Art Criticism

Q: Should criticism of one’s work be a positive or negative experience, or both? Is this really what people go to art school for? Is any critical mention better than none?

A: People vary widely in their reaction to criticism. While some thrive on it, others wilt. While some regard art school as a Darwinian sort of place, where the strong survive and the weak fall by the wayside, others come to it looking for a sheltered nook where their fragile talent can be gently nurtured. Certainly it takes a strong ego to push oneself forward as an artist, particularly if one is attempting to deviate from the current fashions espoused by one’s professors and peers. Whether this strength is enhanced or diminished by negative criticisms has to do with one’s individual makeup.

The pressure to conform is surprisingly high in art schools, where students are also, paradoxically, told that the artists most worthy of reverence are those who revolted against the strictures of their times. Often a teacher who is also an artist will have such strong feelings about how art should look—after all, this is why people become artists in the first place—that the student’s work will come out looking like the teacher’s. This is called “influence”, and most students eventually outgrow it. But sometimes a professor’s artistic vision is so myopic, and their manner so overbearing, that students end up discrediting their own sense of esthetics and adopting that of the authority figure.

Outside of art school, one comes across critics who publish reviews praising or condemning ones work. Sometimes the latter can do more good for an artist than the former, since controversy is often what gets people interested in one’s work. Critics occupy a niche somewhere in between the artists and the public. Some act like experts, reacting to the artist’s work in terms that only fellow experts can comprehend; others feel they should be surrogates for the common man, with sensibilities only a little in advance of the herd, so as to be a more reliable guide for the uninitiated. What good, they might ask, is a critic who inhabits such a rarified sphere that hardly anybody can share the feelings evoked by the work in question? But these critiques are usually rehashed press releases, and make for uninspired journalism. Without celebrity or an exciting life story as a hook, (and how often are artist’s lives exciting?) they tell a few things about some of the works on view and add some biography, then the work is generally used to illustrate some unrelated dialectic in which the writer is primarily interested. It sometimes seems that the most vapid art is most favored for this sort of exercise, as it makes a blanker slate for the expression of the reviewer’s pre-existing opinions. It is rare for this kind of piece to inspire the general public with the wish to see the art in question, which ideally is the reason for the criticism in the first place. There needs to be some rethinking of the form of this type of article, and the role of the art critic in general, if these articles and this profession are to retain any relevance whatsoever.

On the other hand, critics of the academic type argue that theirs is a special type of knowledge which requires a certain vocabulary to discuss, and that they deal with abstruse issues in which most people have no interest anyway. The basic problem, of course, is that visual art, being a non-verbal experience, is difficult to talk about on its own terms—one responds to it in certain ways, but is hard put to say exactly why. It is easier to disregard the visual phenomena which give the work its real meaning, and focus on its more superficial aspects. Since novelty of opinion is what is valued in academic circles, and these opinions need not be verifiable in any scientific sense, the work itself becomes secondary to a theory. This may not be one actually espoused by the artist in question, and is most often ascribed after the fact. The work itself becomes the puppet, and the academic critic is the puppeteer who makes it dance to some absurd new tune. Artists themselves are generally uncomfortable when asked to explain their work in terms of art theory—they are like ready-made garments, fashionable perhaps, but ill-fitting for many of us.

I, for one, would like to see more criticism of a third type; by critics who are artists themselves and thus have inside knowledge of what goes into the creation of a work of art; but who don’t subordinate the art to pre-existing theory, or use it as a springboard to launch into discussion of subjects which are basically irrelevant.

by Andrew Werby