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triff responds

Post #255 • April 9, 2004, 12:01 PM • 10 Comments

I'm so vain, I probably think this song is about me. Alfredo Triff in this week's New Times:

I'd like to address a point that has come up recently in some discussions and writing dealing with the activity of art criticism. It seems that for some of my colleagues, criticism is an openly biased enterprise. They assume (without proving) that critics are always biased and thus we should all just say what we feel and be done with it. In my view, it's one thing to proclaim your personal bias but quite another to accuse everyone of having a similar predisposition.

Alfredo is overstating what I said. Yes, I believe that criticism is an openly biased exercise, but I don't conclude that "critics are always biased and thus we should all just say what we feel and be done with it." No, that would be boring. A critic has to write well, and that means building up a network of reasonable observations that will communicate what he saw to the reader. I say reasonable, not impartial. Reasonable is about as impartial as one could hope to be in light of the fact that criticism is an openly biased exercise. And I maintain that opinions are statements of bias. That's what distinguishes them from facts.

I can't speak for others, but I'd like to see my writing aim at three things: clarity, validity, and impartiality. The first means that you can understand what I say without having to frown too often; the second requires my writing to be relatively in sync with what you -- and I -- see. And the third would maintain that one can indeed keep one's biases under control in order to be fair.

Clarity - absolutely. Validity means that his writing is relatively in sync with what we see? Well, okay. But item three - how does one keep one's biases under control? By deliberately entertaining alternative biases. I've said before that there's no easy way to judge art publicly, that one has to trust one's judgment while suspecting that one's judgment is mistaken. Forgive me if I'm overstating Alfredo, but if the idea here is that a perfect critic would be completely impartial, I think that's incorrect even if it were possible. A perfect journalist would be completely impartial, but not a critic. As soon as he expresses an opinion he's out of the impartiality game.

Suppose that our openly biased critic publicly praises a friend's work in a review. Should the public and his artist friend consider his positive appraisal to be a valid assessment? If one is openly biased and unwilling to keep it under control -- by friendship or anything else -- the critique of the work can be (reasonably) tainted. Suppose the work is really bad but the critic will not see it that way, or would refuse to see it, since his bias is not something that concerns him. If the public did consider the biased critic's assessment to be valid, that would put into doubt the artwork's possible inherent merit -- which would be counterintuitive.

Suppose that our openly biased critic was a guy with both an art and a writing career. He has friends in the art world, and he hears occasionally about enemies although he has no interest in identifying them. In fact, most of his friends are artists. Should anything he writes about his friends be automatically discounted? And since we don't know exactly who his friends are, should we automatically discount everything he says?

If he never says anything but hosannahs for his friends, we ought to. But if he establishes a track record of applying believable critical standards to both his friends and others, we might not. Indeed, our openly biased critic has an obstacle to his credibility that many other critics, non-art-makers who are trained in non-art disciplines, don't suffer. His credibility is of a different sort: firsthand expertise with the subject, a ground-zero view of the art world, access to the grapevine, and best of all, art people forgetting occasionally that he's a writer and behaving like they normally do instead of putting on the façade they reserve for art critics. Besides, even sympathetic opinions, even unsympathetic opinions, can be valid in their way.

Here's an interesting philosophical question: are you more likely to believe the opinions of someone who admits to his biases, or someone who claims to be able to control them? Obviously in real life you have to answer that on a person-by-person basis, but it's still a thought-provoking problem.

Writing with clarity, validity, and impartiality is not something to brag about. After all, we can still make mistakes.

Amen. I've made more than my share.

Note to Alfredo: Your insistence on not naming the object of your critique is honorable - I recognize it from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. But just speaking for myself, next time, I'd rather have a mention of in the New Times, even a critical one.

UPDATE: Alfredo's piece seems to have been posted on the New Times website but did not appear in the paper this week.




April 10, 2004, 4:22 AM

Triff has not only overstated what you said, Franklin; he has distorted it, innocently or not. He makes it sound as if you said that it's OK to praise bad work by a friend or denigrate good work by someone you dislike as a person. He makes it sound, in fact, as if you said it's OK for a critic to be irresponsible, thoughtless or trifling. If I even remotely suspected that you advocated any such thing, I would roundly condemn you and would want nothing to do with your pronouncements on art. Obviously, I did not read what you've written as Triff appears to have done.

Triff also appears to imply that he, unlike you, has no biases, or at least suppresses them somehow. That implies, to me, that he has no standards, or that he doesn't trust them, or that he refuses to say what he really feels and believes for fear of not being neutral. If I wanted neutral, I could seek a critic who's had a lobotomy, but I'm not so inclined. I don't want the equivalent of a diplomat or a politician to talk to me about art. I don't want a critic who wants to offend no one or sit safely on the fence. I don't want a critic paralyzed by fear of a mistake.

Triff makes a great deal out of being impartial, which I think is missing the point. The point is to be HONEST, to call it as one truly sees it and explain why, ideally enlightening the reader or at least stimulating thought and reflection. That implies the critic is fit to be one, and it precludes criticism based on something other than the work in question. Can the critic be wrong? Absolutely, and that goes for any critic, including a Robert Hughes. What matters is the batting average or overall track record. The reader should always be skeptical and demand to be persuaded on the READER's terms. The critic works for the reader's sake, not the other way around.

There's a big difference between being open-minded and having no standards--which are, strictly speaking, biases. Since a critic without standards is an absurdity (otherwise, what would the criticism be based on?), the critic MUST be biased. The question is, what is s/he biased toward? Quality? Fashion? Ideology, political or otherwise? Money? Power? Fame? Safety? There's the rub. The reader has to figure out or decipher the critic's bent, for there is ALWAYS a bent, and decide if it is acceptable or desirable. Obviously, that means the reader cannot be a passive recipient, just as no one serious about art can be a passive observer. I need not spell out what I think about a passive critic.

Triff says he wants to be impartial to be fair. Well, neither life nor art is "fair." Some people (few) have great talent, some have moderate talent, some have a little talent, and some have no talent (at least for making art). Some artists, in fact, are not only bad as such but harmful, or potentially so. It is a critic's responsibility to tell it like it is, insofar as s/he sees it. Just be honest about it; the rest should take care of itself.

P.S. I'm somewhat self-conscious about responding at such length, though obviously that didn't stop me. I hope whoever reads the above, whether or not s/he agrees with it, will not take me for a tiresome windbag (though that's not for me to judge), but rather realize the length reflects how seriously I take all this--maybe too seriously, but so be it.



April 10, 2004, 5:42 PM

" The critics I admire report on their experiences of the art. They try to fathom what the artist had in mind; to situate the art in a larger artistic context in order to specify what makes it unique and individual-if indeed it is. They also aim to reveal what its broader cultural relevance might be; and open up fresh perspectives on the work. My model is Meyer Schapiro's book on Cezanne. I was so stunned by his insights that I couldn't wait to get to the Metropolitan Museum to check them against my perceptions, that is, to see if I could see what he had. That's art criticism at its best." Irving Sandler from his "A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir" 2003.



April 10, 2004, 10:43 PM


What does your comment at the end of this: "Validity means that his writing is relatively in sync with what we see? Well, okay." mean?

How does a reader who doesn't personally know the writers evaluate this issue: "He has friends in the art world, and he hears occasionally about enemies although he has no interest in identifying them. In fact, most of his friends are artists. Should anything he writes about his friends be automatically discounted? And since we don't know exactly who his friends are, should we automatically discount everything he says? If he never says anything but hosannahs for his friends, we ought to." How do we know when this happens and when it doesn't?

In good journalism, conflicts of interest are made clear in the story, but this doesn't seem to happen very often when writing about art.

What was the last time you let your readers know about your conflicts of interest in a review you wrote for New Times (if there were any)?


Michael Betancourt

April 11, 2004, 1:55 AM

I find this comment, at the end, to be genuinely funny:

After all, we can still make mistakes.

Funny, since I remember catching Triff fabricating news for his column; making mistakes is one thing, making it up is quite another, and openly praising your friends isn't even a critical issue--it's straight forward advocacy, and should be recognized as such.



April 11, 2004, 8:09 AM

Answers for Art Student:

The comment meant, I'm not totally on board with this definition of validity, but I can go with it.

How do we know when this happens and when it doesn't? You don't. Ever. Caveat emptor. And not just regarding my writing - everything you read, period. The way I do it is to examine the intensity of the claims being made - they have to strike my instincts as being reasonable. Rene Barge is a friend, and when I wrote about his latest piece, I concluded it by saying that it redeemed my evening. I did not say that he was the greatest artist of his generation or something like that, which would have been extravagant. (Although I do think he's often quite good.)

Conflicts of interest are a more serious breach in journalism than criticism because journalism claims to represent the truth. Criticism at most claims to represent reasonable opinions. Speaking for myself, because I make art, everything I write could be claimed to be a conflict of interest. I could be trying to encourage a train of thought that would favor my work somehow. Starting with that and extending it to everyone with whom I have some kind of relationship, for better or worse, in the local art world, the mea culpas would chew up my word limit. But all critics have friends, trends they prefer, media they like, ideas they understand especially well, experiences that elude them, people they'd rather chat with, and so on ad infinitum. Criticism is an exercise in applied bias. Not all critics will speak to you for that reason - you don't share enough biases with some of them.

My piece for this week's Street - still not online yet, for some reason - covered Dorsch Gallery. (For those of you who don't know, I'm a Dorsch artist.) My editor asked me to review Dorsch, and I said, well, let's make it half Locust and half Dorsch. They're a block from each other and we can get a gallery I'm not affiliated with in on the action. Locust got first mention and the picture. I made moderate claims about the work at Dorsch that wouldn't give anyone much to disagree with if they did. If I had to spank Locust I wouldn't have done it that way, but I liked the show pretty well. I have no interest in squandering my credibility or that of my editor.

Regarding my end product, you have a few options. One is to say, Franklin liked this; I'll check it out - and vice versa. One is to say, Franklin didn't like this; I usually disagree with him, so I'll check it out - and vice versa. One is to say, Franklin doesn't know what he's talking about, so I'll stop reading his work. All are fine conclusions. But it's not easy. You have to trust your judgment, while suspecting that your judgment might be mistaken.


Godless Roach

April 11, 2004, 6:33 PM

I don't think Alfredo overstated what was said in the Art Blog and I don't think Franklin has refuted the statement "critics are always biased and thus we should all just say what we feel and be done with it." Franklin only adds two biased and correct guidelines for the critic: write well and be reasonable.

I like it when Franklin says "I maintain that opinions are statements of bias," because that is his "biased opinion," which is now redundant, since all opinions are biased. Oh my.



April 11, 2004, 6:52 PM

Nice discussion, Franklin. Im coordinating a panel on criticism with Brook soon; I think it will be cool. I perceive a subtle shift in your position... admitting one can err in ones evaluations is promising. I still think you make a too distinct separation between judgments of taste (as in criticism) and good old facts. Matters of taste --and moral judgmentsare often dumped together in the opinion bag. I think that aesthetic and moral judgments need facts in them, otherwise we end up in our own private bubbles. When we talk about human rights, say, we need not only to express our opinions in the matter (given by our culture and epoch) but also specific facts (or traits) that apply to humans that give reasons for certain rights (human reason, sentience, autonomy, freedom, etc). The same with food: a good chicken soup (including ethnic variations) is such because of facts obtained "in the broth" that separate it from any faulty version (fresh proper ingredients, cooking time, care, etc). An art piece is in this sense a sort of fact. Take any masterpiece in the canon. Theres always something objective, factual about the piece one needs in order to back up ones judgment. That synch between thing and valuation I call validity. Its neither all fact nor all opinion, but both. Gotta go.



April 11, 2004, 6:58 PM

GR - Ha! Coming back at you, if the two guidelines I suggested are biased, can they be correct?

I think it helps to remember that the goal of the critical enterprise is not untainted truth - it's healthy reflection. Saying what we feel and declaring the operation a success would be boring and uninformative. Observations must be brought in to flesh things out, and conclusions must be drawn. A rose or a raw egg might be tossed at the target to keep things amusing. Some germane facts ought to be cited. All of these - including the selection of facts - are going to spin one way or another. But if they inspire healthy reflection, their biases are just part of the scenery. They've done their job.


Godless Roach

April 11, 2004, 8:50 PM

Guidelines can be biased and correct! Exclamation points are silly. Ha.


Michael Betancourt

April 11, 2004, 8:59 PM

My own feelings about critical discussions are quite simple, (and are much the same for any other kind of discussion):

It is very important that in discussing something (say, an artwork) that we be able to poitn to specific features of that work that are visible to everyone looking at it. This is an important starting point since it "grounds" the discussion in observable conditions, and conforms to the premise the a presentational model for aesthetic experiece [the experience cannot be directly expressed, but we can point others in the direction of having a similar experience given the opportunity] can provide a foundation for discussions.
May of the critics and historians who write about art (and artists, especially artists) fall victim to the intentional fallacy, and base their meanings on matters that are extrinsic to the work, lying entirely outside the object and its relationship to the specific histories to which it belongs.
One kind of bias enters into this kind of arrangement when the writer tries to pass judgement on the work based upon an a priori set of conditions that may not be articulated anywhere, and that may not actually be explained by the criticism itself. In these cases, the review can be considered poor since it demonstrates a number of failures of explanation. Bias stops being "bias" and becomes evaluation when we, the readers, have the criteria made available to us for our reasoned examination. Hysterical claims and rhetoric divorced from this kind of logical support is not criticism.
This is, in essence, the difference between opinion (everyone has one....) and critical judgement (based upon argument, especially when it involves experiences not reducible to language). The more an artwork relies upon specifics of experience, the more important it is that the discussion be based on logical argument. This does not mean that we can't discuss experiences: an experience is sufficient only as a starting point, but not as the foundation for criticism.
That the selection of facts is biased is irrelevant. This is a logical red herring: to claim that they could be unbiased would mean that it is possible to completely understand the object investigated; this is impossible, the selection is always already biased. This fact does not invalidate logcial argument, but it does mean that our ability to invalidate such logical arguments is limited to the conditions surrounding our experiences and knowledge of the history connected to a specific art work. Because this kind of completeness is impossible, the idea that a writer can "get it right" and leave no space for alternative discussions is logically unfounded. The activity of criticism, then, can be understood in terms of the activity connected with the logical iteration of possible meanings correlated with the works in question.





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