Now Castle has published a collection of her personal essays, which Ross Posnock raves about at the New Republic.
The thing that jumped out at me from this review was an aside about painting. Castle, dragged by her mother to visit Santa Fe, shudders at the thought of seeing paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, whom she despises, and resolves to rescue herself from the horridly popular O'Keeffe by meditating on Agnes Martin:
I’ve secretly inoculated myself with what I consider the ultimate Connoisseur’s Good Taste Vaccine. Everywhere we go, I tell myself, what I’ll really be doing is looking for the Agnes Martins. Agnes, I’ve decided, will be my private talisman, my anti-O’Keeffe…My aesthetic invulnerability assured, I’ll be able to enjoy everything else ironically.If you have never heard of Agnes Martin, I suspect that is rather the point. Only true aesthetes like Agnes Martin, and Castle's whole pose is that she is a sort of ordinary and weak person whose only great virtue is her exquisite good taste. She may be a boot-licking sidekick, but at least she has the good taste to be Susan Sontag's boot-licking sidekick. Agnes Martin's paintings look like this:
I could go on, but you already get the idea. If your appreciation for the artistic vision is so weak that you don't see how much more refined and sophisticated these canvases are than anything by such a clumsy, obvious, and earth-bound artist as Georgia O'Keeffe, you simply don't have what it takes to join the rarefied aesthetic club where Castle makes her home. And yet, see, Castle ends up being impressed by some of O'Keeffe's paintings. No even Castle is as much of a rarefied aesthete as she likes to think she is, and in telling you this she presents herself as an aesthete who nevertheless has the common emotions and can understand what ordinary tourists feel. An aesthete who knows how to enjoy slumming.
Castle reveals another side of herself by raving about the autobiography of jazz musician Art Pepper. Posnock:
Art is “so painfully human” she can hardly bear it: he “offered himself up with such astonishing vulnerability I found my eyes welling up repeatedly.” She finds irresistible his “superprurient adventures”— voyeurism, masturbation, chicks, needles, rage, and booze—but never stops asking herself why she is obsessed with this terminal macho man: “what a self-destructive (and self-deluding) bastard Art Pepper must have been. And what’s up with you, Terry Castle, that you claim to like this guy? I admit it: it is strange.” She takes on the skeptics and they push her to grasp the “Core Emotional Truth”—that success in art demands that “you have to stop trying to disguise who you are. The veils and pretenses of everyday life won’t work; a certain minimum truth-to-self is required.”I find this ridiculous and bizarre. How could an expert in 18th-century fiction think that art is "truth-to-self"? (And if Agnes Martin's paintings are true to herself, what does that say about her?) No, I think Castle is simply swept away by the brutal energy of Art Pepper as she was swept away by the brutal energy of Susan Sontag. Fascination with such characters gives Castle a masochistic thrill. She is too small, too academic, too professorial to live as they lived, but she can at least enjoy reading about it, and by confessing to her enjoyment she publicly aligns herself with the brutal artistic supermen of the world and against academic small-mindedness.
In her new career as a self-examining truth-teller, Castle pours scorn on the academic world. She is especially hard on academic writing, something she once did a great deal of. Professors of all sorts seem to love Castle's new writing; Posnock says her book "understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years." And, in truth, it is hard to find professors who have much good to say about the conventions of academic world. Academic convention seems to exist mainly to be mocked. Professors are like characters in Jane Austen novels, who laugh at the foolishness of society while complying meekly with all its demands. If, oh professors, you find academic writing so frustrating to your true voices, why do you do it? If academic study somehow misses the real truths of life and art, what is the point of it? Or is scorn for academic life just a masochistic exercise for self-despising professors, who thereby revel in their own inferiority to artistic supermen?
If you don't like academic life, do something else. If you are drawn to academic life but bridle at some of its conventions, fight them. But please don't write any more long essays about your double consciousness, your ironic and detached appreciation for the pettiness of your own life and work, because no matter how minutely it is examined, small-mindedness remains small.