Exploring the junction of criticism and art


I WAS TALKING TO A group of graduate students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, last week, and the question of the role of critics came up.

As a newspaper journalist who writes about the arts, I obviously have mixed feelings on the subject.

On the one hand, I am reminded of composer Leos Janacek's famous remark that "Nobody ever built a monument to a critic."

On the other hand, I have to believe that perceptive writing about the arts surely serves a useful educational purpose.

One wonders, for example, whether contemporary art and artists could ever have become so embroiled in partisan political

controversy -- witness the cases of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano -- if the aesthetic and moral issues underlying their work were more widely understood and appreciated.

Unlike writers, the visual artist or musician confronts a special barrier to comprehension, stemming from the fact that what he or she does often cannot be easily translated into words, and sometimes defies verbal description altogether.

As a writer, I may have complex and powerful responses to a painting or a piece of music, but no matter how meticulously I describe them to a reader, my words can never be a substitute for the reader's own experience of the work.

There is no way, for example, that someone who has not seen "Guernica," Picasso's famous portrait of a village during the Spanish civil war, can understand what the painting is about, any more than someone who has not heard the "Rite of Spring" can understand what Stravinsky meant by his revolutionary composition.

The comprehension of such works is inseparable from the experience of them. The artist or musician works with paint and canvas or tones of the musical scale precisely because what he or she wishes to communicate cannot be said in words.

Critical styles, of course, are subject to fashion, and the fashion these days tends toward an excessively abstract and arcane discourse that grinds the ax for whatever the writer's preferred intellectual frame of reference happens to be -- Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, etc.

Many cunning and illuminating arguments have been woven from such ideological threads, but one nevertheless begins to suspect their usefulness when the commentary starts to seem more interesting than the art itself.

As a serious student of photography, for example, I am somewhat troubled by the fact that the critical discussion of artists like Cindy Sherman or Sherrie Levine actually strikes me as more impressive than the photographs they have produced.

Over the past decade and a half, Sherman has created a remarkable series of fictional self-portraits in which she appears as a character in B-grade movies and famous historical settings. Levine made a name for herself by copying famous photographs ofher predecessors and presenting them as her own work.

Both Sherman and Levine have used photography as a way of examining the relationship between "original" and "copy" -- and thus of exploring larger issues of personal and artistic authenticity.

To be fair, a school of thought today suggests that one of the functions of the contemporary artist is precisely to raise such aesthetic and socio-political issues, which force viewers to confront long-held assumptions and unconscious biases.

Certainly no one is suggesting that Sherman and Levine's work is unethical or fraudulent. Indeed, the very originality of their vision lies in the methods they have developed to address concerns about the artist as creator and interpreter of meanings.

Still, the fact remains that the discussion provoked by these artists is, to my mind at least, much more interesting than the pictures themselves.

To me, they function purely on the intellectual or mental plane. They simply cannot evoke the deep psychological and emotional responses that I find in the work of great photographers like Edward Weston or Henri Cartier Bresson -- or even in many of the very compelling images routinely produced by photojournalists.

Of course, this situation is not unique to photographers. Much contemporary music, for example, seems to exist solely to exemplify certain nontraditional compositional and performance practices, utterly disregarding any obligation on the composer's part to entertain and enlighten his or her audience.

The same could be said of contemporary painting, sculpture and performance art. The latter, in particular, seems to me almost wholly given over to deracinated abstractions, conveying neither the drama of true theater nor the visual poetry of dance.

Ultimately, I feel there is something off-putting about this situation, though I am not sure what it is or how it might be fixed. But perhaps it is not unrelated to the tyranny of criticism, which sometimes seems to dictate what younger artists, especially, believe they ought to produce, whether or not it corresponds with the inner vision they are struggling to develop.

Of course, there is always the possibility that I am simply a philistine, irrationally biased against all that is new and valuable by a narrow, restricted notion of past aesthetic glory. Certainly I would not be the first commentator -- or the last -- to fall into that trap.

In the end, I had to tell the institute students to beware of taking any critic -- favorable or unfavorable -- too seriously. After all, if their work is truly worthwhile, eventually its value will become apparent -- regardless of the commentary that attends it.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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