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Criticism: Why Bother

Post #1545 • April 3, 2012, 12:52 PM • 18 Comments

John Link sent a comment on yesterday's post:

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.



John Link

April 3, 2012, 3:07 PM

Thanks for the lengthy response, Franklin. I would not and cannot argue against your doing criticism if it gives you enjoyment.

On the other hand, the commotion over Julian Spalding illustrates how adept bad art is at absorbing both the praise and the condemnation it stimulates. It sucks all of it into its engine and uses it as fuel to further itself. I don't live in England but I am confident the "controversy" will increase attendance for the show and attention to Hirst. His standing in the art opinion machine will go up a notch or two, even though Spalding's apparent desire was to knock it down. That is why I find art like his and Sherman's a reason not to write criticism. Their stuff seems like an easy target for the negativity it deserves vis a vis its claims as important culture, but in reality it is a black hole that can and will feed upon absolutely anything that is thrown at it. To the extent you say Spalding's statements effected a righting of the scales, I can't agree. He is preaching to the choir and of course they feel better, but he is also feeding the beast he wants to stifle.

That said, if Spalding enjoys the trip into the abyss, good for him.


Rob Willms

April 4, 2012, 12:41 AM

Okay. I'll take the rhetorical bait, but I swear I'm not going to enjoy it! In fact, beware: I'll probably just take advantage of finding out how I'm wrong.

Art is more than entertainment—it has to be. Otherwise it is just seasoning. Flavour. The stuff that helps us swallow our required minerals and vitamins in quantity. If so, why do I feel the deeper need for it? I take art as necessary, sustaining stuff unto itself. Like when I buy carrots to grate into my taco salad even though I don't typically care for the taste of them, it's what I chemically crave without really knowing why or what's in them. I'm suggesting that attending to art, really feeling it, is a necessary neurological activity; it is as refreshing to the amygdala as a glass of clear water is to the bloodstream. Too many people walking around are dehydrated and drinking pop.

I'm not quite ready to admit art is merely an addictive vehicle of diversion. Someone show me how things aesthetically experienced are not crucial to (a healthy) life.



April 4, 2012, 7:59 AM

John, like I said, the reasons against don't contradict the reasons for. There's a case for not feeding the trolls, as we say on the Internet. But thinking through it, Spalding says something negative about Hirst, and Hirst, at most, uses that as proof that what he's doing is valid. The work already doesn't justify itself, and that is what will finally do it in. This is true whether Spalding points it out or not, but it's good that he did.

Rob, if your family wanted for food or shelter, you could mostly forget about art until they were fed and housed. But that accomplished, pasttimes are a crucial component of human existence and some of the great pleasures of life ride in on them. Your need for entertainment and play is a legitimate, universal need. That said, there are fine and cheap entertainments, hence your pop-drinkers.


Walter Darby Bannard

April 4, 2012, 9:51 AM

Spalding was actually banned from the exhibition? This is astonishing. It should be big news, and I hope it turns out that way. If I were an eager, ambitious art journalist I would certainly grab it and run with it, but it may just die from apathy and confusion. And the Tate, of course, is missing a great opportunity to look good by accommodating a critic, or even look bad and get all the publicity. Stupid!

The whole thing - the show, the artist, the institution, the choices made - are simple symptoms of the utter pathology of the art system. So may comparisons could be made to the medieval social lunacies which abound in our history!

Rob, you are presuming an unjustified negative value to the word "entertainment". Entertainment is just entertainment. The aphorism states in part, "Art is merely a kind of entertainment that brings us something we value very highly." The "value very highly" is whatever it is that art does for us. It is the nourishment you refer to, and our taste is what delivers it to us. If we are not entertained by what we are looking at we don't get the good stuff; we are bored and go away. I hope this clarifies it for you.


John Link

April 4, 2012, 11:58 AM

Rob, you are giving short shrift to "entertainment". It is absolutely necessary. People kill themselves when they quit having any fun in life. Entertainment is broad, and not always highfalutin' and a source of salvation. One of the shortcomings of high visual art as compared to high theater is its shortage of comedy. Instead of real comedy like we get in Shakespeare or Chaucer we have to settle for the tiny wit of Duchamp who never was good enough to pack it into art. (There are exceptions but they are too few for my expectations.) So the ground of visual art is fertilized in favor of the myth that it is a sacrament instead of a pleasure. Besides, pleasure is a sacrament, just not a sanctimonious one.

Franklin, your guy Spalding did have Hirst by the short hairs when he discussed the issue of Michelangelo and who was first to do David and how irrelevant that is. First is first and good is something else entirely. But instead of going for the jugular he exposed so well, Spalding reversed field and criticized Duchamp for being the second to use a piss pot for subject, borrowing it from this woman Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. There was a wonderful opportunity to examine the last 50 years of utter confusion about the nature of originality, but it was passed by. Oh well. The artists I respect understand it well enough without anyone explaining it in words.

Cheers, you guys.


John Link

April 4, 2012, 4:16 PM

Darby, as I read the article, Spalding was not banned from the show, just banned from giving an interview about the work while standing before it. Nothing to be admired, but not the same as a blanket ban. But then, maybe they did that too. It does seem like all the world is a stage and everybody is playing their assigned role.

As far as "pathology" goes, yes, it is large and will assimilate whatever approaches it. It digests but does not clarify.


Alan Pocaro

April 4, 2012, 9:54 PM

Good for Julian Spalding, but he's a little late to the party. Beating up Hirst has been a sub-genre of art criticism for a long time. A lot of what he writes sounds suspiciously like things that Michael Paraskos has been saying for years. For my part, I haven't forgiven Hirst for the hack-job he did on Blur's Country House video back in '95. Horrible.

I'm on the fence about art as entertainment for the simple reason that making art is not very entertaining. But I'm willing to admit that the word calls up an unfair negative connotation.

The value of criticism as I see it is as a form of education. I'm not a huge football guy, but I learn a lot from the guys who love it, and reading their criticism of a player's performance educates me about the finer points of the game. Is not art criticism the same? Sure, negative reactions to Cindy Sherman's work maybe just more grist for the PR mill, but I think there's a near moral imperative to say, "Hey, this is not good, and here's why." And then point out what is good and why.

Okay, that's both my pennies.


Walter Darby Bannard

April 5, 2012, 12:19 PM

Very good, John. Excellent posts and explication of entertainment. "It digests but does not clarify"—it eats and excretes, and that's what we are left with.

Actually, Spalding sounds like a dope. Perhaps he is just after publicity.


Rob Willms

April 5, 2012, 6:54 PM

I still sense there's room here for the thin edge of the wedge, to pry open the gap between art's aesthetic impact and its entertainment quotient.

I'm aware of the hierarchy of needs. And I don't really think my last comment was sapping entertainment's contribution to little daily pleasures— I enjoy sweets and seasonings as much as the next guy. But to let the metaphor out a little, sugars and salts only contribute to a healthy diet in the smallest quantities and past a certain point more of either is indiscernible, and not better for a person but detrimental. Entertainments may be analogical.

It's pretty basic to know when something is entertaining, or when I'm feeling entertained. I've also got a good handle on when what I'm seeing is working as art. But art-ness is not measurable by the entertainment ruler, nor vice-versa. And "entertainment" is a category with at least as porous a membrane as "art"; neither can be encapsulated by the other.


Walter Darby Bannard

April 5, 2012, 10:25 PM

Rob, you are hanging on to a semantic prejudice. Entertainment is merely the state of engaging with and enjoying something. Being entertained by art and getting what the art has is simultaneous. Art is not "more than" entertainment; it is a type of entertainment that brings you something "more".


Chris Rywalt

April 6, 2012, 9:50 AM

Adam Gopnik has an interesting piece in the April 9, 2012 New Yorker (here is the abstract) on Albert Camus. I thought this brief bit on editorial writing—which is, in a sense, criticism—was worth copying out of the issue. And maybe you, Franklin, can take something from this on why to bother with art criticism.

Good editorial writing has less to do with winning an argument, since the other side is mostly not listening, than with telling the guys on your side how they ought to sound when they're arguing. It's a form of conducting, really, where the writer tries to strike a downbeat, a tonic note, for the whole of his section. Not "Say this!" but "Sound this way!" is what the great editorialists teach.

Also, regarding the word "entertainment": I think the trouble is that English has no word for something that's not quite fun but has no other purpose than pleasure. By your reasoning, Darby, coitus is also entertainment—which it is, except I think most people would prefer to classify it as somewhere beyond entertainment. It's not entertaining the way a movie is entertaining, or swinging on the swings at the park is entertaining. The word "entertainment" simply doesn't seem to carry the meaning we want here, but I can't find a word that does. I think that's where Rob is getting hung up: seeing a great painting isn't exactly entertaining like a comedian's stand-up act, but it is pleasureable without having any real dimension of uplift or ennoblement.

Although a couple of centuries ago arguments would have been marshalled against that. As Roger Scruton says in "Why Beauty Matters," beauty embodied in great art was once thought to be good for you, something that would actively improve you as a person. I'm not sure why we've decided that doesn't happen. I don't recall Stalin or Hitler having very well developed aesthetics; maybe there really is a connection.


John Link

April 6, 2012, 3:19 PM

Darby, yes, Spalding is playing his role, probably to his personal gain in the end.

For all, "going beyond", "providing more than", et cetera, may have their origin in the distinction between high art and, for lack of a better phrase, non-high art. We must remember that high art, in the end, is just art. Good, yes, but it does nothing to solve the predicaments of life, except provide a time-out from them. Non-high art does that too. All entertainment does that. I can tap my foot to Gwyneth Paltrow singing "Country Strong" and get a kick out of it—not the same kick I get from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in F," but it is of the same type and can be quite satisfying. She has good pipes and the song is decent enough.

Alan, I could not agree more that making art is quite a different process than enjoying it. Try my own essay, The Hardness of Art.

Chris, despots are just as affected by the predicaments of life as the rest of us and therefore, in theory, can also benefit just as much from the time-out art offers from them. (I hope we don't get into the Nazi thing.)


Rob Willms

April 7, 2012, 2:06 AM

What I'm working out are experiential prejudices, and yes, maybe fumbling semantical expressions of the same. But don't just coo and pat me on the head. I'm not satisfied by the openended logic: if "entertainment is merely the state of engaging with and enjoying something... and art is a type of entertainment that brings you something 'more'", then food is a type of entertainment, and so are cars, and the ocean, and what in the world isn't? And then what use is the designation, the distinction—just to disabuse us of highmindedness?


Alan Pocaro

April 7, 2012, 12:20 PM

Be careful Rob, semantic arguments can get a little hairy around here as this excellent video of Darby from 1988 illustrates.


Chris Rywalt

April 8, 2012, 1:33 PM

See, Rob, I'm on your side. To define entertainment so simply and broadly leaves it meaningless. I think movies make a good example here, as does Gwyneth Paltrow's singing versus Bach. In both cases, there are examples which are entertaining and there are ones which are entertaining and more. Bach -- played live, not recorded -- is not just different from Gwyneth's caterwauling in quality, I'd argue it's different in category. Gwyneth may be entertaining and so might Bach, but Bach can reach down inside you and pull something out you didn't know was there, a flood of emotion you might not expect (and might even be resistant to). Movies are likewise: They encompass films which are merely enjoyable (and quite a few which are dreadful) but every so often they're much better than that. (Personally I don't think movies are art, quite, but let's not argue that right now.)

Visual art can be decoration or it can be better than that. It's entertainment, broadly speaking, but I do think we want a word that means something more than that. Bach, Beethoven, a Broadway play, perhaps a movie, these things are capable of vaulting past entertainment. Just because we don't have a word for it, Darby, that doesn't mean "entertainment" can cover it.


Walter Darby Bannard

April 8, 2012, 3:40 PM

I was much younger then, Alan.

Rob, perhaps I shouldn't have used the qualifier "merely". You're right; as I put it, "entertainment" would be anything you like, or maybe even something you don't like but are intended to like.

Like all words, "entertainment" is limited in actual usage. Otherwise, as you say, it would be too broad to be useful. In my opinion our actual relationship with art is similar enough to what we understand as "entertainment" to be seen as "entertainment", of its own special kind. And, of course, I am goosing the idea with a little hyperbole to make a point.

It's okay if you don't agree with me.

Chris, you are missing the whole point. As I explained above I did oversimplify. Of course good art is "entertaining and more", as the aphorism clearly states. That does not make art "not entertainment". A thing is entertainment if you take it that way, and art if you take it another way, or both is you take it that way. Good or bad is another matter. This all is really quite elementary, Watson.

As for decoration, here is Aphorism #35.

A painting isn’t bad just because it looks good over the couch.

We think it is demeaning and vulgar to treat art as decoration, and we go to great lengths to justify the art we like as “more than” decoration.

But good art is not more than decoration. It is simply good art which also may be decorative.

It is much more demeaning and vulgar to insist that the art we like is “disturbing” and “challenging” in an effort to demonstrate that we are somehow above common enjoyment and pleasure.


Chris Rywalt

April 8, 2012, 4:42 PM

I think good art is more than decoration. It doesn't have to be less than decoration—"disturbing" or "challenging"—but when art is good (or even great) it's more than decorative. It may encompass decoration (and it may not). Although there's a edge to this sticker I'm considering picking at: perhaps something that is decorative simply can't be great, because truly great art can't become background the way a decoration must. If you can happily sit in the same room with a painting without being distracted by it, maybe it's not that good.

I would also posit that taking great art as entertainment is similar to taking coitus as entertainment or Bach as entertainment—if you really can use such a weak term to cover the experience, maybe your neurons don't go all the way up.

You're free to redefine the word "entertainment" if you like, Darby, but there are some of us who might prefer "hanging on to a semantic prejudice".


Walter Darby Bannard

April 8, 2012, 5:55 PM

Obviously I am getting into the same old impossibility of demonstrating obvious semantic clarities, which usually end up with me, unlike Achilles, just giving up.

A thing is defined by use. A Rembrandt on a wall seen by a connoisseur is a work of art. Seen by a decorator it is decoration. Seen by a workman doing a rush job it is a hole-in-the-wall cover.

The world is full of stuff, 99% of which is assigned stable designations so that we can negotiate our way through life. This is called "categorical assumption".

We need categorical assumption to get through the day, Obviously the world would be chaos without it. But it doesn't always work. The Rembrandt might (also) be a fake, fooling the connoisseur, who accepts the given categorical assumption. The (ignorant) decorator may think it is a decorative monstrosity and throw it in the trash. The workman might chip off part of a 17th century frame to make it fit over the hole.

Do you see what I mean? everything is this or that or something else according to circumstances and judgment. Art is not "more" than decoration. In fact it might be just awful as decoration and be great art. Or good decoration and lousy art. Or both. Or whatever. It doesn't matter. A thing is just what you take it to be. It nominally only is what it is in a particular instant of human comprehension.



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