Praise unworthy: Critics create bloated reputations by pouring on the adulation
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 October 2004)

Over the last 20 years, Jeff Wall of Vancouver has established himself as a leader in the Academy of the Overrated. His photos, printed as gigantic Cibachrome transparencies, excite dealers, critics and collectors from the Pompidou in Paris to Documenta in Germany to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Inevitably, Maclean's has cited him among the 50 Most Influential Canadians.

Nobody, not even his detractors, denies that his work makes a hell of an impression. The photos are so big they can't be ignored, and brilliant back-lighting reinforces their effect. Unfortunately, they're also empty of thought and feeling. Yet they never lack critics to explain their unique quality. Seldom in the course of art reviewing have so many written so much about so little.

If you point out to his admirers that Wall's ideas are banal, they reply, "Yes, but you realize that the banality is contained within implied quotation marks," which means they are ironically banal, which means that they are just fine. No, it doesn't.

Does Wall offer anything beyond flashy technique and tiny narratives? His simple-minded social commentaries confirm opinions already held by the people who see his art. A typical piece called Outburst shows a sweatshop boss berating a female employee sitting at a sewing machine as other women workers look on fearfully. The message: Boss Bad, Women Oppressed. Wall has taken enormous trouble to deliver a political cartoon.

He's more ingenious on other occasions, as when he works up a modern photographic parody of a famous 19th-century print by Hokusai. Still, a single viewing of a piece by Wall exhausts it. Going through a whole exhibition is like leafing through a picture magazine; you are seldom compelled to pause.

In their staginess his visual dramas recall Salvador Dali's paintings. Dali was modern art's most eminent member of the Academy of the Overrated. He had a couple of good ideas and a slick technique. He became known as a genius because he said he was one, and his reputation constituted one of the 20th century's great victories of personal press agentry. The fraud lives on, 15 years after his death. At this moment, two big Dali shows are shuffling around Europe and the United States, celebrating the centennial of his birth.

Bloated reputations exist because (despite what many artists believe) critics persistently overpraise their subjects. We have two reasons, one selfish and one altruistic. The selfish reason is that we want (consciously or not) to suggest that what we are writing about matters, which will of course imply that we also matter. We become co-conspirators of the Overrated. Enablers.

Altruistically, we want literature, art, etc. to flourish for the benefit of all, but we know that gathering an audience for anything, however good, requires enormous effort. Many educated people go years without buying a hardcover book or seeing a play. Andrew Sarris, a distinguished American film critic, once said that reviewers pour on excessive praise because they know that most people would rather stay home than line up for tickets. Stirring the audience requires the announcement of a new genius every week.

Publicists, too, swell the ranks of overrated art. They are now zealously promoting Adultery, by Richard B. Wright, a good writer's unremarkable book. His last novel, Clara Callan, won two big prizes, so it seems natural to embrace his new one. Publishers, publicists, reviewers and bookstores are all working together. The only problem is the book.

It's a slow and emotionally undernourished story about a middle-aged Toronto editor who falls unexpectedly into a casual affair with a female colleague during a business trip in Europe. When she's murdered by a maniac in an English seaside town, the adulterous affair becomes known to millions and permanently distorts the editor's life.

The rest of the book reveals that there's nothing remotely interesting about the editor, his wife, his daughter, their acquaintances or the murdered woman's family. Every character comes across as a cliche. After the murder in the early pages, only dreariness remains. We Wright admirers know that at least six of his nine earlier novels are better.

Overrated books, events and institutions are everywhere in the literature business. All public readings by authors, for instance, are overrated, blown far out of proportion by good-hearted arts editors (sorry, there are no exceptions). But in overrating, literature differs from other art forms. In most arts the Academy of the Overrated is a purely fictional construct, borrowed from a scene in Woody Allen's film Manhattan, but literature has a famous institution devoted to overrating, an actual office with a street address: Kallargrand 4, Stockholm.

That's where you find the Swedish Academy, whose members have chosen the Nobel Prize laureates since 1901. Their decisions have become notorious; in retrospect they seem to have been right at most 50% of the time, by coincidence the average for accuracy claimed by Frank magazine. While the Nobel judges ignored James Joyce, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges and Joseph Conrad, they did bestow their prize on Odysseus Elytis, Ivo Andric, Pearl Buck, Verner von Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlof and many others now justly forgotten. The Nobel itself is hugely overrated and would have been forgotten generations ago were it not for the gigantic sum of Alfred Nobel's money that comes with it.

Among Canadian writers, Hugh MacLennan (1907-1990), for a time our most successful and revered novelist, deserves special attention. MacLennan had almost everything -- Rhodes scholarship, Princeton PhD in classics, a desperate need to define the Canadian character, five Governor-General's awards and the thanks of a grateful nation. He fictionalized what seemed the pressing subjects of his generation -- the Roman Catholic Church's power in Quebec, the communist idealism of Norman Bethune, the breakup of families over separatism in the 1960s. When he borrowed a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke and called a novel Two Solitudes, he added a phrase to the Canadian language.

The only thing he lacked was talent. Whatever he wrote lay dead on the page. People read him out of duty and felt better for having done so; they often said his books were "good," never that they were enjoyable or re-readable. In the Academy of the Overrated, he was a true champion. It's astonishing, when you think of it, that the Nobel committee overlooked him.

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