The Case Against Criticism

by John Link

The most vexing problem with art criticism is its predisposition to intellectualize art. Making art accessible to the intellect does not appear to help viewers see it, though it does provide a sense of "understanding" that is obviously a satisfactory substitute for many. I consider that a problem, but must admit museum attendance is up, gallery going is up, prices and sales are up, and public interest is up.

Intention has become a central issue. Art that adheres to a well conceived and executed plan, no matter how inane, can eliminate a lot of resistance. Once the viewer's intellect is relaxed by understanding this intention, resistance melts, especially when the intention is aligned with one of the tenets of political correctness.

If examining intention does not lead to understanding, looking at narrative content, whether social commentary or some other literal aspect, can be just as satisfying - of the need to make an intellectual object out of art. It is evidently easier to enlighten an audience than to lead it to cultivation. Enlightenment is the direct effect of appealing to the intellect, where cultivation is mediated by exposure to art works and the exercise of taste. Taste is independent of the intellect and of the will. You can't be persuaded to like something nor can you force yourself to like it, and hence it is out of the control of words and those who proffer them.

Intellectualized criticism provides a way to attach oneself to art through one's particular attachments to certain ideas. Yet the classical relationship between art and its audience - aesthetic distance - is one that begins in detachment. Artistic license is the play of the intellect on art free from the mandates of true and false. The "truth" of art takes place outside the demands of demonstration. The aesthete enjoys the work because of its intrinsic knowability, its intrinsic perfection, not how it might serve as a means to discover or illuminate something outside itself.

The capacity to enjoy the intrinsic knowability of good art can be and usually is called taste. It is something we learn to do by practicing the habit, by insisting that art deliver this goodness, and learning to recognize what happens when it does. A cultivated person is one with well developed taste.

Good criticism can be helpful, even though taste can only be developed through experience and never can be demonstrated. Art writing can, however, point the audience to art the writer knows to deliver superior goodness. From a rhetorical point of view, especially the rules of argument, this seems like argument from authority. But that's all that can be done. Criticism can also provide words that convey the critic's reaction to the art, though this becomes misleading when the reaction is confined to intentions and ideas while avoiding the visual. Unfortunately, much real world criticism avoids or even denies the visual.

Clement Greenberg and to some extent Harold Rosenberg are usually given credit for providing the writing that put the New York School across. Many artists since have come to believe that if only some critic of great stature would write about their art, it too would achieve wide recognition. This seems convoluted to me. We would not know much about Greenberg or Rosenberg if the New York School had not produced exceptional art for them to write about. The art, not the language, is foundational to the success of their writing. I would not deny that some type of symbiosis exists between the two, but in the case of Greenberg it may be his comments in artists' studios that were the more effective element, rather than what he wrote. In any case, without very compelling art to write about, art writing itself cannot be compelling.

Perhaps it is part of the critic's job to find compelling art. With the emergence of the web there is much more written about art than ever before in history. One could expect this expanded endeavor to unearth more compelling art than ever as well. But it hasn't. Almost everything "discovered" conforms to collective expectations well enough, but does not compel strong aesthetic reaction. The writing can be clever, it can be masterful taken as English, but it can't soar when the art that supports it doesn't soar.

August 30, 2012

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