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?