by Karren Alenier


January/February 2012

Whether it is stones or semen, getting one's rocks off at the expense of someone unknown to the perpetrator is obscene.


Let's talk about critics who offend accepted standards of decency or who incite feelings that are repulsive and disgusting. Just to be clear, I will not be talking about humorists or satirists whose job it is to make fun of everyone and any thing. I plan to focus on offensive critics in the arts, the ones who are paid by major media outlets like newspapers, radio, television, and publishing houses to provide information to the public who would like to make good use of time and money.

The subject of critics and criticism has been a focus of my work, including an opera about Gertrude Stein facing her critics. I have written about this subject in relation to Stein in my essay that begins "Hubris, vanity, rejection" and also in another essay where I lay out the benchmarks for what a review of an opera should contain. I believe that critical commentary should add value to work under scrutiny.

What is expected of a critic writing about the arts? The responsibility of the critic is to inform and interpret a work of art for the interested public. In providing this bridge to the possibly unfamiliar work, the critic should initially set aside his or her opinions and prejudice and assume a neutral point of departure. Digging in, the critic should provide background on the artist who created the work to help the public readership understand where the artist draws his or her inspiration. Most importantly, the critic should use his or her experience and knowledge that may help define or illuminate what the artist is attempting to convey. This final phase which draws on the critic's personal experience is appropriately where opinion should enter the critique.


So what makes a critical review obscene? How about: accusations unsupported by factual details, half-truths, name-calling, and using a review as opportunity to vent hatred? Do I have an example? Yes, I do. Philip Kennicott's so-called review "Gertrude Stein knew the right (and wrong) people" of the art exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stores. This lengthy essay—just over 1700 words divided into 15 paragraphs—was published October 23, 2011, in the Washington Post. Kennicott who joined the Post in 1999 as the chief classical music critic currently holds two titles: culture critic, including writing about architecture, and since the spring of 2011, the visual arts critic.

Although labeled "review" in bold capitalized letters, less than half of Kennicott's paragraphs make any attempt to address the Seeing Gertrude Stein exhibition currently installed at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery after originally opening in San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum May 6, 2011.


Kennicott begins his article by calling Stein a "wannabe writer." The term wannabe first used in 1981 means someone wishing or aspiring to be or a would-be. Could it be possible that the cultural critic of a important American newspaper does not know that, during her life time, Gertrude Stein was published by prominent New York publishing houses such as Doubleday, Doran & Co. (Composition as Explanation, 1928); Harcourt, Brace (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933 & The Making of Americans, 1934); Random House (Portraits and Prayers, 1934; Lectures in America, 1935; The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, 1935; Everybody's Autobiography, 1937;Wars I Have Seen, 1944; Brewsie and Willie, 1946) and Charles Scribner's Sons (Picasso, 1938; Paris France, 1940). Does the summa cum laude Yale graduate Kennicott not know that Stein's work was archived at his alma mater where The Yale University Press began publishing her work posthumously in 1947 (Four In America) and into the 1950s with eight volumes of her work, such as Two: Gertrude Stein and Her Brother and Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems.

Leveling a criticism that has been repeated frequently about this experimental writer, Kennicott continued his tirade in paragraph two saying that Stein "perpetrat[ed] one of the longest and most successful literary frauds in cultural history" because "she wrote reams of gibberish." The reader is expected to take Kennicott at his word or the word of an unnamed critic he mentions that called Stein's work "literary baby talk."  

If the reader pays attention to Kennicott's words, what floats to the top is his out-of-context lexicon. As if Stein anachronistically channeled Lady Gaga or Madonna, Kennicott says in paragraph three that Stein was a "savvy manipulator of the fame machine."  According to Kennicott, who seems to have recently signed up as a Facebook user, the way Stein achieved her fame was through "strategic friending." If Kennicott was a 20-to-30-year-old wunderkind, maybe he could get away with this kind of writing as well as the Briticisms that he tosses into the mix. Referring to Stein's brother Michael and his wife Sarah, Kennicott writes they "had enough money to hover up [suck up, as in using a Hoover vacuum cleaner] paintings by the younger generation of modern artists." Or talking about Stein's "darkest legacy to the art world," she "modeled a familiar figure still swanning [to travel around from place to place] the galleries of cultural capital…"  

If Kennicott were a humorist or satirist instead of a cultural critic, maybe he could get away with referring to Stein as the "great gibbering earth mother of ungrammatical gobbledygook." The problem is Stein used simple Anglo-Saxon words—"Rose is a rose is a rose"— that could not be mistaken for "incomprehensible or pompous jargon of specialists" as defines the word gobbledygook.


Paragraph four begins with the half-truths "Stein arrived in Paris after failing Latin at Radcliffe and flunking out of Johns Hopkins medical." Stein successfully graduated from the Harvard Extension program that became Radcliffe as she was leaving Boston for Baltimore. In her fourth year of medical studies at Johns Hopkins, she quit saying she was bored. Her professors gave her the option to make up what she lacked to graduate, but she was suffering from a love affair gone awry and she was tired of the male chauvinism of her professors.  

Kennicott backpedals to diminish the fallout of his vitriol by saying that Wanda Corn, the lead curator of Seeing Gertrude Stein, "has done thorough work in curating a fascinating show that gets almost everything right except the basic premise of Stein's talent" and also by assigning himself a seat in the corner with the Stein haters that include "the worst sort of critics—anti-Semites, misogynists, homophobes and philistines." However, this back-pedaling is just a momentary respite from his final blows that fall on any scholar, artist or fan of Gertrude Stein's.  Kennicott calls Stein "the patron saint of every mediocrity who woke up one day and realized, I want to be an artist."

Should anyone reading my essay wonder if Kennicott had momentarily lost his moral compass, one should visit his blog to read his post "A fraud is a fraud is a fraud." There he says he doesn't like Stein and "occasionally one has to write a screed." Nope, nothing momentary about Kennicott's dislike of Stein. The good news is that Kennicott's article created enough of a stir in Washington, DC, to make people I know want to go downtown to see the underpublicized Seeing Gertrude Stein exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  


Catharine Stimpson, who spoke about Stein critics November 4, 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the 2nd Annual Feminist Art History Conference, said most Stein haters call Stein an over-rated fraud. Therefore what Kennicott wrote is not consequential because what he says has been said many times before and adds nothing new to the anti-Stein screed. Stimpson said if she hated an artist, she would never write or talk about that person.  

What concerned Stimpson more was the criticism leveled against Stein by feminist critic Elaine Showalter in her 2009 book A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstree. Stein-Toklas-crIn this book, Showalter wrote, "Stein seems more and more the Empress Who Had No Clothes—a shocking slight to behold in every respect." In this particular example, Showalter is also criticizing Stein's body, how unsightly—as in fat. In "The Sonograms of Gertrude Stein," an essay by Stimpson published in 1985, she addressed this kind of attack on Stein, one that usually escalated in a comparison with the thin body shape of her partner Alice Toklas. By comparison, Stein became overbearing, a monster in shape and weight. What kind of feminist engages in such obscene criticism?

For Stein lovers and haters, Stein's ambiguous sexuality seems to be at the center of the irresistible personal attention she garnered and continues to attract. Stein-Portrait-crsIt is also what makes Picasso's portrait of Stein so compelling. There in that large canvass is a woman dressed in a skirt, but posed with all the power a man would exude—legs spread, torso moving forward, and eyes penetrating the viewer. So hard to ignore.

Therefore, while getting one's rocks off as a way to denigrate someone you hate might be disgusting and uncivilized, most of us are hard pressed to ignore it. What did I just read, I asked myself after scanning "Gertrude Stein knew the right (and wrong) people"? Let me look one more time. And so it is that an obscene critic is hard to ignore.


Photos : Yale Collection of American Literature
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
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Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

January/February 2012

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