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Art is in the Eye of the Critic
Once upon a time in a shadowy cave long ago there was a two-part test to determine art. And in this shadowy cave, our most distant ancestors, our very first art critics, scraggly, shivering, moody, wrapped in fur blankets—looking very much like our contemporary critics—ignited the earliest principles of criticism when they grunted and hissed and pointed at particularly notable cave paintings, creating the language and devising the two-part test that contemporary critics still use today when they determine what’s art.
Now what’s tolerated on an ancient cave wall isn’t quite what’s tolerated for exhibit in a SoHo gallery, but what’s deemed pleasing and acceptable and worthwhile still starts, in every time period, with identifying the tribe. To be included in the tribe is to fulfill the first test of permissible art. If you, at one period in history, had a knack for making the Pope giggle, then you were in the club, and you found your studio overrun with commissions. If you, during another period in history, had a knack for making the Queen swoon by mixing just the right combination of colors, then you could paint frescoes all day long. Whether we’re in Florence during the Renaissance or in Paris during La Belle Époque or in Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty or in Downtown Manhattan during the 1980s—the social circles are small, surnames matter, and the style of the day is always presumed to be timeless.
Perhaps I am less antagonistic to this first test than it may seem, mainly because straining to envision a different hierarchy is nearly impossible. If you undertake a project, you’ll probably call a friend, and it would be presumptuous of me to call that a conspiracy. Of course you’ll do the same if you happen to open a small gallery or if you—for some incomprehensible reason—begin to write art criticism. Your artist friends will be the first to benefit when you reach out, which might be both unjust and understandable for anybody outside of your current circle—to expect otherwise is to expect a soulless, flat, cold world, where bureaucracy determines all results. So I’m not surprised to hear about patrons who have longterm relationships with artists, nor am I surprised when a new curator calls an old friend. For any club, for this first test, however, it is fair to ask about rigidity. Are the doors closed and padlocked? When was the last new entrant? Do you need special keys and a password just to enter? Only when the gates are truly and irreparably locked is it worth grabbing your pitchforks.
I have no expectation that we’ll ever see the disappearance of small social circles that determine elite taste—they do, in fact, occasionally produce wonderful consequences for everybody else, such as Florence in the 16th Century—because we’re just as social as our cave dwelling ancestors, we like forming little clubs, and we, rather obviously, associate with the people that we already know. Even if the entire art world was sapped of any individual spirit and turned into a bureaucratized system of numbers, with every artist anonymous, with every critic robotic, we would just uncover new methods of creating artistic hierarchies: the creation of new status games is a leisure activity that never loses its appeal.
But once we reach the second test it begins to get interesting. This is where recent history has been at its most incendiary. If the first test determines who is exhibited, if it is a gate through which certain artists pass and through which, most especially, other artists may not pass, the second test determines quality. An artist who has a lifetime ticket to stroll past the first test can still suffer when the work is exhibited—look at contemporary critics of Michelangelo or Caravaggio or nearly all of the impressionists or pretty much every major 20th Century artist to see that established artists can still fail this second test. Even when you’re in the club, you still must follow the dress code and please the host.
And art history is punctuated by a consistent drumbeat of famous critiques that appear shortsighted today. For many artists that we now celebrate, it can be challenging to even understand their contemporary detractors, to understand how they failed the second test, such as with Hieronymus Bosch, Johannes Vermeer, Sandro Botticelli, Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner—to name just a few from an endless list. But at least we can begin to see the application of art criticism with these names. Although the gallery doors weren’t quite open to everyone on that list, we can read contemporary accounts that critique their work based on what was considered traditional principles of quality art at the time. The critics were spectacularly off, but they were at least attempting art criticism, and I consider that a minor improvement from having the gallery doors nailed shut. For the artists, for those who have failed the second test, at least they can persist with a shaky belief in Emerson’s line that “to be great is to be misunderstood,” which is surely sufficient enough to keep a megalomanic artist painting.
Unfortunately, we have decided that a two-test system is far too complicated. The old system has been reduced in half and many art critics aren’t challenged by the difficult count to two. What’s left is just that first test, an ordering of tribes—who is in and who is out. Perhaps it feels a bit off for some critics to focus on defining and excluding and judging the work. Perhaps it feels a bit off to use all the old lenses of beauty and symmetry and vision and wonder and enchantment and emotion and intrigue and prominence when trying to determine what’s art. Perhaps it feels a bit off to rate one piece of art higher than another, especially when we consider every possible standard of measurement insufficient. Perhaps it feels a bit off to start creating artistic hierarchies after every category has been deconstructed. Perhaps it feels much better, instead, when the first test becomes the only test: who produces the art is equivalent to the value of the art.
This does help to simplify the critic’s life, as the label on the artwork and the artist’s biography determines what you’re supposed to think. Nothing beyond the artist’s background is required for judgement. Anybody who objects or decides to critique art is assumed to be critiquing an artist: we blend the categories so neatly that some people in the arts cannot distinguish between a comment about an artist and a comment about quality. The next time you read an article about art, look at the amount of lines dedicated to the personal relative to the artistic, and ask yourself whether the discrepancy is fair to the artist’s passion. Notice that many discussions of contemporary art concentrate on the life’s story to the exclusion of the life’s work—the creations that result from the life seems, at best, incidental. For an artist who labors in a studio, how condescending, how flippant, how dismissive, how banal is it to judge them rather than what they’ve created? If this focus on the biographical—in weekend museum reviews, in longer essays about gallery openings and contemporary exhibitions, in the focus of many curator retrospectives, in the critical reevaluations that appear in major journals—appears suspicious, that’s probably not an accident.
When artists are reduced to rungs on a biography, and biography is the primary subject that many critics discuss, it leaves artists annoyed, critics unchallenged, and audiences bored. Although the unchallenged critic does have an easier job. All that’s required is a good eye for the ever-changing social register. There’s no demand to take the work of an artist seriously, to not condescend, to not reduce an artist to a category. It is a neat trick, though it has also reduced many art critics to the role of club bouncer—once they decide who comes in, there’s not much else to do. Nevertheless, this obsession with the biographical as oppose to the artistic does at least reveal what we, as a society, consider important. There’s never been a period when critics felt timid about condemning artists who strayed from the expected path: the value of any single artwork is almost always linked to how well that art reflects the values that society most wants to reflect.