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 Artblog.net 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.