Saturday, July 17, 2010

Critix Redux

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"


Rubysboy said...

Maybe all of art is too big a category to be the subject of any critic. After all, we don't have critics of writing of all kinds from shopping lists to love letters to Newsweek to blogs, and so on. Rather, critics focus on contemporary fiction, say, or the English novel, or drama or poetry, or science fiction or screenplays or.... Music critics seldom range over Early music, classical music, rock music, contemporary Latin music, .... Maybe if art critics confined themselves to one or a few genres of painting or sculpture or installations or media art or animation or.... the results would be more satisfactory.

Brian said...

Thanks for another great post James.

I thought of your original post this last week when I was at the Frye museum in Seattle. They had an original N.C.Wyeth painting from 'Kidnapped' on the wall and I was wondering if an art critic realized it was created as a book illustration they would treat it differently?

jeff jordan said...

I remember reading an interview a long time ago with Bob Dylan, railing against some of his critics. He said something to the effect of "I'd like to see some of these critics learn to play an instrument, write a song or two, and then stand up in front of an audience and sing them." That would sum up my thoughts very well. As I preveiously stated, Talk is CHEAP.

An artist I know--not me--said he thought the Impressionists, who could be considered the opposite camp of Gerome and the Academics, were the ones who began to bring down Academic standards, and eventually led to the breakthrough of less talented artists, which has led to the state of Art today, where "artists" like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons receive massive recognition, not to mention $$, when they hire other people to do the work, and people like Christopher Knight are all thrilled. But it seems the wheel is turning around, these days, and artists with actual skills are getting the recognition they deserve.

Steven K said...

"In the visual realm, the term “Art” has been so thoroughly discombobulated that it can mean almost anything."
I would say that the term "art" has been virtually destroyed as a useful word - and art critics were largely the ones who destroyed it. Art critics are writers and talkers, not artists. For all of the 20th century, they have buried great art under a mountain of bad writing. Worse, their words have banished the works of great artists to the basements while the gibberish of the 20th century moderns spoils perfectly good walls. All the while, the likes of Knight cry, "Who are you going to believe - me or your own eyes?"
Look yourselves. Great art speaks for itself - when it has the chance, and has not been banished and censored by the likes of Knight and company.

kev ferrara said...

"There's a real task on our hands, Andy. Modern art critics and their supine followers like the flat and the shallow. They like it as they like soft drinks and factory-made bread."

~ N.C. Wyeth - letter to Andrew Wyeth Feb. 16, 1944

Tyler J said...

I am responding without having read any of the above responses so that I don't steal someone's great idea.

For me, at this stage of my career, I look to art critics to really provide a context and a place in history for a piece. This is something that I am not now, nor will likely ever be, an expert on. I am more concerned with creating my own work and while I believe that it is of paramount importance to learn from previous artists, at some point I feel that you have to jump in and start doing it instead of reading about what others have done your whole life.

Perhaps when I have some of my art out there and it gets critiqued by an art critic I will have more feelings, but as of now I can only draw comparisons to reviews of the video games that my company puts out. Often the points they make are right on and well thought out, and other times it's just some guy's opinion. Just because he does it for a living doesn't mean that he has any more to offer, necessarily.

The more that you learn about something, the easier it is to discriminate about what you like and don't. And, the deeper your repertoire, the better you will be able to draw comparisons or to verbalize your reasons, but it really all comes down to opinion.

The last comparison I can make is to wine. When I was learning about wine while working in the hospitality industry, I became focused on what good wine was, "how do you tell what a good wine is?" I would ask my chef (who also designed our wine list), and he finally replied that any wine that you liked to drink was a good wine.

To me, art is the same way. You can intellectualize it to death, but ultimately it comes down to what you like, what speaks to you, that's good art.

The rest is, regardless of how much precedent exists, still someone's opinion. Perhaps that's a modern, and/or American view, or maybe it's just an ignorant layman's opinion, but there it is =)

Anonymous said...


FranciscoShreds said...

I've honestly never seen the point in critics when it came to the arts, in any art. Every criticism (and yes, they are criticisms, not critiques) made is usually on one polar opposite end of a spectrum. Iconically, they're derisions and when a notable, good criticism comes around it tends to be nothing more than an ass pat. This to me serves no purpose whatsoever other than to bolster the ego of a person who gained some type of notoriety for ostentatiously verbalizing their thoughts. Like an older more stagnant version of perez hilton.

On the other hand when a good critique comes around it's beneficial to everyone. When a good critique, that lists both good points and points that can be improved upon in a piece of work, is put out there it can benefit both the original artist and any artist that takes a look. And the beauty of a critique is that it not only has to focus on technical execution, but it can also address narrative and other ideas that might change from person to person, without feeling like you're forcefully imposing your tastes and views onto someone who for all intents and purposes, could have a very different thought process than you.

It's always struck me as funny that when a critic is most revered is when a change comes along and upsets the status quo. Whether for the good, bad, or just different its the people who are most resistant to change and progress that are seen as the wisest. It happened when the pre-raphaelites hit, when charlie parker and dizzy gillespie changed jazz, when the beatles came on the scene, etc... It's the people who pander to the status quo that are most damaging, both to the before and the after. It's the reason the pre-raphaelites were first thought of as a joke, it's why the impressionists were ostracized from the academies and it's the reason why the western world once discarded representationalist art like a dried up fish carcass. And now it's the reason that, to but a fledgling artist and on looker such as myself, it seems mister Knight is stuck trying to oil the rusty wheel of the old coal powered dilapidated train, while we're trying to make advancement into greener more friendly and efficiently fueled pastures where not just the pretentious side of art is represented and so widely accepted as the norm.

kind of sad, but good for a chuckle when taking breaks from actually doing and enjoying this thing called art.

Anonymous said...

Knight was just punching his meal ticket, I guess. Maybe he knows all the latest in trendy pop culture stuff, but he was in way over his head on this one.

Don Cox said...

"I've honestly never seen the point in critics when it came to the arts, in any art."

The great value of a critic comes when he praises some work or artist/composer/writer that you didn't know about. Or points out good features which you hadn't noticed.

Critics are good when they are praising stuff and useless when they are disparaging stuff, or trying to set up standards.

My idea of good criticism would be Leif Peng's blog "Today's Inspiration". Or Rothenstein's books on English painters. said...

I think a distinction can (and perhaps should) be made between the art critic and, say, the art historian. The first depends more upon an personal opinion and present trends and the other tries to fit the art under discussion into some sort of larger context.

Historians (Such as John Hughes) shoot for a sense of the big picture, of what came before and how a work of art relates. Critics (Such as Knight) are (generally) in the position of passing judgement, a precarious thing to attempt in such a subjective field. Especially when that opinion is based on little than personal preferences. And it becomes worse, if the critic has become cynical about art in general. (And yes, there is much to become cynical about these days.)

I happen to like the work of contemporary outrageous artists like Hirst, or to contrast Damien, the quiet lyricism of Hockney, but these are decisions I make for myself and not because someone else told me I should. I also like Gerome and many of the better skilled Salon artist as they regain stature.

In the end I lot it all, in terms of genres and schools, and make an effort to discriminate between the better and worse examples within them.

The world of art is a big place. Big enough for almost everything.

What I don't like is someone who endlessly disparages an artist as a means of elevating themselves in contrast. That's just intellectual laziness.


jeff said...

Critics are a necessary part of our artistic society. I think they should have a lot of knowledge of what they are writing about. If they are art critics they should understand how much goes into a work of art. That said just because they don't paint or play music does not mean they can't have a refined and educated background that enables them to give a good well informed critique.

Being a painter does not mean that one makes a good critic. Ruskin comes to mind. He was a pretty good artist in his own right but failed to see anything good in Whistler's work. Which for me was a huge short coming in Ruskin's understanding of Whistler's refined ascetic.

Food critics are not chefs but they know a lot about food. They also have enormous power in regards to making or breaking a restaurant.
Much more than art critics do.

My favorite cinematic critic is Addison DeWitt played to perfection by George Sanders in the film "All About Eve". If you have not seen it I highly recommend renting it. Great picture and Betty Davis is superb. How can you resist lines such as "Fasten your seat belts it's going to be a bumpy night"

Hey look, I'm a film critic!

Carl Samson said...

Thanks James. What a glorious blog you've got going here... There was a way of doing things back in the day that could be summed up as "The old professional attitude". In addition to an artists concern for doing a good "job" on any given piece, there was also a major criteria used in the judging and critiquing of art. It was never whether the art critic or judge personally liked or disliked a painting. It was simply concerned with how successfully the artist achieved his/her objective. Using this standard, it cannot be denied that few achieved their objective as completely as Gerome. Today, in the absence of those commonly held standards of what constitutes fine painting prevalent at that time, we are forced to withstand each individual critics likes and dislikes ad infinitum.

kat said...

As Debussy once said: "This may seem incomprehensible; but one must not forget that a work of art or an effort to create beauty are always regarded by some people as a personal affront."

A book that should be read by artists and critics alike is Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of musical invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time in which can be found scathing critiques of the immortals by now forgotten critics. It applies to all the arts.

Roberto said...

Thanx, James, for revisiting this subject.
‘C’s version of “Cave Arte” is delicious.
The original post and string has been churning in my brain and I have been thinking about what the crux of the natter is.
The commenter’s on this redux have hit most of my points in a very thoughtful way.
The first crux is the role of the critic.
Your point on the classical music repertoire is right-on, and ‘Rubysboy’s observation that “Music critics seldom range over Early music, classical music, rock music, contemporary Latin music, ....(and) if art critics confined themselves to one or a few genres of painting.... the results would be more satisfactory” is an excellent observation, ditto to ‘Cisco’s definition of a good critique, and to Jeff (the film critic)‘s: “Critics are a necessary part of our artistic society…” and to Tyler (the wine sommelier)’s: “You can intellectualize (art) to death, but ultimately it comes down to what you like, what speaks to you…”
But I think the second crux may be the more important one, and that is the whole ‘Modern Art vs. Academic Art’ Tar-Baby thang.
I propose that the Tar-Baby has no clothes!
Making a judgment that one style is better than the other is like comparing Classical music to Jazz. They’re not the same critters, and by choosing one over the other we are missing out on some really interesting and creative work. As contemporary artists we have so many genres of painting to learn and draw from, and we do ourselves and our art a disservice by limiting ourselves to a narrow view of what is valid. As a serious student of the visual arts one may choose to work in a classical, or even a non-figurative style, but it would be foolish to ignore the lessons that the masters have to teach us, including the modern masters. I think that as contemporary artists we can learn and achieve a great deal by standing on the shoulders of giants (from Michelangelo to Picasso, Titian to Rivera, El Grecco to Rockwell, Bosch to Crumb, …wait a minute , I may be getting carried away here, but you get my point). As a famous King once said: ”Can’t we all just get along?!” -RQ

Galileo Feynman said...

I think art criticism in the popular press has two roles.

The first is to tell the general public whether or not an exhibit is worth seeing. Doing that is not so much making a pronouncement but providing sufficient information so we, the public, can decide ourselves.

The second is to give us their insights and information so that we might benefit from the experience -- and what touches off from it -- even if we do not go. Bald pronouncements about "good" and "bad" rarely if ever help here, either.

Yet I disagree with you, James, if you are suggesting that the critic should ignore what she sees as "bad" art. I think reasoned comment on what the critic sees as "bad" art -- at least sufficiently important "bad" art -- that is, telling us why she thinks the art (or exhibit of the art) fails is just as beneficial as why she likes it.

My experience with art criticism (hardly a rounded sample) is that it is usually unhelpful with either of these goals. I used to subscribe to Art News, for example, but it was consistently vapid and suggested to me, more than anything, a lack of perceptiveness by most of the reviewers.

katie said...

Rather than chime in on the critics discussion, I just wanted to chuck a couple more great links out there:

Stapleton Kearns nearly rivals this here blog in terms of sheer usefulness. If Gurney & Kearns ever got together to start an art school I'd be there in a heartbeat:

...and I've really been enjoying Escape Into Life, which has posts on a wide variety of contemporary creative endeavors but it's the contemporary art posts that keep me coming back, despite my overall lackluster feeling for the field at large.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Katie, I don't know how I forgot to include Stape, whose blog is a favorite with me, too. The other is new to me and I'll check it out.

Thanks everyone else for your thoughtful comments, which I've been mulling over all week. And sorry I haven't been able to respond in more detail.

Meghan Jean said...

I recently read THE SHAPE OF CONTENT by the artist Ben Shahn, who manages to write about art with both a passion and pragmatism that seems increasingly rare. The book was written in 1957, but feels uncanny in its modern application.

He writes about critics:

"There is much more than intellectual affinity in the scholar for the subject of his scholarship. There is necessarily a tremendous emotional involvement (indeed, if there were not I think that his studies would be less fruitful). And I feel sure that a great deal of the value which he discovers in his particular field must seem to possess some degree of finality, of absoluteness. Dismissing a certain order of art, or the work of some artist, he must feel that he is pronouncing a wholly objective judgement. But his judgement is almost necessarily a conditioned one. Scholarly dismissal of art may be well-founded; it may on the other hand merely lay bare an area of unacquaintance, ignorance, or failure to penetrate and to understand.

"Critics, both those of scholarly status and those of the daily press, are also people of all sorts of emotional involvement--indeed, who is not? Sometimes unaccountably and sometimes with good sense they develop a warm attachment for some special trend in art or for the work of a single artist. By the same route they often develop intense hostilities, sometimes rationally founded sometimes irrationally.

"I know that it is often the earnest effort of critics to bring to painting and sculpture the most objective sort of consideration and judgment. But there is an underlying contradiction in this good purpose. Let us face it honestly: to have no values, no preferences, no enthusiasms would be simply to react to no art and to enjoy none. The critic with no values would be as useful as the editorial writer with no opinions. For the moment, let us say of the critic or other expert that his views about art may be pertinent but are not final.

"(To criticize criticism is the irresistible sport of artists; and my own biased view toward criticism is that if it is good reading I can read it, and otherwise I cannot.)"

One more tidbit that struck a chord with me, referring to the creative process of the artist:

"I have never met a literary critic of painting who, whatever his sentiments toward the artist, would actually destroy an existing painting. He would regard such an act as vandalism and would never consider it. But the critic within the artist is a ruthless destroyer. He continually rejects the contradictory elements within a painting, the colors that do not act upon other colors and would thus constitute dead places within his work; he rejects insufficient drawing; he rejects forms and colors incompatible with the intention or mood of the piece; he rejects intention itself and mood itself often as banal or derivative. He mightily applauds the good piece of work; he cheers the successful passage; then if the painting does not come up to his standards he casts aside everything and obliterates the whole."

Food for thought!

Paolo Rivera said...

Just wanted to say that I saw the show... and it was fantastic. The Getty makes for a beautiful setting as well.

Thomas said...

Aren't we criticizing the critics?
Couldn't they turn around all our arguments? For example demand that we all get professional writers before we are allowed to judge their critiques?

I really dislike the argument that a critic must be a good painter himself.
In fact I would see it as a failure if an artist only paints so that equal artists can understand it.

Modern artists together with their critics have to a big degree created a bubble, where you have to be part of it to still comprehend what they talk or paint about. While they're of course free to do so, I find it the wrong way to go.

How a good critique looks then is another topic. But there is a benefit from it, if it's done well.