hans christian andersen

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“Something” illustrated by Oscar Klever

As both an academic and an artist (wow, how many blog posts have I written/will I write that start off like this?), I’ve noticed that having a fine-tuned critical gaze is very important and useful, but it also has its downsides.

On the academic side, my ability to critique works and ideas has been a great help. Having a critical gaze helps me sift through scholarship when I’m doing background research for a new project or syllabus. I’m a thorough editor, and I actually enjoy proof-reading papers (excepting my own). While I’m not a specialist in rhetoric, I’ve gotten better at identifying the various types of arguments that one can make in an academic paper or book, as well as the sorts of evidence that are appropriate and compelling to present.

In terms of the arts, I’ve become excellent at identifying technical flaws in dance performances. I suspect this is partly because I’ve taught dance for a number of years so I’m proficient at picking out typical beginner mistakes (such as not having proper posture, which is the foundation of everything we do in American Tribal Style® belly dance), and partly because I’ve simply watched a ton of dance performances. I mean, I’ve been dancing for almost half my life, and most of that at a semi-professional if not professional level. I’d be a little worried if my eyes weren’t catching mistakes and spotting places where a dancer could improve.

But being good at critiquing someone or something, and then actually implementing the critique, are two separate things. Few people like to be told that they’re doing something wrong, and those that do, tend to need to be in the right context to hear it. If someone sets foot in a dance classroom or a conference presentation, then yes, they’re probably open to hearing what could be improved. But even then, it’s a bit of a gamble as to how a critique will be received. Even well-intention critiques (and I like to think that mine always are) can feel devastating.

And then there’s this issue: critiquing something is not the same as creating something. The latter is frequently more involved and time-consuming, and one tends to put pieces of one’s heart or oneself into a creation, whether a choreography for a performance or an academic article.

I’ve written about Hans Christian Andersen’s views on art here, and I’d like to return to Andersen to explore his views on critics. As you might guess about an egotistical artist who was also largely unhappy with his life, he wasn’t a fan of critics. He made his views known in his stories, including two that I’ll mention here.

In a story titled “‘Something,'” five brothers set out to do something useful in the world. One becomes a builder, another an architect, and so on. However, the fifth brother declares: “I see that none of you will ever become something, even though you all think you will….I want to stand apart. I will contemplate and criticize what you do. There is always something wrong with anything man makes. I shall point it out so all can see it. That is something!” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 540).

And indeed, people began to praise the fifth brother: “He is really something. He has got a good head on his shoulders and can make something into nothing.” (ibid 540). However, when the fifth brother tries to get into heaven, he can’t produce evidence that he’s done a single good deed in his lifetime. In fact, the best thing he can do is keep his mouth shut instead of offering his opinion – and that, we’re told, is “something.”

In another story, “A Question of Imagination,” a young man who wants to be a writer goes to ask an old woman for help coming up with ideas for what to write about (because everything has already been written about – and goodness, if people were thinking that in the 1800s, imagine how dire the situation must be now!). However, no matter how much inspiration the old woman tries to feed the boy, he remains oblivious to the wonders of the world around him. Finally, the woman tells him to become a critic. He “followed her advice. He became an expert at looking down his nose at poets because he couldn’t become one himself.” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 974).

There’s something tragic, Andersen implies, about the person who cannot create but can only critique. However, I’d argue instead that critique doesn’t in and of itself signal a lack; instead, I think it’s critique without compassion that’s the problem. If the critic is also a creator, then hopefully she will have some understanding what goes on in the artistic process, and won’t be snide or cruel in her critique. I’d hope that critics who aren’t also creators, but are simply quite good at what they do, would also have some compassion for artists and not be unduly destructive or negative.

I’m not implying that we’d suddenly live in a utopian world without hurtful negative feedback if everyone made an effort to be a little more compassionate. Haters gonna hate, and all that. I do think, however, the critics should evaluate their relationships with the materials they critique, and be honest with themselves (and the world) about their reasons for doing so. That’d be a start, anyway.

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Mayken González Backlund’s illustration for “The Nightingale”

I’ve been doing some reading on Hans Christian Andersen lately, and it’s really spurred me to think about my own interactions with art. In addition to reading Andersen’s tales, I’ve been reading Jack Zipes’s book Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller, which (in my opinion) does a great job of using contextual information from Andersen’s life to illuminate his fairy tales and stories.

Fun fact: Andersen never married, and is believed to have never had sex (despite apparently visiting brothels a couple of times in his life). Contemporary scholars debate whether he was gay, bisexual, or “spiritually androgynous” yet asexual in practice. Based on the fact that he proposed to two women, and yet in numerous letters and diary entries described his passionate feelings for men, it seems likely that he wasn’t 100% heterosexual (as much as that category existed in 19th century Denmark or anywhere else for that matter). Either way you slice it, he felt like he didn’t fit in and was thus lonely and misunderstood.

Perhaps related to his loneliness was his drive to create. He was amazingly prolific, penning not just the tales we know and love him for, but also poetry, essays, novels, plays, travel books, and memoirs. Zipes gives us a quote from one of his diaries:

What could become of me, and what will become of me? My powerful fantasy will drive me into the insane asylum, my violent temper will make a suicide of me! Before, the two of these together would have made a great writer. (7)

Other quotes reveal that Andersen believed he was guided by God to become a great artist, that he had a gift to share with the world. In Andersen’s tales, too, we see notions of inner nobility (such as in “The Ugly Duckling”) and ruminations on the nature of art (“The Nightingale”)… and those are just from some of his better-known works! There are tons more.

All this has me thinking, as an artist, about what makes me similar to and different from Andersen. I also feel driven, perhaps to the point of narcissism and solitude. I don’t, however, believe that I have a God-given destiny to become an artist… though I do feel like I have talents and skills that I ought to use, if only because I have them and don’t want them to get rusty. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference between the two? If I believe I have a gift and ought to use it to create art, does it really matter whether I believe it came from God or is just a part of my personality and makeup?

One of Andersen’s tales, “The Pen and the Inkwell,” shows the two titular objects arguing over which of them has agency and is thus responsible for creating the masterpieces they write. The poet who wields them ends up writing a parable about how the bow and violin that create marvelous music are not, however, the creators of their art:

“How absurd it would seem if the bow and the violin should be proud and haughty about their accomplishments. Yet we, human beings, often are: the poets, the artists, the scientists, and even the generals often boast in vain pride. Yet they are all but instruments that God plays upon. To Him alone belongs all honor. We have nothing to pride ourselves upon!” (Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard, 640)

I believe that artistic inspiration comes from somewhere, but that “somewhere” doesn’t need to have a religious explanation tacked on to it in order to be meaningful. The important thing about art is that it moves us, not where it comes from. To be sure, many artists use art therapeutically, to resolve feelings and address struggles – so in that sense, yes, it matters where art comes from. But I don’t think that the only rational or valid origin for art lies in religion.

To me, a more powerful account of art can be seen in “The Nightingale.” A nightingale that sings miraculously beautiful songs agrees to come and sing for the emperor, but it’s banished after a mechanical bird arrives and sings flawless, perfect (but ultimately boring and unchanging) music. After all this, the nightingale returns and sings for Death before Death can claim the emperor’s life. Art is so moving that is can persuade Death to leave – and it almost teaches the emperor a valuable lesson about de-commodifying art. Almost. The emperor still wants art on his terms, but relents and agrees to let the nightingale come and go as it pleases.

Perhaps there are people who will never understand how artists and art work, but as long they’re able to enjoy its beauty from time to time, this tale suggests, then our worlds will intersect and enlighten one another. Perhaps art doesn’t always provoke lasting social change, but moments of reflection are still worthwhile.

One of the enduring gifts that Andersen gave the world was his meta-art, or his art that reflects on art. I appreciate this as both an artist and a scholar, and I continue to seek it out in my engagements with others. If nothing else, connecting with others (such as collaborating) prevents me from going to the extreme of hermiting myself up all the time or becoming too proud. Encounters with others always have the potential to be humbling, and if we read into and across Andersen’s tales, we find the encouragement to engage, encounter, and transform.

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