Monday, November 05, 2007

The Fungibility of Art Criticism

One thing that Charlie Finch noted in his rant about art blogs the other day is certainly true: "One of the nice things about art criticism is that you can read it, go to a show, and forget about it" (sorry for the lapse in nettiquette, but I still can't bring myself to link to that article).

Being a huge fan of art criticism, I hate to think that it's really all that forgettable, but an ArtNEWS quiz by editor Robin Cembalest,in conjunction with the magazine's 105th anniversary, does confirm just how fungible much of the text is surrounding any given artist's name in any given review of their work. I'll confess to having scored terribly on this (although I'll admit to having raced through it as well). For the quiz, Robin has taken a chunk of a critique, omitted the artist's name where it appeared, and provided four possible names from which to choose to complete the text. Here's the instructions and one example:
Each of the eleven passages excerpted here comes from a different decade in the magazine’s history. See if you can guess who our critics are writing about:

Number one is an indifferently modeled head of a woman. Number two is a candidate for an asylum for imbeciles with her retreating chin and goggle eyes. Number three—and we are assured it is the same lady—has the cranium of P. T. Barnum’s “Last of the Aztecs” and the expression of those carved gods from Easter Island you will find in the Museum of Natural History. . . . For sheer intentional cold-blooded ugliness, for limbs that are swollen as with scurvy or emaciated as by famine, for faces heavy with overdrinking and surfeit or blighted by idiocy, _____ has Gauguin beaten out of sight. Just as Quasimodo threw all the yokels who ever grinned through a horsecollar into the shade when he stuck his hapless face out for the crowd to see, so does Monsieur _____ win the prize for hideous sculpture from the many men in Paris who are striving for that distinction.
  • a. Picasso
  • b. Matisse
  • c. Brancusi
  • d. Giacometti
The actual quiz is nicely interactive. Let me know how you do.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I got four wrong. I assumed 1 was about Demoiselles. I also missed 3, 6, and 9, although I have to admit I was close to getting 9 right.

Art criticism does have a short shelf life. I consider that a good thing.

11/05/2007 08:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got 4 out of 11 wrong. Some of them were so filled with generalized nonsense, especially number 2 (appropriately numbered), that I felt embarrassed reading them.

Flowery abstractions are a no-no in my unwritten book of rules for art critics. All abstractions should be directly inspired by the material reality of the art work and the art critic must not forget exactly what they are writing about.

If you write down ANYTHING so generic that it could be said about any successful or unsuccessful work of art, it should be immediately deleted. What you say about the work should be unique to the work itself.

That is why I am not a big fan of placing work within a pseudo historical continuum because it undermines the vitality or general worth of the work being written about. The Finch school of art criticism, "It looks kinda like a..." can be humorous but it only provides cheap, transient insights. It is fine to say that the work of art reminds you of something, another art work or a non-art object or event, but the art critic must force themselves to return to the work of art being written about again and again, every sentence.

Only celebrity art critics have the liberty to include a lot of autobiographical crap in their reviews. No one gives a shit about my personal life so I don't bother to refer to my specific life experiences (or exaggerated versions of those experiences as the case may be). So that leaves a higher percentage of the word count for discussion of the work being reviewed. You want to write seriously enough about the work so that the artist you are writing about feels compelled to reread the review at least once.

11/05/2007 09:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric posted the previous anon comment.

11/05/2007 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger prettylady said...

I got 4 out of 11 right, second-guessed myself a few times, and the rest of them simply made no sense, even after the 'correct' answer was displayed.

And Eric, if you type your name into 'other' on the comment form, the browser remembers it for you and you don't have to continually re-type it.

11/05/2007 09:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Thank you for the advice prettylady. I will follow it.

11/05/2007 09:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Sorry about this. I just wanted to enter the correct webpage.

11/05/2007 09:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to be off-topic, but Ed, how come you missed the blogger show opening? It was fab.

a non-blogging blog reader

11/05/2007 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Glad to hear it was fab! I'll check it out soon.

11/05/2007 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous bnon said...

I got seven right, too! I also got 3, 6, and 9 wrong. I think they were much harder, perhaps.

I don't think this says much about interchangeability, because the examples were chosen for the test to be ambiguous.

Criticism is hugely important, and can help shape what an artist's work is. No art has an inherent, permanently fixed meaning. We are all participants in the meaning from ancient art to now, and we need all the help from critics we can get!

11/05/2007 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Six out of eleven correct.

What a disappointing excerpt of Fairfield Porter, far inferior to his best prose. Johns, I think, came under attack by people whom Porter took issue with, and partisanship puts a gale of misplaced feeling between you and your critical target.

Porter's mentor in writing, Harold Rosenberg, once said that the best criticism is the best description. These examples show how criticism suffers when it gets its observations wrong. Attributing "extreme color selectivity wedded to an almost entire absence of design" to O'Keefe? Attributing a "hysterical temperament" to Frankenthaler? Nuts. Whereas that wonderful 1912 review by one C. de K. described Matisse's sculpture without a question. He might have gotten its value wrong, but the excerpt doesn't sound false until he wrote about "the prize for hideous sculpture from the many men in Paris who are striving for that distinction," which nevertheless remains great moment in amusing nastiness. Readers have characterized my writings as mean-spirited, but I have nothing on some of these early 20th C. authors.

11/05/2007 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Franklin, you nailed the reason I got the O'Keefe question wrong. I mean to say, huh?

11/05/2007 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I think the excerpts were intentionally chosen to be tricky. I mean, Sorolla as the peer of Valasquez?? What's interesting is to think about how much has changed (in terms of reputations), and yet plus ca change...

11/05/2007 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Franklin and PL: Here's my thought process on the O'Keeffe question.

shut up like a clam

Sounds vaginal. Probably a female painter.

Like so many flappers

Something loose, with folds, and feminine. Could be Toulouse-Lautrec -- he painted a lot of women -- but probably not. Female again.

and there has been plenty

A lot of critical writing. That drops Modigliani pretty quickly, and probably Toulouse-Lautrec, too.

all the time autobiographical

Not Hopper, then. Although none of this could apply to Hopper, whose paintings are, after all, pretty masculine.

11/05/2007 03:26:00 PM  
Anonymous david r said...

Very clever set of questions. Obviously starting from knowing the answers and then thinking of artists who could also fit the descriptions. I got 4 wrong.

I was pleased to get 1 right - Matisse. I remember seeing those heads in Washington 20 years ago, at the Hirschorn?

I liked Porter's comment an Johns as a realist. This gives Porter away too as he was devoted to the observable. He was an eye and a painting machine, and so his observations are to be trusted as true to what he saw. I chose Rothko however.

I chose Kahlo over Frankenthaler just because Freda's passion is so much greater by many degrees in my book.

Generally the criticism isn't bad. A few glaring bad judgements. The quality of the description somewhat determines the quality of the criticism with a few tricky ones.

11/05/2007 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous ben said...

eric,
good on you for offering your opinion on the way a critic should go about their job. i think any discussion of this question is valuable and helps to redress the lopsidedness of a situation in which the critic is telling the artist how to do their job (whether implicitly or explicitly) without the artist (or reader) offering their input into the critics occupation.

I agree that flowery abstractions don't really help much in the critics line of work although i think there is plenty of room to reflect on a works specific relation to broader scientific or philosophical ideas. as you rightly identify the key here is specificity.

discussing work in terms of the latest academic buzzwords and intellectual/scientific fashions without thinking about how the work might alter our conception of those buzzwords/fashions is as boring as a list of art historical precedents. but done properly this broader mode of discussing art can bring about a truly interesting dialog between disciplines by helping us to think through some of the possibilities of where a work can go (both within and beyond the art world) rather than giving us the rather simple satisfaction of basking in a shared historical knowledge.

11/06/2007 07:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Generally speaking the feedback I have gotten from artists through the years has been very satisfying. Some feedback is little more than a general "thank you" but often the artist will take me to task for the ideas I express about the work. I like when this happens very much. As an artist/critic I can appreciate how sensitive artists are, how intelligent they are, and how writing about their work can help them think things through. If nothing else, the artist feedback I have received has filled me with a sense of responsibility when I sit at the keyboard and type up a review. When I see an artist's email in my inbox it is kind of like the clouds have parted and a lightning bolt has been sent my way. Usually though it is a good lightning bolt, if that makes any sense.

11/06/2007 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Ed said: "sorry for the lapse in nettiquette..."

There is no lapse when a generous, fair, thoughtful blogger declines to link to a mean-spirited post. We all read it. (And by the way, big ups to Bill Gusky and Nancy Baker for their comments in the Kalm video.)

11/06/2007 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger b said...

This is so much more of an interesting and poignant post than Finch could ever excrete. And I'm sure he was expecting a 'fight.' Hilarious.

11/08/2007 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I got 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10 right

I got 5, 8, 9, 11 wrong.

I think 5 would have been more appropriate for Rauschenberg, 8 was the hardest (I said Malevitch), 9 was the silliest, 11 was Picasso all the way, but I should have known it would be Beuys.

11/11/2007 06:31:00 PM  

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