Vladimir Nabokov in his lectures on Russian literature, opposing the primary type of academic and popular criticism: what we might call the demographic-reactive type. The overwhelming majority of opinion derives less from any internal response to a work of art (or political idea or cultural trend) than from what sorts of reactions we imagine on other faces looking at the frame, as it were.
If we’re observant, we see that when we encounter something we have often hardly finished perceiving it when we begin to imagine how others might react, and how still others would react to that reaction, and only at last do we begin to react according to our own demographic allegiances or resentments. We carry our friends, but still more our enemies, with us in every judgment.
The Internet has amplified this effect: you now have with you an audience judging your reactions; streams of posts and hashtagged messages from schools of thought, schools of attitude, schools of discourse. The Internet has pressed your face against the faces of others; they loom in your vision; they blot out the masterpieces; they stare at you from amidst the noise of their automatic opinions, scrolling endlessly away, appearing endlessly anew. The Internet comes with you to the theater. You cannot be alone with art or with facts or with nature: you will anticipate publicly, experience publicly, react publicly, reflect publicly, and you would not be human if such exposure did not subtly contort your stances, as, after all, you will be judged publicly.
Of course, the Internet is only an extension of what has always happened: we influence and are influenced. That mob-technopoly applies democratic pressures to the most trivial opinions, little silos of demography exerting their distributed force on how we think and feel, various web sites accruing weltanschauungs meme by meme, is only “new” in that the Internet seems more insistent, more determined to rule on all questions and arbitrate all conflicts. No opinion is too small, and no one has the right to abstain.
Looking at frames and faces is an error; both belong to the category of “news” —“the froth & scum of the eternal sea”— whereas art aspires to be sub specie aeternitatis, aspires to meet us beyond the ephemeral in that part of ourselves that is beyond the ephemeral, that is not a merely political creature, is something other than an amalgamation of trending topics, fashionable poses, soon-to-be-invalidated certitudes from soon-to-be-forgotten luminaries, and the like.
The frame is everything to those who want to empower themselves at the masterpiece’s expense, subordinate the eternal to the present’s temporary concerns, make art a tool for their own elevation. The faces looking at the frame are the audience for this sort of critic, who produces formulaic reams about what their reactions mean and what the frame says about things like society. The sordid scene is a distraction from the art and from the viewer, a nullification of their import, the substitution of a banal system for what was a relation between two inimitable intelligences: artist and viewer, reader, listener. Systems bring power and election, and that is their utility: not that they illuminate art or help us understand it, but that they empanel fresh judges, a new relay of runners in history’s race.
We should not give our attention to this sideshow. People have set up stalls between the frames and the faces! There are industries operating there, seeking margins and protected by police! But perhaps we can press through to the painting on the wall or the words on the page. As Gombrowicz advised:
Stop pampering art, stop –for God’s sake!– this whole system of puffing it up and magnifying it; and, instead of intoxicating yourselves with legends, let facts create you.
And this goes not only for artistic masterpieces but for any object of our contemplation: even a natural phenomenon, uninterrupted by posturing reactivity —”not yet descended into words”—, can occasion the “receptive understanding, …contemplative beholding, and immersion -in the real” that is the justification for asking that we be left alone. This immersion in the real, by art or by nature or however else we should come to it, is private, intimate, easily trampled by a crowd. But it is also our only means of combating artifice, touching the real, suspending the performance, experiencing ourselves and our world as we are, even if only for quickening moments of honest, solitary selfhood.