Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Art Criticism?

Some of you might know that I occasional write for arts journals.

The critical writing process is always a challenge. The challenge involves exploring my subjective experience while balancing it with exploring the aims of the artist. In the words of Delacroix, "Beauty must be seen where the artist has chosen to put it."(1854) This means that I must suspend my first reactions so that they may be carefully examined, with the understanding that my immediate preferences might not be suitably prepared to accept something new. If I might quote Eugene Delacroix again, "A Greek and an Englishman are each of them beautiful in their own way, which has nothing in common with the other." (1893)

This examination will always be subjective and any knowledge and research I do will still be a personal interpretation. I feel it is always important to remember that while it might be an informed opinion it is still an opinion, much like that of a doctor of medicine, one doctor's opinion is not the equal of another's simply via the virtue of being a doctor.

The considerations made while considering art needs to be clear. Art can be thought of in both a high and low light. High - it touches the human condition, it feeds the soul, its piquancy embodies a wisdom and mastery of form. Low- it looks good next to my lamp.

There are many things that look good next to lamps. I enjoy them just as much as the next person. But am I only to consider a work's or object's goodness based upon such a limited criteria? Unfortunately, its very difficult to remove this level from consideration completely because it belongs to the gestalt of its time. Because it is impossible to remove entirely means that a review or an essay is always a criticism; that is, it shows some preference even if that preference is signaled merely by the its inclusion in a magazine or journal, it has been chosen over others (perhaps more worthy options).

Responsibility is something that haunts me whenever I'm asked to review an exhibition or write on art. To be responsible for my judgments and words I probe the possibilities the work possesses and try to come to terms with it analytically. I try to encounter the work as clearly as I'm able and to offer that journey to others. But I often shy away from direct criticism partly because these will stem for my preferences, partly because I don't wish to impose my preferences onto the artist, and partly because I'm aware that my preferences are often set at an incredibly high standard and my opinions might be unreasonable harsh, that is, wont allow much room for fluff. These stem from my subjectivity, my ignorance and my pig-headedness, but they equally stem from my passion for art, my belief in its value and my desire to have people do their very best and become unshackled from those restrictions that bind them to lousy conventions and mediocre sentiments.

Lately, I've had to look at my responsibility and consider what kind of critic I wish to be. Do I just want to write in the third person and try to pretend that I'm objective and that I'm writing some kind of faraway truth? Or be merely a reporter, giving the facts and details? Or a writer who follows the popular line and writes about what is considered the trend? Or rather a vocal advocate of a vision of art - that is, write something I feel passionately about, so I can truly and honestly release my feelings within the body of written word.... I have felt stifled by the form of writing about art; as stifled as the early Impressionist painters must have felt stifled by the careful rules of the academy paintings of the day. I prefer writing that actually effects people and exposes them to the potential of art and of artists, instead of trapping them into a pseudo-science that assumes to give art its dignity. If I cannot find a forum in magazines or in traditional outlets then I will by pass them and find my own way, but at least it I will be responsible to my own inner needs rather that selling out my words.

I will continue to wrestle with these thoughts for a long time yet I'm is part of the 'work'. I will search for veritas within myself and within art, trying to find my is all I can do.

**I made the graphite pencil drawing above in 2003, it is a study of the painting, "St Augustine of Hippo" (Catholic Patron Saint of Theology), 1660 by Champaigne, from the Los Angeles County Museum collection.


mb said...

i just think that you write from your guts and shape whatever comes out using any intelligence and intellect you possess.
am curious as to your desire to have people do their very best-it's not always attainable and shouldn't be forced.
however am certainly respectful of your writerly integrity but i do hopeyou allow some playfulness to enter the discourse

Florence said...

The general lack of playfulness is why I feel restricted by the usual art critique form, it has a very formal voice and it comes from the academic training - which is very important within the academic sphere but less so in the public sphere. However, it is still important to have mental and critical rigor. Its a challenging balance, I believe that is one of the things I was trying to say.

Whether people are able to do their best or not doesn't mean that one should disregard the desire to improve or that one should say that something is good when it is not. That said, one's best is one's best and no-one can indeed force that. The greatest joy of the true critic is to see an artist bloom into their full potential - as it would be to see a promising athlete reach into themselves to achieve a high level of virtuosity within their chosen discipline.

And as I said, I have these high standards, and I'm sure they will be very unpopular because they are neither vague nor appologetic...reason enough for me to think twice? But as William Blake wrote, "Speak your mind and a base man will avoid you."

I hope you can understand my "writing from the gut" here.

love always MB!

Merlyn Gabriel said...

When I was a student atthe art college critiques were a way of life. I always thought it difficult to do and it was really hard when you knew the people you were critiquing ( good or bad )

I always thought that a good critic was someone who could see the object of the critique like lookingthrough a cut a diamond, through all facets and sides and then formulate an hoest opinion based both on knowledge and feeling. I add feeling because art is also about emotion, even the worst art evokes an emotion.

I am sure that you will find your wy because you care enough to care about the work.

There are some awesome photography books on the subject of looking at 'art'.

many many hugs

XXXs and OOOs

Florence said...

Merly, I agree with you, it is the feeling in art that is paramount. I find a lot of contemporary art is absent of felt thought and is rather just clever thinking, which I find unsatisfying.

I have done quite a lot of study on the matter and it this that perhaps makes me keenly aware of its dillemas and possible pitfalls.

I will endevour to try my best and listen to the inner voice that prompts me to be brave enough to call it how I see it.

as always,
xxxxs and oooos

Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent post, Florence. I have been to many art galleries in the world (National Gallery, Hermitage, Musee D'Orsay, Louvre etc). The beauty in the art, and the message the artist is trying to give out is so important. One has to study and learn about a painting. By looking at them in depth, they will enjoy it far more.

Best Wishes, my friend.

A Army Of (Cl)One said...

Well other then my fine collection of "Darth Vader Playing Poker" on black velvet, I have almost no talent in the field of art.

I have had a smattering of art history classes, but due to my Political Science/History background I see most art through the prism of it historical era. When I see a Picasso or hear a Revel music piece I think of the time context in which they were made and how being a product of time affected the artist.

I have heard that good art make you think and just doesn’t look nice next to your couch. But for me it is all about historical context. I guess the old saying “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail” true for me.

Thanks for the insight of a artist to help put art into a little better focus for me.

Dang, what was it about this post that caused us all to write so much :)

mb said...

Robertson Davies wrote that the task of an artist(whatever art)is to return people to the world of feeling so Florence if you attempt to do this your writing about art will always be engaging and interesting.
Your post has been provocative for me so i guess you're suceeding with your writing

slskenyon said...

Well, the nature of being a "critic" is having an opinion. I think the problem with art, unlike writing for example, is that we have a tough time determining what is "good" and what is "bad." Do definitions out there exist? There are people who would say that a vivid portrait, for example, was bad and that a mostly white background with a red squiggle was good. It may be helpful to figure out what the artist was trying to portray--maybe that is the key. It is far more transparent in that capacity in writing.

Rebecca-the-Wrecker said...

Flo- you do a great job in all your reviews and help me to understand the motivations and desires of what the maker is trying to communicate. sometimes we need a translator especially when artists are from a galaxy far far away and artist statements can tend to confuse the issue. Don't be afraid of saying what you think - in fact that is your main responsibility. scary.

shango said...

Perhaps you could provide examples, of the usual 'art critique form'. youre referring to, as compared to the unorthodox method you prefer.

In art circles it seesm, at a glance, that artists or wannabes are intoxicated by an intellectualism that finds words of more value in achieving 'career aspirations' than the visual form or image.

Often its a stunt to show 'others' that 'i' can 'walk the talk'.

Examples can be had for example in 'Eyeline'. well , when i last picked up a copy...

Liana said...

Having a voice is having an opinion. Any number of critics can report the facts, or state the obvious. Be clear about who you are and what you think and don't be afraid to reflect that in your writing. I think it will be the only way you can feel true and be respected, if not always popular.

Florence said...

Great comments everyone. I've made a commitment to expressing my opinion; with the conditional understanding that a short review will never be able to encompass the the full treatment of a thesis. May I be forgiven for my errors.

Let me leave you on this topic with the following quote; for me is why I choose to add my voice as a critic..

"Great critics have an unusually varied capacity for aesthetic pleasure, so that when they disclose discoveries they have made about art, they also assist us to enlarge our own capacities for understanding and delight. In this sense, art criticism is very much like teaching; it is the sharing of discoveries about art or, in some cases, about life, where art has its ultimate source."

Varieties in the Visual Experience: Art as Image and Idea, Chapter: The Theory of Art Criticism, pg 613. Edmund Burke Feldman, Abrams, New York , 1972. Library of Congress Catalogue card number: 71-174223

Arthur Browning said...

Hello Florence,
Contemporary Art Gallery Magazine
wants to welcome you to our upcoming
Premiere on Thanksgiving Day -
November 23, 2006.
We would also like to exchange links
with you.
Thankyou. Best Regards,
Arthur Browning