The recent post “Gérôme’s Critics” brought about 57 comments so far. It “touched a nerve,” as one of you said. One reader created a doctored version (below) of “Cave Canem” (Beware of Dog). It now says "Cave Arte" (Beware of Art). Thanks, C.!
I appreciate everyone’s contribution so far in the insightful, respectful, and wide-ranging discussion. Although Gérôme was certainly beloved by his students, his critical reputation has indeed taken an especially heavy hit in the last hundred years because of the stand he took against the Manet exhibition and the Caillebotte bequest. Even in his day he was suffering slings and arrows, which may explain the bitter edge of his attitude toward critics.
I don’t want my earlier blog post to imply that I necessarily share Gérôme’s feelings about art critics. Most of the ones I’ve met are remarkably open-minded, well-informed and articulate. They have their likes and dislikes, of course, but they don’t take orders from anyone on matters of taste. Let’s face it: Art criticism nowadays a tough business. It’s like walking in a minefield because matters of taste can be so contentious and polarized.
In the field of classical music, by contrast, most performers have to develop the skills to perform the entire repertoire. As a result, most music directors, conductors, performers and critics have a practiced familiarity with many way of making music, from Palestrina to Schoenberg. That breadth of exposure helps to mute the polemics.
In the visual realm, the term “Art” has been so thoroughly discombobulated that it can mean almost anything. (Still, it commonly leaves out so many things, such as comics, animation and illustration.) Our contemporary culture just doesn’t have any universally shared values on the subject, compared to a century and a half ago.
So what’s an art critic to do? How can you critique if there are no generally accepted standards? Is aesthetic relativism possible or desirable? What sort of negative criticism is most useful?
I’d be interested in your opinion. I would suggest that the art critic’s job is to encourage us to look closely at something outside our normal range of vision, something we’d be inclined to dismiss at first glance. The critic should beware of leveling the lance at an artist he or she dislikes, unless there is at least some sympathy with the artist’s purpose, some insight into technical processes, or a sharp satirical gift. Someone once said, “The best cure for bad art is good art.” To which I’d add: “The second best cure for bad art is to ignore it.”
That’s why I think Christopher Knight’s review fell short of what it could have accomplished. By merely disparaging Gérôme, Knight granted him underdog status and made him stronger. Nor did he offer any new insights to those who may have been inclined to appreciate Gérôme. I’d rather have read a tough critique of Gérôme by an accomplished realist painter who started with more sympathy for Gérôme’s basic approach.
To that end, let me recommend some art blogs that do a good job of bringing attention and insight to all sorts of Art, though many of the authors would not consider themselves critics.
Underpaintings by Matthew Innis. Good roundup of current museum exhibits.
Illustration Art by David Apatoff. Currently a fascinating debates (with 162 comments) on the use of photography.
Lines and Colors by Charley Parker. Survey and bios of artists in many fields.
Life in the Studio by Jay Fullmer . A new blog, which started with a post about photographing in museums to get accurate color (Jay's image above).
Art and Influence by Armand Cabrera. Profiles of past masters, advice on business and contemporary working methods.
Bearded Roman by Micah Christensen. Deep insights into academic masters
Howard Pyle blog by Ian Schoenherr. A passionate collector of Pyle papers and expert on his life.
Stapleton Kearns Wide ranging painting insights from a master landscapist.
GJ Post "Gerome's Critics"
The LA Times review of the Gérôme exhibit at the Getty Museum. Read down to the comments at the bottom, where Christopher Knight retorts: "[French] Academics looked to the Royal Academy for approval; Modern artists looked to themselves and their cohorts for approval; and Gerome, having neither the Academy nor the new artists on his side, turned to the general public, who liked what they saw." Huh?
L.A. Times reviewer Christopher Knight (aka "Culture Monster") launches a fresh attack on Gerome in "The Strangest Roomful of Art in LA Right Now"