The Case for Critics

There must be more than simple judgments of good or bad

Though critics have been the witnesses, commentators, and archivists of modern art's important achievements, they remain dubious figures who can be found "roaming through culture, looking for prey," as aphorist Mason Cooley once said.

Regardless of our take on critics' motivations, they do serve a necessary purpose. Artists measure their success not only by how much they sell but also by how well critics receive them. But does the public really listen to critics? More important, can critics influence art-making?

Historically it would be hard to imagine the emergence of Cubism and Futurism in early twentieth-century Paris without someone like Guillaume Apollinaire. The same holds for Abstract Expressionism in Fifties New York without the voices of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Perhaps when Willem de Kooning admitted, "It's disastrous to name ourselves," he was pointing to the critic's proclivity for naming groups and movements: Louis Vauxcelles came up with Fauvism (though derisively), Apollinaire coined the term Orphism, Germano Celant did the same with Arte Povera, and the list goes on.

That being said, a particular chemistry between critics and their audiences is needed if the writers are to be effective. Advocacy perhaps? These are hard times. According to a recent study by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, most critics don't see their work influencing their subjects.

This observation suggests an inferiority complex, fed by avant-garde's assumption that, when it comes to an artist's work, the critic is usually wrong. I'm not one of those who believe artists don't need critics as much as the other way around. Why is this stubborn and distant observer (carrying a little pad and pen) still hanging in that show's corner?

Some writers have entertained the romantic notion that criticism comes "out the womb of art," as a French poet put it. But this is a relatively recent development. Before modernity, art fulfilled clear artisan, clerical, and courtly tasks -- for 300 years the best painters were employed by either the church or the court. It was only after the Nineteenth Century's "cult of the genius" that the fine arts became an independent manifestation. Soon the genius culture became the mass culture, and media then had a new task, that of legitimizing art for the cultivated capitalist elite.

In Baudelaire's Ecrits sur l'Art (Writings on Art), this elite is embodied by the bourgeois, whom the Frenchman thought to be "a hypocrite" but also "a respectable personage, for one must please those at whose expense one means to live." If this smells like bad faith, it is. Declaring war on the bourgeoisie while depending on it for survival -- that represents a deep political contradiction for the avant-garde, of which Baudelaire, modernity's model critic, is a forerunner.

Surely the Twentieth Century only radicalized the role of the critic. So polarized was the political climate of the West that the critic had to take a stand. Pulled from the left and right, talented writers joined different kinds of totalitarian regimes: Ezra Pound and George Santayana defended Italian fascism; Georg Lukács exalted Soviet realism. Through the Sixties the European left produced the "committed intellectual," and for a time Sartre, Foucault, and others lauded Mao's brutal Cultural Revolution.

German Jürgen Habermas thinks the critic plays a favorable role as disseminator of culture through the written media. On the other hand, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu sees criticism as a way to perpetuate power discourses -- that is, the values of the elite as they are distributed through the social fabric. They both seem to agree, however, that criticism can help advance some standards of taste. Is it true?

Given the constant overload of information available in our postindustrial society, we are increasingly in need of expert advice regarding what to consume. This is what some media experts refer to as "input selection." In that condition, the critic becomes a kind of curator of tastes. If Goethe's idea of "elective affinities" holds true, our likes and dislikes converge in some cultural blueprint, not unlike that of John Cusack's character in the film High Fidelity. It means that my likelihood of dating someone is proportional to her ability to agree with my five-most-important-songs list.

Perhaps you think you don't need such advice. Perhaps you already know what you like, no matter what someone says. After all, who is to say what's good or bad, realized or faulty?

But are you so sure? Isn't it true that what we call taste is a result of encounters with other points of view, much like the random collisions of atomic particles? Consider this picture: Your taste is not set in stone because it's a unique combination of psychic states in function with ongoing, living experience. And that entails the wonderful possibility that you may enjoy something you thought you hated last week, or reevaluate something you may have not noticed.

If I do my job right, after reading my comments you will have more information than before. I'm not saying you'll know more simply because I said it. But think of my job as that of a facilitator. Maybe I can come up with a different take that will help you consider alternative interpretations.

The critic's job is not simply to evaluate what's good or bad. It would be too boring to constantly declare, "This is bad" or "This is good." Besides, that burden of proof can be daunting. What mortal is free of self-doubt? Imagine an internal dialogue inside the critic's mind: Is it really bad, or is it that I missed the point? Am I upset or biased? Could I like this if I'd seen it under different circumstances? How do I know?These are important questions because they probe fundamental issues beyond the aesthetic realm.

In addition to evaluations of good and bad, you may enjoy a critic's skillful description of an installation (what the experts call ekphrasis). Take it as a sort of movie preview, something writer Giorgio Vasari regularly did for his readers in Renaissance Florence. A writer may go "historic" like J.J. Winckelmann (the purported father of art history) and inscribe the artwork within a broad context that derives implications by analogy. Or the critic can emulate Denis Diderot's technique of moral embroideries -- the kind of thing Arthur Danto achieved in his essay on Mapplethorpe's photography. Another approach is to analyze the artist's desires and obsessions, as Thomas Mann did with Dürer's Melancholia in his novel Doctor Faustus.

Finally one more consideration: There could be something meaningful in that painting worth a negotiation between what you think and what the critic could suggest.

Aesthetic truth, as philosopher and critic Nelson Goodman counsels, "lies in a delicate balance between fact and valuation, opinion and reality."

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