect so viscerally with a portrait painted hundreds of years ago. And I love how I can meet you in this hour, without ever touching you in the physical realm.

That’s why I show up every day in my life. That’s why I show up in my art.

I do it because that’s what it means to live well and to preserve a moment in time for eternity.