The Agenda | Open Thread
I would fully agree with Jones that a critic is more helpful to me as a reader if they have a strong and interesting point of view. I don't need them to be "right," because if I disagree with them I'm just stubborn enough to cling to my current opinion anyway (it changes at a glacial pace). What I want to take away from reading them is not confirmation of that opinion (I'm just arrogant enough to be fine without such confirmation), but rather an interesting challenge to look at the work I think I know in a way I hadn't thought of. Hence, the more interesting the critic's point of view is, the better.
Diderot raises a question: is a good critic one who is right, or one who makes an interesting case, however wrong-headed? He loathed the sensuous, sophisticated, courtly and erotic painter François Boucher. In his eyes, Boucher's paintings were heartless, decadent, trivial, and morally worthless.
In place of Boucher he preferred another contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Greuze. For Diderot, this painter of grief-stricken families and sincere young people was a truly serious and worthwhile artist – the antithesis of Boucher.
A good place to compare these two artists is the Wallace Collection in London, which has works by both in abundance. Boucher's erotic mythological fantasies are floating concoctions of silk and skin, ethereal and flimsy and ... hugely pleasurable. He is defiantly unserious and delightfully ambitious in the scale and proliferation of his visual frolics. As for Greuze – what visitor to the Wallace Collection spends much time on this sentimental, morbid, palpably dishonest artist's clogged and nauseating daubs?
And I would leave the discussion at that. If it were up to me.
But Jones takes it somewhere I'm not so sure of:
There were compelling reasons for Diderot to see so much more in Greuze that meets our eyes. He was setting out a theory of art, searching for a definition of value that was truly serious, moral, even political. His readers were searching too, which was why they too loved Greuze.I think Jones is arguing against himself through that passage. It was indeed the very thought that occurred to me that he seemed to anticipate and try to (weakly) cut off in the first sentence of that last paragraph.
What does all that have to with art and criticism today? Everything. The job of a critic is not to be "right" – that would make them into jumped-up authority figures, high-court judges of art. What pompous nonsense. The memorable critics – including the greatest of all, John Ruskin – were often wrong, even absurd, but they made arguments that will always bear thinking about. Ruskin could pursue a train of thought over hundreds of pages and his richness of intellect and language makes the journey worthwhile, even if you find his opinions insane or offensive.
Critics are not parasitical on art. They practice an art of their own. History shows that being right has very little to do with it.
Let's say he's right. Let's say Diderot was using his art criticism as part of his goal of "searching for a definition of value that was truly serious, moral, even political." That would mean he had a very specific agenda.
Specific agendas in arts writing are certainly not unheard of. Greenberg clearly had one, and(later in his career, at least) it led him to also champion a few artists that history hasn't fully agreed with him about. In my opinion, it was Clement's agenda and not any failing in the new work itself that led him to miss/dismiss some of the most important developments happening right under his exquisite eye.
But where I'm not so sure Jones isn't wrong is in that last paragraph. If a critic is pursuing an agenda, then how is that practice not parasitical? The definition of a parasite is "An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host." If we take "art" in general as the host (what critics make their living off of), is not a critic who focuses their audience's attention on a particular movement or artist to the exclusion of others and more because doing so advances some specific agenda rather than because they don't see its value, ignoring what's best for the host?
Consider this an open thread on what it means to have an agenda and pursue it through one's art writing.
Image above: A detail from François Boucher, Workshop of François Boucher,The Arts and Sciences: Poetry and Music, The Frick Collection.
Labels: art criticism