Critical Engagement

Dan Hopewell raises questions in response to the previous post that are too good to be buried in the comments section.

In rejecting Danto’s notion of a pluralistic, posthistorical mode, what do you see as the implications for contemporary criticism? Is it still resigned to cast about in the wake of Western Art’s post-grad growing pains, or should it be capable of a greater agency in working through it? Or is the stagnation of criticism more fundamental to the very “problem” itself? […]

These are, indeed, “the big questions”. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, but I don’t honestly think we’re in a position to answer them, i.e. to provide sufficient explanation and understanding of the current situation to enable us to overcome their hold on us and their demand for immediate attention. That we feel their claim on us suggests, of course, that criticism matters, that it plays a valuable role in our social and cultural lives, that it gives back more than it takes from us in time, nerve, and effort.

For example, I’ve always thought that artists have a responsibility to one another to respond to work honestly, thoughtfully, and spontaneously. Too often one visits another’s studio and immediately the talk turns to anything but one’s honest reaction to, and assessment of, the work itself — that level of engagement takes honesty, care, and a willingness to risk misunderstanding and, in extreme sitations, even the relationship itself. There are a lot of feelings that come into play at such moments. Anyone who’s been through a decent art school critique learns at an early age that exposure and critical attention puts the artist in a sensitive and vulnerable position. It’s difficult for everyone involved. But if the people for whom it matters most avoid this sustained confrontation with another’s work and refuse to speak honestly about what they see, there’s very little likelihood that anyone will.

It’s too often the case that grad school is the last time an artist can expect to get an honest and helpful response to their work. As Sarah Hromack makes clear in her witty send up of art school poseurs, it’s easy, often self-protective, and perversely satisfying to simply write others off as lacking in seriousness and purpose. That, in itself, is based on a complex critical assessment that should also be clearly articulated and “shared” with the artist — would-be or otherwise — who lacks the self-awareness necessary to discern how fatuous and dishonest their connection to art has become. That’s what it means to take someone seriously and it’s what’s required of anyone who cares deeply about the endeavor. Whether the other person deserves one’s sincerity is another matter.

Critics, by definition, should be held to the same standard. They owe it to the artist to be honest and to engage in an exchange over the meaning and significance of the work, as well as its role in a larger critical and historical context. The vulnerability and consequences may change depending on whether the discussion takes place in the studio or in a public forum, but the responsibility should be accepted.

The value of criticism goes beyond the ethics of engagement. If that were all that were at stake we would be dealing with little more than abstract moralizing. But surely it’s the effects that matter since the one who is critiqued is able to see more clearly how the work is actually being received. Nor is that process itself straightforward and direct. Understanding the response of the critic itself entails interpretation and assessment. So everyone involved is caught up in a delicate exchange involving perception, response, articulation, and (yes…) judgment. This enables all involved to sharpen their wits and refine their practice, whether it be expression through an artistic medium or engagement and understanding through the medium of ordinary language.

This is the very first step we must take in order for there to be any hope of creating a lively and productive critical environment. But it’s not sufficient. There are too many other obstacles in place that must also be examined and dismantled.

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