ART CRITICISMFRIEND OR FOE?

A page from ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger

Written by Hatty Nestor

Interpretation is the revenge of the intel­lec­tual upon art. ” ― Susan Sontag

Whether obvi­ous or not, we all form opin­ions from our exper­i­ences, these often change, grow, and often become crit­ical. At exhib­i­tions we are presen­ted with obscure leaf­lets, pro­jec­ted videos, audio tapes or per­form­ances. It is inev­it­able that a sub­ject­ive opin­ion will be sub­con­sciously received, hinder­ing and influ­en­cing our opin­ions and exper­i­ences. Unfortunately for the major­ity of us view­ers, the inform­a­tion thrust upon us when enter­ing a gal­lery space is often presen­ted in such a form­at­ive man­ner we do not feel inclined or obliged to ques­tion this author­ity. We are all guilty of accept­ing and regard­ing art crit­ics opin­ions as if it’s set in stone.

The role of a critic is ambigu­ous; no judge­ment is final, no opin­ion is ‘right’. The pub­lic will rightly ques­tion the value of any reviewer’s opin­ion, as read­ers of this art­icle may query the value of my words. We are invited to equally cri­tique art­work for ourselves and oth­ers who share the same exper­i­ence. With much of con­tem­por­ary art today, the nature of the work is not based on our visual exper­i­ence; we are encour­aged to look bey­ond empir­ical evid­ence. From this a hier­archy is formed. Finding the middle ground of intel­lec­tu­ally ques­tion­ing the work we view, and agon­ising over the sub­jects mean­ing to the extent of mak­ing it’s pur­pose more com­plex than inten­ded by the artist, is a tricky dilemma.

An illus­tra­tion from the Tate, titled ‘The Royal Academy Private view day’ in 1929 by Feliks Topolski

The truth is that over­ana­lyz­ing art, as opposed to intu­it­ively rat­ing it, car­ries its own dangers. If you find your­self mak­ing com­par­is­ons and ques­tion­ing art crit­ic­ally, surely you have a right to fall into the cat­egory of art cri­ti­cism? The way in which you present your cri­ti­cisms to oth­ers leads to the author­ity you cre­ate. Trends can be fol­lowed and ideas embraced or dis­missed, but art eval­u­ation will never be demo­cratic. Simply by the nature of the cri­tiquing and inform­a­tion dis­sem­in­a­tion employed dread­ful work will be sold for record prices. I believe it is clear in stat­ing every­ones opin­ion is of value, how­ever, the place in which a mem­ber of the pub­lic may dif­fer from a critic is their desire to express what they think is ‘cor­rect’, ‘cheap’ or a ‘phenomenon’.

It could be argued that this flux of crit­ic­ally defined ‘dread­ful’ art cre­ates a candy shop of bad cri­ti­cism for crit­ics to embel­lish their repu­ta­tions with. Undermining artists, slag­ging off insti­tu­tions, being dis­gus­ted by the lack of cham­pagne at an open­ing nat­ur­ally gen­er­ates raven­ous cri­tiquing. We look to mod­ern art types to con­firm our ideas and opin­ions about con­tem­por­ary art cul­ture and trends, there is com­fort in their know­ledge, value in a critic’s opinion.

Last winter the ICA pub­lished on you­tube a few long dis­cus­sions address­ing prob­lems within twenty first cen­tury art cul­ture. ‘The Trouble With Art Criticism’ is over an hour and a half long, but has appear­ances from JJ Charlesworth, (ArtReview magazine editor) Adrian Searle (Critic from the Guardian) and other con­tem­por­ary fig­ures in the art world today.

Beyond all this you can­not divorce art from its con­text. Critics have their place, we should applaud them for voicing their ideas, but without for­get­ting that art cri­ti­cism itself plays into the con­text of art cre­ation and per­cep­tion within soci­ety. Fiction and inven­tion con­trib­utes to all cri­ti­cism, and sub­ject­ive opin­ion may encom­pass both. As a viewer we are invited to form our own opin­ions, reac­tions and empir­ical obser­va­tions of work presen­ted to us. Finding the mod­er­a­tion between apply­ing the ideas of oth­ers to our own exper­i­ence can feel unnat­ural and ulti­mately exhaust­ing. In para­dox to the role of a critic, as view­ers we play an equally import­ant role; to respond, pub­li­cise and question.

Still image from Paul McCarthy’s ‘Painter’ a video which plays with the ste­reo­type of what the role of being an artist con­ven­tion­ally is

The author­ity of oth­ers should not influ­ence our opin­ions heav­ily. This bom­bard­ment of opin­ion, fact, and sens­ory exper­i­ence inev­it­ably con­fuses and causes us to ques­tion not only artistic val­ues, but equally anthro­po­lo­gical and cul­tural ones too. We are sur­roun­ded by visual cul­ture, from walk­ing down the street, to advert­ising and the work inside a gal­lery space. So what could be more rel­ev­ant for every­one to cri­tique ‘art’ as we see it today? Have we come to a point where the author­ity of the critic not only has the poten­tial to leave us feel­ing inad­equate, but that author­ity itself may be per­ceived as cul­tur­ally irrel­ev­ant? There seems to be many bridges to cross and people to please in jus­ti­fy­ing, val­id­at­ing, and find­ing respect for opin­ion. Critics influ­ence our trends and per­cep­tions. But is any­one really listen­ing to them?

Hatty Nestor
About author:
Hatty Nestor
Hatty Nestor is an artist and writer living in London studying at Goldsmiths University. She is particularly interested in the conventions and ideas around art history and theory in modern culture, critiquing and questioning contemporary art culture today. Often reflecting on her own practice in relation to that of other artists, Hatty tries to add... Read further >
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  • Gintare Zitkeviciute
    August 3, 2012
    12:24 pm

    Thanks for inter­est­ing topic Hatty. In my opin­ion we are rais­ing a ques­tion about the need of experts in our soci­ety. It is so odd, but look­ing at art world it is very cre­at­ive field, but at the same time very con­ser­vat­ive at some points. It has very strong middle class cul­ture. hier­archy in insti­tu­tions, tra­di­tions etc. But look­ing at new trends we can eas­ily notice examples like blog­gers. They became trend­set­ters and crit­ics if you like just by say­ing their own opin­ion. Changing envir­on­ment can be very eas­ily noticed in music and fash­ion, where crit­ics are not so import­ant any more or where any­body can become one, regard­less your edu­ca­tion, pre­vi­ous exper­i­ence etc. I think the obstacle about experts and crit­ics is only still vis­ible in visual art world or even only insti­tu­tional art world. Going bey­ond it, you see a lot of lib­er­a­tion, inde­pend­ent ini­ti­at­ives, cre­ativ­ity and play­ful­ness. What do you think?