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Scattershots on Multicultural Unawareness
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The Minority Within

....What many multiculturalists overlook in their attacks on the canon of European and American high art is that the supreme works of genius in the Western tradition are, in the defamilarizations and dislocations of their styles, often more hospitable to minority sentiments than works with explicitly minority-oriented themes and characters. From Chaucer's poetry and Shakespeare's plays, to Henry James' novels and Sargent's paintings, the most stylistically ambitious works within the Western tradition cherish and bring back to consciousness the lost, forgotten, and unexamined impulses that are in all of us. These works call us to an awareness of the minority within.

The presence of racially- or sexually-based characters, settings, and references is no guarantee of minority imaginative content, in this sense, and is in fact irrelevant to it. That is why Spike Lee's films can be judged to be far more mainstream, middle-class, middlebrow, and "Hollywood" in their point of view than Cassavetes'. While Lee merely recycles standard Hollywood melodramatic conflicts, formulas, and clichès (in Minstrel Blackface, as it were–suburban, Yuppified versions of Cabin in the Sky), the stylistic experiences of Cassavetes' or Burnett's works provide the viewer with the opportunity to participate imaginatively in truly alien and unconventional forms of knowledge.

The presence of minority characters is not what is revolutionary about Shadows (or Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger); the styles are. Cassavetes' and Burnett's styles represent breakthroughs into new ways of thinking and feeling about life, something that the presence of no number of minority characters or politically correct themes guarantees the other sort of film....

–Excerpted from Ray Carney's The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

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....Cassavetes was more interested in marginal feelings than figures in marginal social situations. He was determined to give voice to the "small feelings" that he believed American corporate values, in life and in art, ignored or suppressed. His entire oeuvre was an effort to honor lost or forgotten impulses–the tiny pulsings of emotional confusion or discovery that most other films gloss over. In his opinion, to bring them to consciousness, in a film or a life, is to begin to resist the vast forces of denial, homogenization, and blandification deployed throughout American culture–which is why his films involve breaking characters down by forcing them to recognize their own lost or forgotten feelings. There is no filmmaker more willing to make time and space for the registration of these tiny, unspoken impulses and emotions, or who more resoundingly demonstrates that film can honor minority imaginative flickers in its style whether or not it deals with minority groups in its plot....

That why his so-called "actor's cinema" goes far beyond being a mere actor's cinema. The goal is to make room, in the cracks of the plot as it were for the expression of non-systematic impulses of the sort that are squeezed out of other movies....

–Excerpted from Ray Carney's The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

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Excerpts from: Persons and Systems

....The difference between the two kinds of criticism is the difference between emphasizing systems or individuals, structures or structure-breaking impulses. It ultimately comes down to whether you focus on systematic aspects of experience that are larger than the individual and that constrain individual performance or on individual movements of feeling and imagination that figure possibilities of free performance within the system. Unfortunately, nonsystematic expression is simply written out of most academic criticism. The scholar invariably chooses to devote his attention to the abstract, the structures and systems over individuals and eccentricities. The repetitive aspects of a work of art and the generic expressions within it are treated as being of far more importance than the nonsystematic aspects, personal expressions, and singular moments.

The structuralist vision is basically an attempt to inflate the "importance" of what would otherwise be felt to be merely "aesthetic" or "emotional" inquiries. Artists' and characters' expressions are treated as being sociologically or ideologically representative (or as failing to be) in an attempt to make the inquiry matter more; whereas unique, individual emotional states are viewed as not being important enough to merit study in themselves. Needless to say, such a critical bias has serious ramifications. It radically skews the definition of experience. The inside drops out of life. When experience is understood in terms of its external qualities (its sexual, social, and ideological dynamics), it becomes its outsides. Characters are reduced to external relations of power, dominance, control, and their position in a system. Their individuality disappears. Their merely private concerns, feelings, dreams, and aspirations–everything that makes them unique and not representative–ceases to be accounted for. (In fact, if the private, internal realm is acknowledged at all, it is treated as being a reflection of yet one more general, abstract system of power relations.) In a word, identities are skin-deep for the ideological critic.

Leigh's focus is on the inside–though, as I have mentioned at several points, the inside is only visible in his work insofar as it is expressed in visible expressions. He is less interested in superpersonal structures of knowledge (the bureaucracies and cultural systems that surround us) than in individual forms of knowing. For Leigh, all of the traps that snare us are internal ones, and all of the important battles in his work are fought within the individual heart and soul....

–Excerpted from Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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Trends and Demographics

The appreciation of great art requires three things that seem to be increasingly uncommon in our universities: First, a profound humility in the face of the work; second, a willingness to engage oneself in a sustained act of attention, an intimate, personal encounter with the most complex form of expression known to man; and third, an acknowledgment that the artist might have things to tell us that we don't already know.

Most contemporary academic criticism is the opposite: It is not humble, but superior, skeptical, smug, and knowing. The critical stance does not involve intimacy with the text in all of its particularity, but flying 50,000 feet above it in a realm of ideological abstractions, swooping down on it only occasionally, for selected evidence to bolster a predetermined position. Most importantly, it does not involve lovingly opening oneself to the work, learning from it, but more often than not, debunking it: exposing its so-called "complicity with the reigning ideology," and, as far as possible, reducing the work to its political, social, and material origins.

Academic criticism is basically a mirror of the rest of society. We live in an age of cynicism and doubt, so its probably not that surprising that our criticism should be the same. We live in an era in which the social sciences are triumphant–in which all of life is understood in terms of trends, averages, audiences, and demographics–so it shouldn't be that surprising that most academic criticism unconsciously imitates the social sciences. It has sold its soul to our century's three idiot village explainers–sociology, psychology, and ideology. The only problem is that the greatest art is precisely what won't be reduced to such terms. The most complex aspects of our minds and feelings are not reducible to generic, impersonal, average forms of understanding.

That's why most academic criticism doesn't even deal with real art. It is most comfortable talking about average expressions: kitsch and pop culture. Like the other social scenes, it specializes in the study of average authors, average expressive effects, and average viewers.

Genius will never be accounted for by generic explanations and sociological causes. The slipping, sliding complexities of art-speech are what are inevitably lost in the translation to generalizations about race, class, and gender. Great art is the eccentric, personal expression of unique–and uniquely precious–states of awareness.

–Excerpted from (the unedited text of): "A New Look at John Cassavetes," The Christian Science Monitor, Tuesday, May 10, 1994.

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Non-Systematic Expression

The cultural studies folks just don't understand art–how it is made or how it is appreciated. All valuable art is the expression of an individual vision. It is personal. Unique. Eccentric. Distinctive. Not generic. Not sociological. Not the reflection of a trend or demographic. It comes out of one person and goes into another person. It's not a group phenomenon. It isn't something in the air that magically appears when a certain number of people gather together with a shared set of beliefs or understandings. That's advertising or religion or politics, not art.

The appreciation of a work of art similarly is the result of an individual effort of understanding. You don't just breathe it in. It takes work, knowledge, experience, effort. The understanding of art is not natural or inevitable or effortless or mindless.

A concept like mass culture does not apply to art. In fact, in the deepest sense of the word, there is no mass culture. All culture is individual culture. It is your culture and mine–somebody's not everybody's. You can't inherit it. You can't be born into it. Everyone–you, me, and Henry James–starts from zero. That's the fun and challenge of working with students. Everyone has to start at the start and go over the whole ground. There are no shortcuts. And no one can do it for you. You can't get it out of Cliff's Notes. You have to live into it slowly and unsurely, in space and time. You have to earn your right to it.

Our age is the age of the social sciences. Social science understandings have triumphed in almost every realm of human endeavor. They are the dominant forms of understanding in our culture–on television, in the newspapers, in classrooms. Virtually everything is understood sociologically, ideologically, or psychologically. In a sociological understanding the undergoings and efforts of individuals are forgotten. The precious uniqueness of individual consciousness is forgotten. You become your group: your gender, your race, your social and economic status. Characters in movies are rich-poor, Black-White, men-women, bosses-secretaries, etc.

Now, any dominant language passes for nature and not culture, so that may sound perfectly neutral and unobjectionable, but the problem is that art's ways of knowing effectively begin where sociology's ways of knowing end. Sociological knowledge is a form of group-thinking, the understanding of the experience of a group, by a group. Art is the opposite. It represents the understanding of the experience of an individual by an individual. It is about unique and personal ways of experiencing.

Sociological understandings may be of use in interpreting census figures or compiling actuarial tables, but they are almost completely irrelevant to understanding the ebbs and flows of consciousness embodied in the greatest works of art. The language of the greatest art is not translatable into the language of sociology. Almost everything is lost in the translation from art-speech to sociology-speech. That's why almost all sociological criticism is doomed to be bad, and why the works sociologists can account for are the weakest works of art....

–Excerpted from Ray Carney's, "A Chilly View of Hollywood–Part 2," MovieMaker, no. 14, July/August 1995.

For a more positive view of the functions of art and criticism, see the Independent Vision section, and especially the essays on Charles Burnett and Mark Rappaport.

To read more about fads and fashions in criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness" and "The Functions of Criticism" in the Carney on Culture section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, all of the other pieces in this section, and the essays "Skepticism and Faith," Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complet texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.