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Guest Writer

Which is better?
Art vs. art criticism
by Neil Anderson

very culture has had art, but no human society can be considered civilized unless some members take the trouble to write about art and thereby enable everyone else to appreciate it.

Imagine the horrible prospect of being presented a painting without any accompanying criticism. One would be left entirely at the mercy of one’s own subjective preference – a prospect that no intelligent person can view with equanimity.

Therefore, it is a universal verity that art cannot properly exist without art criticism. After all, without art criticism, people might not have the nerve to say, "If I don’t get it, the artist’s not doing it right."

Art criticism puts artists in their place. Rarely, however, is the converse question considered: Does art criticism really need art? Is art criticism better than art?

Some might scoff at the very idea of such a question and sarcastically rejoin: without art, what would art critics have to write about? No, placing art criticism above art would be mistaking the grove for the saplings, placing the wagon before the freckled, towheaded child, and building a paper tiger with paws of clay.

In short, some might simplistically conclude, art criticism cannot exist without art – let alone exceed it in importance.

Such an argument, however, ignores the fact that art criticism without art already exists. A great deal of contemporary art criticism consists of stringing together a series of expository, sonorous generalizations applied to each exhibit attended by the author. Great portent is achieved with virtually no content. No knowledge of contemporary art is exhibited by the author, and no knowledge of contemporary art is required on the part of the reader.

This is a laudable development in the history of art criticism.

The most devastating criticism that can be made in regard to a work of art is “I can’t relate to it.” One’s ability to appreciate art thus depends on the degree to which one can see oneself reflected in the work of art in question.

To the extent that art gets in the way and obscures that reflection, art impedes the progress of worthwhile art criticism. Discussing the artist’s subject matter, time period, contemporaries and medium are the common pitfalls to which some misguided art critics, such as David Hickey, Jed Pearl, Lance Esplund, Jeff Jahn and the late David Sylvester have all too sadly fallen prey.

By contrast, good art criticism (art criticism without art) cuts out the superfluous middleman. One can only applaud this evolution in art criticism and eagerly await the inevitable result: a society in which the citizens are no longer confronted with the new, the different, the unconventional, the uncontrived – the unexplained – but instead gaze in serene contemplation at ... themselves.

See more from Neil in our archives.

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