Monday, September 24, 2007

Tough Love

A month or two ago, at an artist gathering, I was asked what one thing I felt the local art community needed. My answer, tough love. I believe we have come to a point where opportunity exists and it is up to all of us to make the best of it. Artists should push themselves to make better work and present themselves professionally. Curators should attempt to create more shows that have a unique perspective, shows that excite the viewer, makes them think and see things in a new way. Galleries should attempt to raise the bar on their presentation, curatorial choices, and their connection to the community. Art writers and critics should speak up and speak out about what they like and/or dislike in the community whether it is brutal or not. No one likes to hear a harsh critique of their work but when done honestly it is for the best of all. What good can false praise and back patting do for a community? I for one think it may do more harm than good.

While thinking over this idea of tough love and criticism, I was reminded of this article by Jerry Saltz from the Village Voice in 2005. Saltz had this to say about art criticism:

Art is a way of thinking, a way of knowing yourself. Opinions are tools for listening in on your thinking and expanding consciousness. Many writers treat the juiciest part of criticism, judgment, as if it were tainted or beneath them. The most interesting critics make their opinions known. Yet in most reviews there's no way to know what the writer thinks, or you have to scour the second-to-last paragraph for one negative adjective to detect a hint of disinclination. This is no-risk non-criticism. Being "post-critical" isn't possible. Everyone is judging all the time. Critics who tell you they're not judging or that they're being objective are either lying or delusional. Being critical of art is a way of showing it respect. Being subjective is being human.

Yet people regularly say, "You shouldn't write on things you don't like." This breaks my heart. No one says this to theater critics, film reviewers, restaurant critics, or sports writers. No one says, "Just say all the food was good." Nowadays, many see criticism mainly as a sales tool or a rah-rah device. Too many critics enthuse over everything they see or merely write descriptively. This sells everyone short and is creating a real disconnect. People report not liking 80 percent of the shows they see, yet 80 percent of reviews are positive or just descriptive.

Obviously, critics can't just hysterically love or hate things, or assert that certain types of art or media are inherently bad (e.g., no one has actually believed that painting is dead since the Nixon administration, yet writers regularly beat this dead horse). Critics must connect their opinions to a larger set of circumstances; present cogent arguments; show how work does or doesn't seem relevant, is or isn't derivative; explain why an artist is or isn't growing. As with Melville's ideas about art, criticism should have: "Humility—yet pride and scorn/Instinct and study; love and hate/Audacity and reverence." Good criticism should be vulnerable, chancy, candid, and nervy. It should give permission, have attitude, maybe a touch of rebellion, never be sanctimonious or dull, and be written in a distinctive, readable way. Good critics should be willing to go on intuition and be unafraid to write from parts of themselves they don't really know they have.

In a recent review for the Guardian, of artist Gary Hume's latest exhibition at White Cube gallery in London, art critic Jonathan Jones showed nothing but honesty and tough love when he had this to say about the show:
I almost want to apologise for reviewing an artist who is quite obviously falling apart, but I did go in hope of a decent comeback. After all, what is British art now? Some pretentious public sculpture that connives with popular delusions of omniscience. At least Hume never tried to be loved. But, even at his very best, he was never first-rate. Look closely into his shiny surfaces, and you will see a tiny artist trapped in the empty wastes of his own style.
Jones then posts, to his blog a post titled, Honest is the only policy for critics, in which he expounds upon the role of the art critic and the need for honesty. Jones states:
The joy of newspaper criticism, as opposed to the theory-laden art writing that appears in magazines such as Artforum, is that you can - you must - be empirical and immediate. That means saying what you honestly think, at the moment you are writing. Forgive the cliche, but honest writing is good writing. I had an experience of this while writing the Barney review. I saw the show the night before filing, and knew by the time I got home it hadn't moved me - but I wanted to believe better of this intriguing artist.

When I started to write, I originally put in far more qualifications, far more explanation of why Barney is significant, far more explication of his ideas - but this stuff was dead when I reread it. Only the tough words lived, because there I was writing what I believed. This happens again and again. In the process of writing there is a communion between art and language that actually bypasses the part of the brain that makes conversation - all the usual platitudes are stripped away. My motto is: "In scripta veritas".

Criticism means never saying you are sorry. It means shrugging off mistakes and freely acknowledging you got it wrong that other time. Most of all it means attaining a greater level of honesty and clarity than you ever achieve in everyday conversation.
Jones review of Hume may be more to the extreme of harsh criticism than we are used to in Indy but he at least lays it on the line. There is no mistake of how he feels about the show.

While I am a firm believer in the need for tough love, particularly when it comes to the discussion of art, I don't believe it should be mean spirited or not backed up with explanation. Criticism can be harsh and honest and still be constructive. Artists may get upset by this sort of harsh/honest criticism but I would ask them this, would you prefer false praise and accolades? Higher demands on quality tends to drive, competition, which in turn drives more quality. We as an art community should hold our bar high.

5 Responses to “Tough Love”

The Dude said...
September 25, 2007 at 7:35 AM

Yeah, it's not so much about tough love, or about being harsh or honest, it's about being insightful and meaningful, about knowing what you are seeing.

James Wille Faust said...
September 25, 2007 at 1:34 PM

Critcism is a must for a an artist
to grow,
but never let criticism
stop you from growing,
and always question praise also.

Keep your mind open and stay

Thanks for bring this to light,
Artist need this insight.

James Wille Faust

Kevin Freitas said...
September 25, 2007 at 8:16 PM

Couldn't agree more...

the dude said...
September 25, 2007 at 10:48 PM

Thanks for the poem of guidance, James Wille Fuast. That's helpful.

William Dolan said...
September 26, 2007 at 6:05 PM

I agree with this.

I welcome negative criticism of my work and the more specific it is, the better. Vague negative reaction seems more of a dismissal. Real problems one might have with the paintings can be addressed. I can do something about it, either by working on something that is lacking (presentation, execution, personal impression, etc.), or by ignoring the comments because they may just be prejudices of the viewer (more abstraction, less paint, more conceptual, etc.).

Vague comments only leave me guessing what's wrong. This can be hurtful, almost like name-calling.

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