Art Essay: Art Criticism
By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Spring 2013
OVER THE YEARS, I have given talks on a subject I called "The Art of Art Criticism" — at The National Arts Club in NYC, the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, the Woodstock School of Art in Woodstock, NY, The Heimatmuseum Charlottenburg in Berlin, Germany, for example — my primary reason to de-mystify and to emphasize that criticism is an "art" and by no means a “science”. I believe it is high time to deflate some of the importance that has been attached to the role of "art critic" — not that the cognoscenti hadn’t held critics suspect for a long, long time. Pliny tells us that as far back as 400 B.C. Zeuxis wrote: “Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship.” Imagine that! 400 B.C.! They were onto us way back then! The list of critic criticizers is long indeed, and I’ll just name a few here. Disraeli said, “You know who the critics are? The men who have failed in literature and art”; Lord Byron wrote, “A man must serve his time to every trade / save censure — critics are all ready-made”; Victor Hugo described critics as “fungus at the foot of oaks"; Brendan Behan suggested that "critics are like eunuchs — they might know all the technical details of how it’s done — but can’t do it themselves”. Perhaps most sobering, however, is Jean Sibelius’s observation that “no statue has ever been put up of a critic” while, on a humorous note, Mark Twain once wrote to a friend, “Tomorrow night I appear for the first time before a Boston audience — 4,000 critics!” (OK, I can't resist one final dig at my colleagues and me: John Osborne wrote that "Asking a working writer [or artist] what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs").
Let's begin with a tiny bit of history: Consider first, that art “criticism” did not come upon the scene in the Western world until thousands and thousands of years afterthe Pleistocene Age — that pre-historic time when cave ‘paintings’ seem to have been ‘created’. Image-making, in fact, was a ‘language’ long before it morphed into picto-grams and, finally, into the written or spoken word — however, by the time we got to the Italian Renaissance, we’d pretty much fallen in love with our invention of words, which, in turn, brought us “artwriters” such as Cennino Cennini, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leon Battista Alberti, Pietro Aretino (often given the ‘distinction’ of being the first art critic), and Georgio Vasari, (usually called the first art historian).
It wouldn't be long before the “Enlightenment” unleashed rigorous and logical German thinkers such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Jakob Burckhardt, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who, in turn, laid the groundwork for a plethora of “experts” (or ‘middlemen’) such as historians, curators, museum directors, dealers, gallery owners, and art teachers — not to mention all and sundry who chose to become “artwriters”. Not a great deal of time would pass before what was considered “art" was largely determined by writers rather than artists. One rather ‘famous’ middleman was the Frenchman Denis Diderot who made his ‘name’ by assessing artists around (his) world for wealthy patrons. He played a major role, for example, in forming Catherine the Great’s art collection housed now in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg. Like much of ‘royalty’, Catherine knew little about ‘art’ and ‘artists’ — hence the ‘middleman’. Like her father Peter the Great (who knew only enough to instruct his middlemen, “Don’t buy bad pictures!”), Catherine knew nothing about art but she did know that owning it represented ‘culture’ — and she bought entire collections by the wagonload, totally unaware of both artists and individual pieces — to prove how ‘cultured’ she was. Unfortunately, many such ‘experts’ who catered to the rich, were themselves equally ignorant. Money and power — and ignorance — still reign today and many a venal art "critic" happily plays the "expert" middleman to their moneyed and muddle-headed patrons.
Meanwhile, back in the caves (which by this time had been transformed into private and guild workshops, studios, ateliers, and the like), many artists were still turning out 'stuff' unaware and uninterested in what the wordsmiths were saying about their handiwork. In fact, most 'artists' had no idea about creating 'art' and, by and large, were considered 'artisans' — banausos, the Greeks called them — and ranked in class among barbers, cooks, and smiths. Once ‘artists’ were considered a cut above the ‘artisans’ (especially in the Renaissance) and the "experts" came on the scene to cash in, things became even more bewildering to the layman. As noted above, art is itself a language, and reading someone’s words about art does not mean you are ‘reading’ the art — a task not without its inherent difficulty. I once asked the artist Will Barnet how, in modern times, art critics came to be held in such high esteem. He pondered a moment and said, “One word is worth a thousand pictures”. When I asked him about turning the old adage on its head, he explained, “An artist can have a thousand pictures in his studio, but until some ‘critic’ with some ‘clout’ writes about that artist, those pictures will in all likelihood remain in the studio”. It was Barnet’s conviction that after WWI & II, the American public became much more literate, learning how to read words but not necessarily how to read art. Hence, the art "critic". I guess not enough of them read Kant who pointed out that it took two different “heads” not only to produce but also to understand both products. He differentiated the two “mind sets” as being either a “judging” or a “productive” faculty — and that it is a very rare person who is equipped to perform both.
But, what exactly, does it mean to "read" art? One might say that we can "read" the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (without knowing how to "read" Italian) or Rembrandt's "Hundred Guilder" print (without knowing how to "read" Dutch) — both, glaring examples of the pitfalls of confusing words with images. They are simply not the same and "translating" one into the other fraught with problems. Likewise, "reading" an expert's words about Mozart, is a far, far cry from listening to his music —for, like art, music is in and of itself a 'language' with its own unique 'vocabulary' and set of 'rules'. Furthermore, even translating words into words is often well nigh impossible and subject to similar distortions, misinterpretations, and nonsense. I once asked my audience while delivering my spiel on the "art" of art criticism, how many had ever read a Haiku poem. Quite a few raised their hands but when I asked how many could read Japanese, all hands went down. "So," I said, "then no one here has ever actually read a Haiku poem — only a translation of one." They got it. Another related example: Back when I was teaching High School English, I showed my students an unusual object — a little high-class tool for picking up a sugar lump — let them handle it and then asked them to write a description of it. I then gave their descriptions to a second class and asked them to draw picture of what was being described. Needless to say, I got 35 different pictures, none of which resembled the little sugar-picker-upper. And one final word: The late Ted Denyer, friend and artist, once explained to me that when a person walks into a museum, or gallery, and are 'stopped' by a particular work of art, he or she will usually walk up to it for a closer look. "When they note, for example, that, 'Oh, that's a boat in a harbor, some seagulls above, some people walking along the shore' they have begun to look at the picture but have stopped looking at the art". As I note above, 'reading' art is not without its pitfalls!
The simple truth is, it is not only abstractions that are non-definable (as Socrates so deftly pointed out), but so also are "tangibles", objective words, difficult to pin down. Ask an audience to think of "house" or "dog", for example and for even one of them to have an image in mind that is a carbon copy of your image is —well — nearly beyond possible. Let's face it — words are tricky; and, in my estimation, of all of mankind's 'inventions' of communication, namely music, images, and words, words are the worst means of all — music goes directly to the 'gut', art through the eyes, mind and 'gut', while words — well who knows just how exactly they work in true communication? (Think of the U.N.; politicians; salespeople — and so on, and so on). To some, words can only take us further afield. For instance, Martin Buber, the Hasidic philosopher/author, explains in his book I and Thou just how words, "labels", can lead us away from "truth". His example: a mother is walking down a street and pushing a stroller with her child in it when they come upon a tree. The child is interacting with the physical experience of seeing a "tree" for the first time, when his mother says, "That's a tree". Now that the child has a "label" for the phenomenon, it no longer has to interact with it — the "tree" is no longer a "thou" but an "it". In time, the child might even learn that it is a "maple tree" — another word, another label, which further separates it from the phenomenon, making it unnecessary of ever again having to "deal" with it as a co-existing living thing.
As I note above, think of the U.N. Each person has a "label" identifying him/her as a "Palestinian", "Russian", "Israeli", and so on. Once we learn the "label" we no longer have to deal with them as a "human", as a "Thou", as an existing phenomenon we ought to experience and get to know and understand. They are "its". My "father", my "sister", my "boss", my "student", a "Democrat", a "holy man", a "guest", and so on, and so on. How then can we truly "see" a work of "art", experience it on our own terms, by reading someone's words about it? Watching a person in a museum with headphones, "seeing" the art in front of them through the use of their ears rather than their eyes, continually puts me off. "Note the splash of red in Corot's painting — his usual 'trademark' or 'signature', if you will, that you will find in almost every one of his works", they hear the "expert" saying. So, for ever after, the visitor will seek out — and see — that "splash of red" in a Corot and simply stop looking, studying, experiencing, the work as a whole, excitedly awaiting the moment when the "knowledge" can be passed on, proudly showing everyone that they, also, are an "expert" with a label, a word. It's like the old "How to make gold out of water" gag: Pour water into an aluminum pot, set it over a flame until it boils, but do NOT think of 'hippopotamus' during any part of the process". Yeah, right. Now try it; try to erase "hippos" from your mind while "making gold" and "red" while looking at a Corot.
Well then, how about artists speaking about their art? Herbert George Wells warned that "An artist who theorizes about his work is no longer artist but critic" while a number of people have pointed out that "if artists made good critics, there wouldn't be any bad artists". Every serious artist I've ever known, has judiciously been silent on the subject of their art; it is the glib ones I am suspicious of — and there are a great many — too many — out there roiling the waters and the only thing unmistakable about their statements is that they are less in the business of making art and more in the business of making money. Over the years I've been writing for art times, I've often railed against the absurdly ridiculous "artist's statement" requested by galleries and/or exhibition venues to display during an exhibition. Damn! Don't they know that the artist's "statement" is already framed and hanging on every wall, in every room, of the exhibition space? What else — what words — need be said? And, if words are needed, doesn't that imply that the art has failed to stand on its own? My friend Rick Pantell, master print-maker and teacher at the Art Students League of New York, once remarked: “If they invite a poet to speak, do they ask him/her to first draw a picture?”
So…enough; you get it.
It’s not that all art critics intend to mislead or that they purposefully or maliciously often go over — or under — the top (although I do suspect some exaggeration at times and, all too often, some relatively literate gobbledygook — but then, both critics and artists are equally guilty of that). Historically, their role as “middlemen” between artists and viewers has been largely foisted upon them by a world that has never properly understood “art” — with the jury, in fact, still out on just what "art" is. Not even the "experts" are in agreement here — I am (or was formerly) a member of such organizations as the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), the American Society for Aesthetics, etc. and my head still spins after each new journal gives me more "definitions" to consider. Not long ago, I received a set of books for review — a set of five from the Oxford University Press that promised to look at art history — and I quote here — "from a fresh perspective". Some prominent 'modern' art critic "experts", in fact, have declared art "dead", even bestowing the title "genius" on such "pop artists" as Andy Warhol for bringing us to the point of not being able to distinguish between a box of Brillo or a picture of a box of Brillo! So, how can you coherently and believably critique something that will not stand still long enough to even determine its broadest outlines?
At bottom, all a ‘critic’ can do is give his/her opinion about a work of art. I was once asked at a party if I had seen the (then) current Whitney Biennial. “No,” I answered. “Why not?” he asked. “It usually takes me longer to look at a Daumier print than it does three floors of a Whitney Biennial,” I said. “Wow!” he blurted. “That’s pretty opinionated." “Well,” I parried, “That’s like saying a judge is ‘judgmental’ or that a trial lawyer is ‘argumentative'”. Of course, I’m opinionated — that’s what critics do. At least that’s what they ought to do. A ‘good’ (knowledgeable) critic might have some solid opinions to offer and might even inform his readers. He/she might even urge you to go and see a certain artist, view a particular exhibition, because in his/her opinion it’ll be worth your while — but they will always have their biases. This essay, for instance, offers no more than my opinions on the subject and, if you look closely enough (as you ought to do), you'll also detect my biases, which are largely derived from my Liberal Arts (known nowadays as "dead white men's") teachings, education and college degrees.
Of course, some opinions are more valuable than others — when you have that pain in your chest, I advise you take the opinion of a doctor rather than, say, that of a plumber. In all probability, the doctor has more knowledge and experience in the matter. Which "expert" opinion you choose to accept is your choice and will only reflect your level of knowledge and understanding. But, as I warn above, no critic can ‘explain’ or ‘judge’ art — or ‘translate’ it into words. Goethe once wisely pointed out that “genuine works of art carry their own aesthetic theory implicit within them and suggest the standards according to which they are to be judged.” A good artist deserves a relatively knowledgeable viewer — one, for instance, that takes Goethe’s words to heart rather than a critic’s.
How do you know a ‘good’ critic from the venal one that might have one or more of his own dogs in the fight? Like most of us, even critics have to look out after their own interests. Henry James might be a guide as to whose opinions are worth following: “To criticize is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relationship with the criticized thing and to make it one’s own…It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its presence.” Yeah…my kind of guy — and I can only hope that I don't stray too far off his well-marked path.
I hope I've enlarged your thoughts about critics a little bit. We need not think of them as either "fungus at the foot of oaks" or as having inner secrets about how we should look at or evaluate art. As long as you keep in mind that we are not infallibly wise or incredibly stupid, you should be able to steer a reasonable course through most of today's artwriting. It all boils down to the fact that a critic can only tell you why he/she likes (or hates) a particular work of art — but not tell you what to like or hate.
Remember: your parents gave you picture books before they gave you reading primers — at least since we've become homo erectus, we have long known how to look at images. So…go and be duped no more.