24 February 2007

Should Art Critics be Artists Themselves?

"Many of the toughest and smartest critics also have personal histories as professional or aspiring artists." Here is a remark by Ana Finel Honigman in a really smart and insightful post over at The Guardian's art & architecture blog. Honigman is reflecting on her own status as a (self-consciously) lapsed artist. In reply, I would add that many of the toughest and smartest critics - including many of my own favorites - have no such personal history. Thinking about the people whom I find among the most insightful writers on photography, most (to the best of my knowledge) fall into the latter category: Susie Linfield, David Levi-Strauss, Rebecca Solnit, Judith Butler, Geoff Dyer, David Campbell. But my tastes are perhaps a bit idiosyncratic. And some of these folks (Solnit & Levi Strauss) have written fiction as well as criticism, so that may count somewhat against me here. The same obviously is true of Susan Sontag. And John Berger, of course, not only writes fiction but also was an artist and art instructor early on as well. (On the fiction issue, if the distinction is, as Honigman suggests, between verbal and visual communication, I don't think my claim is threatened at all.)

Honigman goes on: "To a degree, I feel that because I was able to criticize myself out of being an artist, I have earned the right to constructively criticize artists. I like recognizing that some things must have been fun to make, and sometimes that the artist is being self-important or selfish, by making me take his or her fun seriously. But more profoundly, I also feel that the actual act of making art has enabled me to better comprehend the practical as well as emotional and intellectual challenges that artists encounter and grapple with. The experiences I underwent to discover that my own creative vocabulary is verbal, not visual, have given me the respect, humility and empathy necessary to creatively engage with the great work that others do in making good art."

I agree with the second half of this passage. With regard to the first part, however, I guess my view is that the notion of having "earned the right" to criticize art and artists seems a bit odd for at least two reasons. First, especially in the realm of photography, "artists" are continually making claims or endorsing aims that have multiple, often nutty, theoretical or philosophical presuppositions or that take as given conventions that are more or less transparently inimical to their own aims. Many of the resulting projects of those photographers turn out to be howlers. And that is true for folks whose work I find provocative as well as for those whose work I find banal. By what "right" do artists get to pursue philosophically silly undertakings? Why do observers not have a "right" to criticize artists who embrace conventions that are self-defeating or that are artifacts of the entirely self-serving aims of some artists or their promoters (e..g., Stieglitz on the dichotomy between art and documentary practices)?

Second, can artists simply put their work out there in the world and not expect a response? Am I meant to simply keep my observations and judgements and assessments to myself, consigned to my little journal so as to spare the sensibilities of the artist or curator or funder? As Hannah Arendt suggests, art necessarily occupies the space of a public world and that public world is constituted by speech and judgement. Saying that only those who have engaged in a practice have the right to criticize it seems an awfully high, potentially self-serving barrier to entry. It also threatens to undermine the public world of judgement and speech on which art depends by depriving it of a whole range of insight.

Now, Honigman may not be claiming that only those who have made (or tried to make) art can legitimately adopt the role of critic. In fact, I think she is challenging those who advance such an extreme claim. A much more charitable reading of her remarks is that the experience of making art affords a particular and useful basis from which to appreciate and assess art. I agree with her. However, it is important, I think, to resist the presumption that "criticism is somehow not sufficiently creative in itself; or worse, that criticism is somehow parasitic." For, if we are to believe Arendt (and I think there are good reasons to do so) criticism and dialogue and argument provide the terrain on which artists operate. Why not see their activities as parasitic? I think the answer is that that simply reverses the unwarranted presumption. As Honigman rightly insists, the task ought to be "to create a dialogue on the basis of equality between visual and verbal communication." Just so.

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