The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1201 Tuesday, 30 April 2002
Date: Monday, 29 Apr 2002 21:28:55 -0400
Subject: Apologia Pro Sententia Sua
Brian Willis recently opined, apropos of my comments on the title
performances in Romeo+Juliet: "Claire and Leo are totally lost, but
there is no need to get offensive about it."
To which I belatedly answer: That depends on what you believe to be at
stake. To show that much may be hanging in the balance, let me quote
two passages from a neighboring field of criticism. Both were written
by the art critic and historian Robert Hughes.
"Memories of Edward Hopper underlie [the painter Eric Fischl's] work,
but Fischl didn't have the benefit of Hopper's extensive training. He
had the misfortune to go to art school at the California Institute for
the Arts in Los Angeles in the early 1970s....Cal Arts epitomized the
frivolity of late modernist art teaching, Fischl would recall. The only
serious life classes were reserved for the animation department of the
film school, because if a student wanted to follow in the footsteps of
great cartoon animators like Chuck Jones, creator of Bugs Bunny and Wile
E. Coyote, he needed, at least, to draw competently. No such
restrictions applied to would-be painters. Art education that has
repealed its own standards can destroy a tradition in a generation or
two by not teaching its skills, and that was what happened to figure
painting in the United States between 1960 and 1980. Fischl was badly
hampered by it, and though he aspired to a way of drawing that was
tense, dramatic and full of body, he only achieved it episodically. He
wanted an overall look that was not too finished, consistently
'imperfect,' with an air of unconcern for its own pictorial mechanisms.
But this required a mastery over the detail and frequency of
brushstrokes, and a certainty about the drawing embedded in them, which
he cannot consistently manage...." American Visions (1997).
"The results of this [slippage of standards] began to be not only felt
but quite painfully seen when a revival of realist painting got under
way in the early 1970s. A century before, every educated person drew as
a matter of course. (Even the critics could draw: John Ruskin was, in
his own right, one of the best architectural draftsmen since the time of
Palladio.) Drawing was an ordinary form of speech, used as a pastime or
an aide-memoire, without pretensions to 'high' art. Nevertheless, this
general graphic literacy was the compost from which the great depictive
artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were able
to grow--Degas, Eakins, Picasso, Matisse. It was gradually abolished by
the mass camera market. Nowhere was the decline of depictive drawing
more evident than in America." The Shock of the New (1980).
I have a series of audio tapes consisting of 60-minute versions of
Shakespeare plays broadcast over U.S. radio during the 1930s. The
leading roles are played by well-known movie stars of the period. The
most interesting performances are those of Edward G. Robinson as
Petruchio and Humphrey Bogart (yes) as Hotspur. Robinson is very good
indeed. One cannot say the same of Bogart; but, mirabile dictu, he is
never less than competent. These actors learned their craft in the
legitimate theater of the early twentieth century. In those days,
performing Shakespeare adequately was one of the standard
accomplishments of a dramatic actor. He was expected to know how to do
it; so he did. Genius was not required; proficiency was; and there was
a basic level of skill below which one was not allowed to fall.
The cinema-driven erosion of these minimal standards of competence, a
process celebrated and encouraged by Academia and exemplified by Al,
Claire, Leo and others, may prove to be a momentary aberration in the
history of the performing arts. I hope it may. But while the outcome
is still in doubt, complacency is not in order, and the only watchword
is <<Ecrasez l'Infame>>.
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