Manny Farber, who died last night at the age of 91, was one of the 20th Century’s greatest critics, as well as a powerfulpainter in his own right. Notice I didn’t just say “filmcritic” — Farber wrote primarily about the movies, but his collection offilm criticism, Negative Space (pictured), is essential to understandingall modern non-academic criticism. Farber established a tone, cleareda patch of cultural landscape, and filled it with more ideas, opinions,and attitude than a thousand reviewers and bloggers — not just inmovies but in music, television, book, and art criticism too — will evermuster.
With the exception of Pauline Kael, Farber was probably the moviecritic other movie critics most often quoted, particularly his hugelyinfluential 1962 essay “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art,” which cameas close to anything he wrote to boiling down his critical creed. Inthat piece, Farber positioned himself ferociously against what hecalled the “self-aggrandizing masterwork” that “treat[s] every inch ofthe screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.” Inopposition to this he championed “termite art,” which “goes alwaysforward eating its own boundaries… leav[ing] nothing in its path otherthan signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” At a time when crap nostalgia is routinely praised with unthinkingeffusiveness, it’s harder now to appreciate how daring and emboldeningit was to read Farber’s championing of supposedly such minor work asthe then-ignored Westerns of director Budd Boetticher and theface-slamming camerawork of director Sam Fuller.
As the years went by, Farber began writing less and painting more, manyof his works beautiful and bright still lifes of everything from flowersto overhead views of toy train-track assemblies. Farber could paint thecontents of a messy writer’s table with an unsentimental clarity that would move a viewer to tears. Surely some worthy appreciator ofFarber — Dave Hickey or Sanford Schwartz, say — should write a book-lengthstudy of Farber’s artwork. Others will write longer, better pieces than this one about Farber’scentrality in American criticism; these are merely my immediatereactions.
Taped to my wall is a quote from Farber that captures his pugnacity,clear-eyed romanticism, and inspirational fervor as well as anything: “I get a great laugh from artists who ridicule the critics as parasites and artists manqués — sucha horrible joke. I can’t imagine a more perfect art form, a moreperfect career than criticism. I can’t imagine anything more valuableto do.” Not many critics could — or would dare — say such a thing today. One more reason why Farber will remain forever invaluable.