October 16, 2005

Those "Germanic compounds."

John Updike has a nice, long review of Jed Perl's "New Art City."
The thesis of the book, to be blunt about it, is that art in Manhattan passed in midcentury and beyond from the nighttime creations of existential, heroic, romantic, art-history-minded revolutionaries hardened in the 30's to the daytime works of empirical, eclectic, unheroic, relatively theory-free individualists who had ripened in the shadow of the action-painting giants.
I want to break out a criticism of Perl's writing:
In his commendable desire to stretch the language of visual perception and philosophical understanding, Perl coins compound adjectives as if hyphens were snowing upon his word processor. We have: "the individual's at-an-angle relationship with society," "go-with-the-flow neighbors," "an increasingly knit-together, everything-is-one-thing, homogenous character," "knock-you-in-your-teeth actualities," "the wacky-bleak fascination of a play by Samuel Beckett," "this everything-becoming-something-else moment," "more-than-material yet grounded in the materials of art," "the whatever-happens-happens nihilism," "Ashbery's go-with-what-amuses-you attitude," and "the stark, nobody-knows-you-when-you're-down-and-out decrepitude." Some of these Germanic compounds, like "at-an-angle" and "go-with-the-flow," are handy enough to be used more than once, but they are, along with stretch adverbs like "amazingly," "infinitely" and "immensely," and such tenuous concepts as "everydayness," "brownishness" and an "ordinariness" that "melts into the silveriness of the images," symptomatic of the stresses placed on the vocabulary of those who would write about art.
I must say I love "Germanic compounds" -- when they are properly expressive. I see Updike uses them himself -- e.g., "art-history-minded" -- and doesn't seem all that critical of Perl for writing like that. It gives me the feeling of someone talking excitedly about specific ideas that have just formed in his head -- when it's done well.

1 comment:

bill said...

Related comic strip from Partially clips