I was one of the writers participating in the 23rd Annual Critics’ Residency program, at the Maryland Art Place. Along the way, I saw some great art, met some interesting people, and I’ve grown as a writer. Art criticism is a new “language” for me, but I think I’ve definitely learned some new vocabulary.
All posts tagged art criticism
Today I finished reading The Basis of Criticism in the Arts by Stephen C. Pepper. I promised a friend that I would a quick overview of the four categories of art criticism that are described in the book.
Stephen C. Pepper’s “Theory of Empirical Criticism” goes something like this. Good criticism, even art criticism, is akin to good philosophy. It ought to be rational, and based on evidence. Data, such as empirical observations (i.e. “facts”) can be given as evidence. Feelings and impressions can be given as factual evidence, too. Evidence of feelings and impressions is called “danda” – an often overlooked type of evidence, in the sciences, but a very important one when it comes to art. Evidence of these facts is the only legitimate basis for criticism. (Skepticism is not as good as evidence. Dogma is not as good as evidence. Superstition is not to be confused with danda; it is not evidence. )
Pepper says there are four useful ways to organize evidence. With these things in mind, he proposes four distinct ways to approach art criticism.
This is probably the most common, and perhaps the default type of art criticism. Here’s how it works. It should be self-evident that pleasure is good, pain is bad. Mechanistic criticism is a logical extension of that truth. If the art causes pleasure, then it is good art. If it does not cause pleasure, then it is bad art. (The “mechanistic” question here seems to be, “How does the art cause me to feel?” ) Since people have varying thresholds for pain and pleasure, it makes sense that they would have varying standards regarding the qualities of art. Sophisticated mechanistic criticism will delve into the reasons why a work of art can cause pleasure. The mechanics of pleasure can be at work wherever the senses can find it: sound, rhythm, sight, pattern, texture, etc.. Conversely, a sophisticated mechanistic criticism will criticize art in terms of its ability or failure to cause pleasure. If the art fails to cause pleasure, it can be compared to something that does cause pleasure, and lessons can be learned. Mechanistic criticism is often described with words like “hedonistic” or “epicurean”, although those words are unfortunately associated with gluttony. It isn’t really the goal of mechanistic criticism to advocate for gluttony, so much as mere pleasure.
This is the type of criticism that would probably be most useful for performance art, theater, and the like. Here’s how it works. All things are subject to cause and effect. With art, the object of art is (usually) the effect. The act of creating the art is (usually) the cause. In any case there’s an event involved, whenever there is art (sometimes the art itself is the event). Contextualistic criticism is chiefly concerned with events, but not just the creation events.
All things are also experienced; they are sensed somehow. With art, the object of art is experienced. It is seen, or heard, or touched or even imagined. So, contextualistic criticism is an examination of those events, the creation and the experience of the art. If the work of art involves a good experience, then it is a good work of art. If it does not involve a good experience, then it is a bad work of art. The “good experience” here is not exactly like the pleasurable experience that mechanism emphasizes. The criterion in this case is the intensity, or the depth of the experience. For example, the horrific tale of Odysseus vs. the Cyclops may be frightening, and therefore off-putting from a mechanistic point of view, but wow what a rush! From a contextualistic point of view, that rush might qualify the story as “good”.
The “event” in question might also be a historical event. Contextualism considers these events as well. For this reason, most of the types of criticism I learned about in college fall under this category: psycho-analysis, historicism, Marxism, maybe even feminism – these are all concerned with factors at play upon the art event. They are all part of the context.
Where contextualism stresses the qualities of the experience, or the event, organistic criticism stresses a unity of experience. The difference is subtle, and I’m not sure I fully understand it yet. In science, organistic thinking is any consideration for a part’s relationship to a whole: atoms and molecules, the classification of species, planets and galaxies, etc. In art, the organistic concern is the unity of things. Is the work of art a coherent whole? Do its parts combine into more than their sum? Are there no extraneous parts? Is the plot orderly? How are the parts connected? Aristotle is a perfect example of an organistic critic. About art and science and literature, he wrote about these things.
(I’d like to edit this post to contain examples of the other types of criticism, as well.)
This one has a misleading name. They all have difficult names, but this one sounds like it should be the name of organistic criticism, which considers the form of things, but no. Formistic criticism is more like psychology, or sociology. (I know, there’s a debate over whether those two things are the same. I don’t want to go there.) Stephen C. Pepper, being an American Pragmatist, had to sneak this one in at the end of his book. I smell an agenda here, so I’m going to attempt to rephrase this category.
According to Pepper: the formistic aesthetic value is defined as conformity with the norm implicit in the art object itself. In addition, formism champions common sense as the ultimate authority on whether a work of art is good, or not.
There is an ancient theory of perception, older even than Aristotle, which states that only like perceives like … A man appreciates in that only a normal man, with a well integrated and relatively free emotional life, can perceive normality. … The norm is embodied there (in the work), and a normal man finds satisfaction because his impulses are in harmony with the impulses of the work, both being normal. … Formism in its stress on the perceptions and reactions of the normal man thus acts as a sort of governor over the whole aesthetic field. It holds art to the healthy golden mean, to what is sane and sound.
Nowadays, I’m not really sure how much we need to appeal to a “healthy golden mean” with our aesthetics. I wonder what that would do to the art market, if suddenly the demand were normalized in spite of all the variety in the product. I’m going to try to rephrase formistic criticism, as a different sort of approach to “the norm”.
If there has never been anything like it before, if it defies classification, a formistic critic will be dismayed. If there has, then the formistic critic will quickly set to work comparing the similarities, looking for the trends, the norms, the –isms and even the post-s. We have formistic criticism to thank for all the –isms in the art lexicon, I think. This is probably the second most common type of criticism, after mechanistic criticism.
How is this talk of –isms different from a contextualist discussion of events, moments, and contexts? I think the difference is that the contextualist would put the emphasis on the experience of the art, but a formistic approach is most concerned with the norms that it embodies.
There Are No Categories!
After that long discussion of –istic –isms, and right after I wash my mouth out, I’d like to question the author of this book on one more point. He says that these four categories are best left distinct from each other. He says, in the introduction, that they shouldn’t be used together. He also cautions against the influence of dogma over criticism, so I’m sure he won’t mind if I try an integrated approach. Why can’t I use them all? Why can’t I use elements from each, as needed? Wouldn’t that be a great way to avoid dogma anyway? Breaking all the criticism into categories is an interesting exercise, for explaining how the criticism works, but is it really useful as a way to conduct criticism? I guess I’ll find out.
‘Don’t trust your prejudices but believe in your instincts’
Adrian Searle on art
The only rule: look, look again, and keep on looking. If you don’t like looking, don’t write about art.
There are lots of ways of writing. Read other critics, and not just the ones who write in newspapers. You can be as creative and as mischievous, as serious or as funny as the mood takes you or the situation demands. Think about the details and also about the bigger picture. Find out how artists think, what they say and how they make their work. Find out about materials. Read everything: it’ll all be useful.
Context matters a lot, and don’t forget you are part of that context, too. Don’t always trust the things written on the gallery wall or in an exhibition catalogue. Never write about what you haven’t seen.
Don’t trust your prejudices but believe in your instincts. Respect your readers, many of whom know more than you do. Also remember that they might not have seen the things you have chosen to write about, so tell them what things look and feel like and what they make you think. Tell them why some things matter, and others don’t. Ask yourself questions. Remember that we live in 2008, not 1688.
And by the way, you might not know what you think until you’ve written about it. Writing is a voyage of discovery. You will get lost and you will get things wrong. That can be worth reading, too. Be honest, even when you’re making things up. Don’t worry if what you are doing isn’t exactly criticism. Critics work with what other people do; but don’t be afraid and go your own way.
Got any more advice? Post it in the comments!
Ever since I met with Physicalism, I’ve been curious about what its like to be an art critic. Physicalism is somewhat antagonistic towards art criticism, for its tendency towards “bullshit”, but it can’t all be bullshit, can it? What if it is? Can it be fixed?
I decided to try being an art critic first hand. Of course, I’ve got no formal training in the field. I don’t have an art degree of any sort. Although my Dad’s an art professor, and I grew up surrounded by art, artists, and talk about art, that hardly qualifies me as a competent critic. I have studied philosophy though. There’s a lot of crossover, I’m discovering, between the field of philosophy and that of art theory. I have a writing degree, so I should be able to write about anything, even art, right?
I put together a sample of my writing and submitted it so that I could be considered for the 23rd Annual Critics’ Residency Program at the Maryland Art Place. I figured it was a long shot, but what the hell. It seems like an interesting program. Here’s how they describe it.
Taking place throughout the course of a year, the program will include studio visits and writers’ workshops led by critic Vincent Katz and will culminate with an exhibition, a catalogue containing critical essays and images of selected artwork, and a public forum.
I wasn’t quite sure what to submit for a writing sample. It’s not like I’m an established art critic or anything. I haven’t even freelanced an art review for the newspaper (although, that’s an ulterior motive of mine). I thought about, maybe, including the editorial from the first issue if Infinity’s Kitchen. Then, I thought against it. Still, it’s a good read, if you haven’t read it already. I finally settled on it. I gave them an excerpt from the undergraduate thesis I wrote. The second chapter of the thesis, titled Aesthetics in a Hypertext Age had a good bit of content that passes for art criticism in it.
Then, I dug through a bunch of notes I took during college philosophy classes. I was looking for something else I could cannibalize for the writing sample. I ended up stumbling on an interesting question: “How do we make meaning of things?” I applied the question to a new essay, which ended up being too long to include in the writing sample. That essay is called Meaning and Experience. (At least, that’s the first part. There’s more to say.)
I’m happy to say that I’ve been accepted to that writing program. It starts next Saturday. I’m very excited. Until then, I’m burying my nose in a book titled The Basis of Criticism in the Arts.