Creating the Intellectual Montage: Academic Mashables
Cherry picking. That’s what my former colleague called it, adding, “To avoid plagiarism, I remind students to tell me from which tree they pluck their fruit.”
Mel Brooks satirically referred to critics as an artist’s afterbirth, an interesting interpretation since many ancient cultures traditionally fed the warm mass to the new mother for strength and healing while it was still fresh from her own vagina.
That’s what I believe composes literary and artistic criticism. Since Barthes declared the death of the author (and by extension artist), the trees from which we critics, authors and artists are able to harvest stylistic roses grafted onto cherry trees that produce grape vines wound tightly onto a glass arbor that in the end yield glimmering, glittery piecemeal mosaics that may be drawn from any potential source. A critic’s essay may be as varied as art itself, becoming verbal representations of acoustic-accompanied lyrics wedded with painted, concrete-infused canvas draped over a figure, captured in a high res photo then (re)produced on a 3D printer. Anything goes.
Perhaps it is from Brook’s representation of the critic that the Grand Marshall at my 2000 University of Colorado commencement derived his metaphor in which he forbade students from “Staring at our own belly buttons.” Encouraging us as literary critics to research our subject rather than allowing us to approach it from a New Criticism perspective, he insisted upon closely analyzing a work through its historical and cultural roots. For my own literary or artistic criticism thereafter, I adopted his approach, digging as deeply as possible into primary rather than secondary sources, but likewise embracing the concept that each student and critic approaches art and literature through the lens of their own personal experiences. As a result, conversational narrative and history become one in my own unique form of analysis. Remember, theoretically anything goes.
My own journey as critic has been likewise diverse. I dedicated five undergraduate years (struggling with rudimentary math while pursuing an extra degree) exploring Romantic influences on American literature, stumbling upon The Master in the process, writing over 300 pages on how European history, art and culture influenced Henry James, the most prolific author in American history.
He did it all, penning art and literary criticism from travels in Europe and America; composing short stories, novellas and novels featuring American heiresses lost in bad relationships while picturesquely adrift on Europe’s streets and canals; turning in his middle years to quick, profitable, publishable ghost stories to support his failed fascination with playwriting. Then, once international copyright laws finally allowed him to reclaim his pirated work, he mulled over his older writings, altering, prefacing, sometimes eviscerating his previously published material, churning it over and over again to produce a finished product which at times was unrecognizable from its original form.
The Master’s process—creating new pieces from his own literary Found Art, if you will—appears to be not much different than that of an artist who recycles her canvases over and over again.
Following my undergraduate work throughout the years I spent as art and literature instructor, I continued my inter-disciplinary humanities pedagogical research, reaching even further back in history, scouring journals and publications like an archeologist sifting through analyses of Ancient Cave Art to philosophies of Enlightenment, searching for stylistic links tracing the evolutionary parentage of art and literature that bore early Modernism.
After returning again and again to art and literature depicting Post-Revolutionary streets of Paris, through a series of unexpected events I landed abruptly at a School possessing one of the best Impressionist collections in America, somehow overlooking that this same Institute had just dedicated millions to constructing a new Modern Wing.
As procrastinator with dyslectic tendencies, I am, alas, all too familiar with the sociological phenomenon of arriving just slightly too late to be considered “fashionable” because I have held a map upside down and first headed the opposite direction than where I should have gone in the first place.
This same circumstance found me landing a bit late in my academic career. As a non-traditional student, I earned my first degree nearly two decades after my high school classmates did. Then, in typical dyslexic fashion, I launched headlong into a ten-year career as a higher education instructor before completing my second degree, eventually taking a circuitous, misdirected path which planted me in front of a bronze, tarnished pair of last century’s Lions, listening to the roar of the quickly passing traffic of Contemporary, staring longingly at the fading rear lights of the passing vehicle of Modernism, which had long since run over my beloved Impressionism.
Perched on the portico of the Institute, I stood, lost, bewildered, digital camera with a telephoto lens in hand, canvas tucked under my arm, while balancing a video camera on a pen-sized tripod, shooting and grabbing at any straws that the vortex of my procrastinating dyslexic confusion had sucked into what I considered to be the black hole of my precarious existence.
My new title: visual artist. My medium: multi-media, producing works which, in spite of the declaration that painting, too, is dead, often found themselves back in montage form on my acrylic canvases.
As I stood dumbfounded on the curb, nostalgically watching the fading lights of the vehicle Impressionism fade out of view, afraid to take a step lest I get pummeled by my younger Institute Contemporaries, when the moment came to grasp onto the fender of the older theoretical medium driven by Walter Benjamin, Father of Modernism, I hung on as tightly as possible, unsure—and uncaring, really—where the antique model may have taken me.
Pastel on Paper
12" x 9"
When Modernism’s Papa crept past on the seemingly too-busy thoroughfare running between the School and the Institute, I sighed with relief when I discovered he, too, remained fascinated by French Post-Revolutionary Paris.
My erstwhile chauffeur safely guided me through the precarious process of a producing a published thesis, earning me a degree to which I still dearly cling with a measure of
cynical hope. Forgive me, then, if, as I launch into my hermeneutical exegesis, I linger in Benjamin’s nostalgic glance toward an older world as it moved toward the ravages of industrialism. Again, I welcome my reader to join me on my slow trek through Nineteenth-century Parisian Exhibitions and Arcades.