What’s In A Bad Review?

Creative people who put their creativity out before the public have to deal with one thing that the rest of us don’t:  reviews of their work.  Whether it’s an artist overhearing comments about their paintings at a gallery, or a novelist, playwright, movie director, or musician reading newspaper reviews of their efforts, creative people have to get used to the idea that some people, at least, won’t like what they are doing.  And if the creative people can’t get past that issue, they probably aren’t in the right line of work.

Part of developing an artistic thick skin about bad reviews is realizing that the opinions of a critic are just that — one person’s opinion — and that critics are often just wrong.  In fact, sometimes a critic is so wrong about a particular piece of work that their opinions, read years later, seem comically and historically misguided.

beatles-abbey-road-album-label-appleI thought about this when I read about the New York Times review of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, published right after it was released in 1969.  To his credit, the reviewer, Nik Cohn, found that the nine-song medley on side two was the most impressive music the Beatles had recorded since Rubber Soul — even though he thought the individual songs within the medley were “nothing special” and, for the most part, “pretty average stuff.”  In fact, he thought “some of the lyrics are quite painful,” and “most of the lines here are steals.”

Continuing his critique of the lyrics on side two, Cohn wrote:

“The great drawback is the words. There was a time when the Beatles’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On “Abbey Road,” you get only marshmallow.  * * *  On “Abbey Road” the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. ”

And remember that side two of Abbey Road is the side Cohn sort of liked.  The rest of the album, he wrote, was an “unmitigated disaster.”  Come Together, he concluded, “is intriguing only as a sign of just how low Lennon can sink these days.”  Cohn also got it wrong that John Lennon, and not Paul McCartney, sang Oh! Darling.  Cohn thought the two songs by George Harrison — those would be Something and Here Comes the Sun — were “mediocrity incarnate.”  Cohn opined that “[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.”

I doubt that the Beatles, firmly atop the rock god firmament at the time, paid much attention to Nik Cohn’s views, and of course his opinions have been disproved by the test of time.  Abbey Road is generally regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and songs like Something, Here Comes the Sun, and Come Together are viewed as all-time classics beloved by millions for more than 50 years.

I guess I would say that Nik Cohn got it wrong.  When creative people are putting themselves out there for critics to chew on, it’s something they should keep in mind.

Going Classical

Some architects are up in arms about an executive order apparently being considered by the Trump Administration, called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”  According to a report in the Architectural Record, which says it obtained a preliminary draft of the order, the order would revise the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” issued in 1962 to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.The Architectural Record states that “the draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of ‘democratic Athens’ and ‘republican Rome’ for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s ‘self-governing ideal.’”  The Record notes that the classical style was the prevailing form of architecture during the time of the Founding Fathers — as evidenced by the designs of Mount Vernon and Monticello.  The Record also reports that the draft order specifically criticizes some recent government buildings for having “little aesthetic appeal.”  The proposed order apparently does make allowances for “traditional architectural styles,” which would include Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial designs — but would ban “Brutalism,” the blocky, massive style of building that came into vogue in the middle of the 20th century and was the preferred style in the Soviet Union.

The American Institute of Architects says that it “strongly and unequivocally” opposes any change to the guidelines for constructing government buildings, and is urging its members to sign an online petition objecting to the proposed order.  According to one on-line report, the AIA says that “[a]ll architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.”

It’s not clear exactly what the Trump Administration is contemplating, as the articles I’ve seen say it isn’t commenting on the draft rule.  However, I wouldn’t object to changing the standards to return federal buildings to the classical style, or the quasi-classical style adopted by many WPA federal buildings built during the 1930s.  I’m glad the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, for example, adopted the classical form of architecture; they are lofty, soaring, graceful buildings that are both attractive and aspirational.

Brutalist and Bauhaus designs are neither of those things.  I shudder to think of what a ponderous, looming, dark, Brutalist Lincoln Memorial might look like — but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have its picture taken by millions of tourists every year, as is the case with the Lincoln Memorial we now have.  If businesses want to go the Brutalist route on their corporate headquarters, that’s fine with me — but government buildings should provide a link to the past and our traditions, and do more than simply adopt whatever the prevailing architectural styles might be at the time.

 

En Plein Air

Natural light makes a big difference. It’s why many of the great watercolors were done en plein air.

It’s amazing how bright sunshine, an ocean backdrop, a blue sky, a few shells, and several trillion grains of sand can make a few abandoned beach chairs and an umbrella into a colorful scene that might appeal to a member of the impressionist school.

Facing The Faceless

My recent run of exposure to curious hotel art selections continued this week, during my trip to Washington, D.C.  These pieces were artwork displayed in the interior hallways on my floor of the hotel only a few blocks away from the U.S. Capitol.

What’s the message conveyed by depictions of gangs of silhouetted people moving grimly and silently past government buildings?  Is it that Washington, D.C. is really in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, just as conservatives have long claimed?  Or that, in the political wonderland that is Our Nation’s Capital, you’ll never actually see someone clearly, for who they really are, but only in dim outline?  Or does the artist believe that government buildings, depicted in color and in sunlight, are much more interesting than the people, who are shown only as shadowy forms without any individuality?

Or, perhaps you might initially see the artwork as I did — as suggesting that the people of Washington, D.C. are a bunch of anonymous zombies.

Welcome to Washington, D.C.!  Grab your rollerboard and your shoulder bag and get ready to head out into the Land of the Undead!

The Curious Case Of The Deer On The Bridge

When Kish and I walked to Franklinton on Sunday, we crossed the Scioto River on the Town Street bridge. Just after the midpoint of the bridge we found this life-sized metal sculpture of a fully antlered buck standing upright at the railing of the bridge, facing north.

It’s a fine rendition of a deer. But the sculpture raises so many questions that it’s almost a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Why is there a sculpture of a deer standing on its hind legs on a downtown bridge in Columbus, Ohio?

Is the deer just enjoying a nice view of the Columbus skyline and the Scioto River in its new channel? Or is the trophy buck using the vantage point of the bridge to scan for hunters or predators? On the darker side, could the deer be depressed and preparing to jump? Is there some deep significance to the fact that the deer is facing north, or that it is a stag rather than a doe? For that matter, why a deer at all? I can’t think of any special connection between Ohio’s capital city and deer. If a wolverine were preparing to hurl itself into oblivion at the sight of Columbus, in contrast, it would be understandable.

Experts will tell you that a good test of public art is whether it provokes thought and discussion. By that standard, the curious case of the deer on the bridge is a great success. And for that same reason, I’m not going to even try to scan the internet for an explanation. I’m just going to leave it a mystery.