Criticism: Why Bother
Post #1545 • April 3, 2012, 12:52 PM • 18 Comments
This entry says a lot with only a little, just like the depicted Barnett Newman which, I'm sure you see, is more than "a big expanse of red".
I started an essay called "The Case Against Criticism" and found Cindy Sherman's work more supportive of why not to write criticism than to write it. How is it that you find her work a reason to write?
This is the fairest of fair questions, and my reasons for don't contradict the reasons against.
I look at art writing as a subsidiary project of art-making, which is itself a genre of entertainment in general. I resisted that classification for a long time, but Walter Darby Bannard convinced me.
Art is entertainment.
“No!” you say indignantly. “Art is more than just entertainment!”
Entertainment is disparaged as cheap and common, something below art.
This is wrong. Art is merely a kind of entertainment that brings us something we value very highly, and it is made for those who are entertained by it. If you are not entertained by art, don’t bother with it.
Ah, art writing, so deep in subsidiarity that any discussion about it has to begin with acknowledgment of its utter lack of necessity. This is especially poignant around tax time, when we tally up how unremunerative it is as well.
I write about art for the same reason I make it—simple enjoyment. I have seen cases made for the importance of art writing. They usually entail bromides about "the dialog" with an implication that art would wither on the vine without it. Another class of argument is that writing provides the intellectual context without which art is meaningless. Visual art, when it operates at its highest levels, transcends intellectual discursion and defies language. Art that needs dialog and analysis to function is operating in a linguistic or social realm, not a visual one. It is free to do so—as I'm fond of saying, art is free to do anything, including suck—but this is how art moves out of visual consideration, and thus demands a type of regard that is unlike every other creative form in existence. In general, people don't ask that food not be considered in terms of gustatory taste, or music not be considered in terms of sound. When they do, we regard it as unusual, an exception for specialists.
Nothing is wrong with demanding non-visual regard for visual art. The problems arise when people mistake it for a normal and primary demand. At that point, a door opens through which nonsense stampedes into visual art's living room. Here is where art writing becomes necessary and useful—to fight language with language.
Last week, for instance, Julian Spalding had this to say about the Damien Hirst show at the Tate:
Damien Hirst isn't an artist. His works may draw huge crowds when they go on show in a five-month-long blockbuster retrospective at Tate Modern next week. But they have no artistic content and are worthless as works of art. They are, therefore, worthless financially.
He goes on, and you should read him doing so. For now, one might consider whether it was worth his time. The art machine just keeps on cranking along, right? Why bother? In this case, a little rock ended up in the machine's gear box and had to be fished out and discarded.
Days after The Independent published his stark condemnation of Damien Hirst ... Julian Spalding was yesterday barred from entry to the Tate's Hirst exhibition.
Spalding ... had turned up at Tate Britain at the request of the BBC and two German TV stations – only to be informed that the Tate would not allow the interviews. He told The Independent: "The BBC reporter, Brenda Emmanus, came out and told me... 'I told them that I wanted to bring you in and they [Tate staff] went ballistic. They said he's not allowed to give an interview in the Tate' – which is extraordinary... I had to be interviewed outside.
"It's sinister. The Tate's job is to encourage debate about art... The fact that I'm not allowed to talk about the work in front of [it] is extraordinary. This Gallery does not belong to the Tate [management]. It belongs to the people of Britain."
Does this make any difference in the grand scheme of things? Who can say. Was it worth doing? I rather think so. Is it entertaining? Oh yes. Good show, Mr. Spalding. Even if criticism is entertainment, ancillary entertainment at that, it, too, brings us something of value. In this case, a delicious sensation of scales righting. The parties who most deserved to be affected felt it as well, although they experienced it as a plunge instead of a rise.