PRINT November 1972


The Genius of the Future

Anita Brookner, The Genius Of The Future (New York: Phaidon Press, 1971), 16 pp. black-and-white illustrations, 172 pp.

MY EXPECTATIONS OF ANITA BROOKNER’S The Genius of the Future were high because her subject, art criticism, has emerged recently as an object of study. To the writing of criticism has been added self-awareness of the act of writing and, as a result, some currently practicing critics have become aware both of present problems and of earlier art criticism as a subject. A study of Diderot, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Zola, the Goncourts, and Huysmans as art writers sounds like a marvelous opportunity for a writer who is contributing to the development of a field. However, Brookner misses the chance to consider them as models, to estimate their intentions, and to disclose the influences on them.

There is at present no dominant study of art criticism as a form (Venturi’s mistitled History of Art Criticism is obsolete), but there are numerous scattered new pieces. The three articles, written 1965–67 that conclude Max Kozloff’s Renderings are penetrating discussions of the responsibilities and limits of critical writing, for instance. An example which is not as well known as it should be is Lawrence Gowing’s introduction to a reprint of A. J. Finberg’s Turner’s Sketches and Drawings (Schocken Books, 1968). Cowing discusses the book as “a turning point in the study not merely of Turner but of British art as a whole” and relates Finberg’s text, originally published in 1910, to its period and to what we have learned subsequently about the conceptualization of art. It is an accurate and subtle text and possesses what Dr. Brookner’s does not, a sense of having been written out of concern with the present possibilities of criticism. His subject is unassuming but he illuminates it admirably whereas Brookner, with an array of stars, clouds them over.

The criticism she writes about is that written by “men of letters” in a period when, as she puts it, “the genre was not the rigid toadying exercise that it has become today.” Leaving aside the verbal difficulty of a rigid obsequiousness, this sentence separates the object of her study from present application, if art criticism has really come to this. She is opposing the man of letters who writes art criticism, as one of several undertakings, to the smaller scale specialism of later critics, who only, or mainly, write about art. The real connection, in terms of literature, is the continuation of art criticism by French men of letters in the 20th century, to which she does not refer at all. Outstanding pieces are Valéry’s “Degas, Dance, Drawing,” Sartre’s “The Venetian Pariah” (on Tintoretto), and Francis Ponge’s “Braque, or the Meditation of the Work.” A recent example of appreciative art writing, within the terms of general culture is provided by Claude Levi-Strauss, who echoes, presumably intentionally, in Charbonnier’s Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, a projective perambulation into Horace Vernet’s landscapes by Diderot in his Salon of 1767. It is the record of his liking for Joseph Vernet’s seaports which allows him“to relive the relationship between sea and land which still existed” in the 18th century.

The art critic, to the extent that he specializes in writing about art, cannot draw solely on the store of general culture, which is the resource of everybody in Brookner’s book. They wrote without requiring a disproportionate amount of special knowledge. Hence the writing is largely amusing, sententious, moralistic, epigrammatic, and adaptive. The themes of the Greek Anthology recur in the topics of Diderot’s and Baudelaire’s Salons, as part of an inventory of the life cycle, made accessible by humanistic precedent and education. This kind of writing is harder to do now, partly because it is several generations later and partly because work methods, either more systematic or more subjective, are likely to engage present writers.

Brookner’s failure to separate the two modes of art criticism as literature and art criticism as commentary—as a service function, is damaging. It stems from the high regard she places on the concept of general culture which is by now a nostalgic concept. She makes the mistake because both possibilities, the reflective and the topical, derive from Diderot. As a man of letters, Diderot uses his Salons for all kinds of observations and reflections on life and art, but they are also the foundation of art criticism as such. Brookner knows this, of course, but she puts it in an evasive way: “Diderot is the first man to investigate and to enjoy the art of his time,” which does not put it plainly enough. In the Salons Diderot set the act of writing into a simultaneous process of walking-seeing-thinking and the subject of attention is art not seen before by the critic or by his public—new art produced on the initiative of the artist, not in response to patronage (a fact that Diderot stressed but which Brookner ignores).

Art criticism, as opposed to collection lists, recipe books, and prescriptive essays, all of which existed before Diderot, is a product of the democratized art system established in the 18th century by annual exhibiting societies, such as the Salon which gave Diderot his subject matter, and by commercial galleries in the 19th century. Dr. Brookner is not interested, however, in the historical situation that made art criticism possible. Her book lacks a central point and it is not supplied by the theme indicated by her striking title, which refers to art critics’ hopes that coming artists will ratify their ideas. As far as there is a theme, it is an enervating concept of Romanticism which releases platitudes more often than it supports insights. In fact it is only used when Brookner feels the need of pulling her disjunct essays into some kind of order.

A part of the trouble is that the act of interpretation, in Brookner’s hands, means proposing ideas more general than those with which she is dealing. Thus the specific topics a writer is dealing with get subsumed into a higher level of abstraction. There is great stress on the fact that Stendhal is an early Romantic, for instance, whereas Baudelaire’s interest is “late.” She is “led to wonder why he should continue to try to define Romanticism and to equate it with the spirit of the age as late as the 1840s.” Instead of reading the texts and reacting to the ideas in them, she obscures them with an idea of Romanticism as a schedule. Among the ideas of Baudelaire that are not discussed are several of his most original. Of his piece on the Exposition Universelle of 1855, Brookner merely says that it consists of “an introductory article and passages devoted to Ingres and Delacroix.” Thus she overlooks Baudelaire’s defense of the global diversity of art in opposition to the classicism of “a modern Winckelmann” whom Baudelaire imagines alienated from the big exhibition. This is an idea of considerable significance in the expansion of descriptive esthetics and the widening of public taste, but Brookner ignores it in favor of the academic problem of Baudelaire’s Romanticism.

She finds Baudelaire’s “essay on Guys consists almost entirely of apparent digressions” and she has surprisingly little more to say about it. This essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” however, is the one in which Baudelaire defines modernity as that which is “ephemeral, fugitive, contingent upon the occasion; it is half of art, whose other half is eternal and unchangeable.” The whole essay is an audacious inversion of idealist art theory, with the values of the permanent and the ephemeral exchanged. Guys’ work as a newspaper artist-reporter, a typology of moderns, a defense of make-up as the newest form of classicism (in that it dehumanizes and idealizes the body) combine to make this piece a foundation of later attempts to define the “modern.” It is in addition a cognate defense of popular culture as a flow of events against the arrested moments of high art, in which value congregates around monuments. How is it possible for Brookner not to attend to some of this?

The form of the discussion in the chapters, apparently the outcome of a lecture course started as long ago as the middle ’60s, is a loose blend of comment and biography. Biography is merely used to provide a ready-made chronological brace: stock stories about Baudelaire and General Aupick, and that kind of thing, abound. Though infatuated by Stendhal she writes of him like this: "he wanted power, wealth, fame, status and recognition—all quite straightforward. He wanted these things without actually having to work for them (as who does not?). . . .” Neither the terms of her analysis, nor her little comments, satisfy the requirements of serious biographical enquiry. The reward of a biographical approach is a sense of the singularity of the subject and, at the same time, a sense of the familiarity of any individual’s life as a sequence, dictated by time and the biological limits that we are all subject to. Biography has the capability, also, of indicating covert and implicit themes in art criticism, the ways in which the declared topics relate to personal obsession or historical imperatives, but Brookner does not handle the lives in this way at all.

An example of her weakness is her overreliance on picturesque scenes of Stendhal in the army; their function becomes clear when she notes: “Stendhal in fact equates the life of a Romantic writer, and by implication artist, with that of a man of action, someone automatically cut off from precedent, someone forced to behave empirically, guided only by the demands of the situation and, by analogy, the spirit of the age.” This is about all she has to say on the subject but it is a promising theme. It sounds like an early statement of the flattering idea that an artist in his art is like a man of action in his unpredictable field. It is interesting to consider the possibilities of a link between the generation dominated by Napoleon, to which Stendhal belonged, and later theories of a parallel between the man of action and the “Action painter.” Stendhal as a hard working soldier could appeal to personal experience in support of the artist-man of action metaphor; and so could Sartre, writing in occupied France in World War II. In New York however the myth of the frontier takes the place of the earnest life and death situation in which both 19thand 20th century French activists were involved. Harold Rosenberg’s early writings are like a commercial for the frontier compared to Stendhal’s and Sartre’s (and Réne Char’s) field experiences. Nonetheless, though she has raised the theme, Brookner is not interested in its implications, and, once again, a subject peters out. Unfortunately, this kind of lapse typifies the approach of a book that fails to do justice to its theme.

Lawrence Alloway