A Literary Journal and Resource for All the Arts P.O. Box 730 · Mt. Marion, NY 12456
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Cornelia Seckel, Publisher · Raymond J. Steiner, Editor
THE ART OF ART CRITICISM ©
RAYMOND J. STEINER
AROUND TEN YEARS ago, while I was interviewing him for my book on The Art Students League, fellow Salmagundian Will Barnet shared some of his views on criticism with me. I had asked him why he thought critics seemed to hold so much power these days. It was his thought that it began after WWII when the G.I. Bill opened the doors to an unprecedented number of people to go on to higher education. Almost overnight, we suddenly had a larger and more spophisticated middle class. This left us with an expanded cultural base, but one that almost wholly depended on the written word. Newpapers and magazines proliferated as a growing population of hungry readers demanded more. Will felt, however, that although we now had a larger number of people who now read, there were few who were taught how to read art.
Now Will was not talking about a particular kind of art here — we were talking about all art, representational as well as non-representational. Granted that some types of art are more difficult than others to understand — but in reality all art takes a certain level of sophisitication to properly read. Another artist friend of mind, Ted Denyer, once pointed out to me that when untutored museum-goers walk through a gallery and are prompted to pause before a particular painting, they do not always know what it is that caused them to stop in the first place. “But,” Ted insisted, “as soon as they start looking at the picture — ‘Oh, this a harbor scene, boats in the foreground, people standing around on the docks’ — then they stop looking at the painting.”
As Will said, people may know how to read, but it takes some practice to read a work of art — so gallery and museum-goers largely depend on what they read about art rather than on what they are seeing. Slowly but surely, Will said, the critics rose in power as they posed as interpreters and explicators, acting as middlemen between the artist and the public. The problem for artists, Will felt, was that it has now gotten to the point that no matter how good an artist is, if he or she doesn’t have someone write about them they had little chance of success in today’s art-marketing climate which heavily relies on advertising — in brief, the cleverly written word. Then he said an extraordinary thing — something that has stayed with me ever since.
“Today,” Will said, “one word is worth a thousand pictures.”
How did we get to this point?
Historically, critics were not always given such power. In fact, there was a time when critics used to get about as much respect as Rodney Daingerfield. You remember him — “I told my dentist that my teeth looked yellow — he told me to wear a brown tie!”
Critics have long been held suspect. The historian Pliny tells us that as far back as 400 BC., Zeuxis wrote, “Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship.” Imagine that! 400 BC! They were onto us way back then.
Here are a few quotes from more modern sources:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, if they could; they have tried their talents at one or the other, and have failed; therefore they turn critics.”
Benjamin Disraeli: “You know who the critics are? The men who have failed in literature and art.”
George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron:
“A man must serve his time to every trade
Save censure—critics are all ready-made.”
In a somewhat lighter vein…
Mark Twain once wrote to a friend: “Tomorrow night I appear for the first time before a Boston audience—4000 critics!”
When I spoke about art criticism some years ago at the Woodstock School of Art in Woodstock, New York, a member of the audience — a painter — offered an observation made by Brendan Behan. Behan said that a critic was like a eunuch — he might know all the technical details of how it was done — but couldn’t do it himself.
In his biography of that great author, Graham Robb wrote that Victor Hugo once described critics as "fungus at the foot of oaks."
Strong stuff — but perhaps the most sobering comment to remember is Jean Sibelius’ observation that "no statue has ever been put up of a critic."
We could go on — Bartlett’s Quotations will more than satisfy your appetite to revile critics — but since so many had such negative things to say about critics, you have to assume that where there’s so much smoke, that there just has to be some fire — some truth behind such resentment.
Still, not all critics had enemies, however, and some did reluctantly admit that they had a purpose…
William Somerset Maughm:
“People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”
And some even thought that a critic ought to be shielded from criticism ....
Howard Mumford Jones:
“Persecution is the first law of society because it is always easier to suppress criticism than to meet it.”
And what about the artist as critic? One hears from time to time that if anyone ought to criticize art, then it should be the artist who does so...
However, Herbert George Wells wrote:
“An artist who theorizes about his work is no longer artist but critic.”
And, although most prefer to remain anonymous, many have noted that “If artists made good critics, there wouldn’t be any bad artists.”
Over the years, I’ve been cheerily abused by — and taking to heart — many observations made by artists that I’ve come to know and with whom I’ve spent time. The late Karl Fortess — Woodstock painter and class monitor for Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s League summer sessions up in that colony — once told me that he gave up worrying about what critics said about him. “I consider myself lucky,” he said, “if I don’t come off looking like a child-molester.” Jack Levine — an artist I’ve known for many years and often had occasions to visit and share meals with — had such a mental block about critics that he always had difficulty recalling my name each time we met. (He always remembered Cornelia’s name, though). And, although I never had the opportunity to sit and chat with him, I understand that Philip Guston — when asked by some critic how come he took such a drastic tack from his fellow artists up in Woodstock — echoed Ben Shahn by retorting, “What are we — a baseball team?”
So, do we need critics or not? And, if we do need ‘em — do we have to accept as gospel everything they say? Does Will Barnett’s comment that “one word is worth a thousand pictures” ring true for you?
Let’s step back to take a long view — get a little perspective here —and, since it is obvious that before we could write about art we had to have art, let’s begin there.
As far as we can tell, cave paintings come from the Pleistocene Age, some 40,000 years B.C. and, judging from the relative sophistication of some of these works, it is clear that the making of images — at least those odd squiggles and lines that we find on ancient Stone-Age tombs and cliff faces — must have been around for a good time longer.
Otto Rank, in his Art and Artists, argues — rather convincingly, to my mind — that pre-historic image-making represents the first signs of an other-worldly — or “spiritual” — exploration into what our early ancestors could not comprehend. We cannot decipher these early carvings of geometric patterns or seemingly aimless squiggles — but Rank proposes that they must have meant something to those stone-age image-makers. Whatever these markings represent, they are non-representational — abstract, if you will — and apparently unrelated to anything these early “artists” might be seeing in their world. Hence, Rank surmises that they represent something “inner” — something “other” — something “beyond” — in his terms, some primitive attempt at expressing the “inexpressible.” Today, we might term these expressive markings “religious” — analogous to our own intentions to define or understand or come to grips with a power beyond our comprehension.
By the time we get to the cave paintings, refined tools and a better understanding of mixing pigments led to a much more sophisticated image-making process. However, a major change occurred in that it appears that artists began to stop looking “heavenward” for inspiration and started looking “earthward” — started looking at and reproducing what he could see rather than try to express the ineffable things he felt. In short, by the time we get to buffalos and deer depicted on cave walls, his art became representational as he began to imitate or reproduce his physical — rather than his “spiritual” — world.
Now, whether or not we accept Otto Ranks’s theory that our stone-age, image-making, ancestors were in fact practicing some kind of “proto-religion” — one thing is absolutely certain and that is that image-making — at least in its earliest stages — predated either spoken or written language by what appears to be thousands upon thousands of years.
So, let’s make clear right now: Contrary to popular belief — religious or otherwise — “In the beginning” it was not the word but the image.
So much for art at this point — now let’s turn to artists.
Although image-making has been around since pre-historic times, at first —and for a long time afterward—there was no “art criticism” since, effectively, there were no artists—or, for that matter, “art” as we understand that term. As far as we know — at least in the history of Western art — from early Greek society on and up through the middle ages, “artists” were not thought of as “artists” but simply as artisans — the Greeks called them banausos. In social class they were ranked among barbers, cooks and smiths.
Plato, as many of you know, banned not only poets but artists as well from his ideal Republic. He did so since by his time most artists were representational — i.e., imitating nature — only making copies of the world — and, to Plato’s mind, this was a mistake since the visual world was already a copy of his ideal world of pure form. Without attempting any extensive explication of Platonic philosophy here, Plato envisioned the world as a place of becoming and the ideal world—“heaven” if you will—as a place of being. In this absolute ideal world all forms were in their purest state. On earth they merely approximated that ideal, always becoming, always striving for their purest expression. Simplistically stated, there existed an “ideal” tree, for example, in the world of being; earthly trees, as evidenced by their manifold shapes, merely strive toward perfection in this world of becoming — in our world. Artists were banned from his ideal Republic, therefore, because they merely made copies of copies, managing only to take us one step further from the ideal of truth, goodness and beauty that Plato felt characterized that perfect state of ideal Being.
And even when some artists began to be singled out — as special or different from other artisans — the work of art did not even “belong” to the artist and was viewed not as a product of human creativity but as something “god-inspired.” The human maker was only a conduit, an animated channeler doing the bidding of some higher force — not unlike those early image-makers, in fact, that Otto Rank speaks of who were responding to some outside, unknowable urge.
This attitude toward art and artists persisted — with the exception of the Renaissance Period which we will return to momentarily — well into and through the middle ages and, as those of you who have studied art history know, most “artists” were nameless — nameless since who did the creations of craftsmen in the Middle Ages was largely irrelevant, the work done only in the name of religion or the state or whatever higher power was supporting or paying the maker. A carving, a painting on a wall, a delicately crafted steeple, an ornate palace entryway, was merely a part of a greater effort which had nothing to do with what would become known as “art” — but everything to do with power, politics or religion. Pieces of what we now call “art,” then, weren’t signed because there were no “artists” whose egos as creators signified. At this point in time, “aesthetics” — the study of beauty — was not even thought of.
During the Italian Renaissance — that short period of creative flowering — two things dramatically changed: the first was the attitude towards art and, the second, by extension, the attitude toward those who made it — the artists.
One man who stands at a sort of crossroads of this flowering was Cennino Cennini, an Italian who lived from 1370 to 1440 and who wrote Il libro dell’arte, a kind of handbook for artists, defining especially the terms of apprenticeship as he then saw it. Although he didn’t succeed in moving artists up the social scale any, he did what no one had previously done — he wrote about the technical and aesthetic aspects of a trade that — if known and transmitted by artists to their apprentices since time immemmorial — had been largely ignored by nearly everyone of any social, economic, religious, or political standing. In effect, he wrote the first art book or book about art in Western Tradition that has survived and come down to us.
SHORT HISTORY OF ART HISTORY, ART CRITICISM:
Cennino’s little book — whatever it did for the artist — opened up a Pandora’s box that, to this day, is still pretty much a mixed bag and one that is definitely still with us. It wouldn’t be long before other writers would jump onto the bandwagon, giving their opinions and their slant on all aspects of the artist’s trade. Cennino was followed during the Italian Renaissance by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), both of whom extended the discussion to include earlier as well as contemporary artists and methods. Artwriting — as a distinct discipline — was thus born — but still, in the beginning, pretty much a hodge-podge of technical how-to, aesthetics, artist’s profiles, art history, and judgment-making.
Only gradually did things separate themselves out, with some writers now concentrating on one or another aspect rather than attempting to write about the whole business of art-making. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), for example, is given credit for putting in writing the very first commentary on landscape painting. Pietro Aretino, (1492-1556) is often given the distinction of being the first art critic while Georgio Vasari (1511-1574) is often called the father of art history. Today, however, none of these early writings actually conform to what we might strictly call art reviews, art history, or art criticism. Dürer’s commentary on landscape was a passing comment contained in a larger treatise; Aretino did base his comments on actual works but wrote about many other things as well — and Vasari was writing more what we would call artist biography than he was writing art history.
It would take years before these various kinds of artwriting would “harden” into distinct disciplines, most notably during the Age of Enlightenment and only after a good bit of it passed through the rigorous and logical German minds of such thinkers as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) and Jakob Burckhardt (1818-1897) — men of letters such as Johann Wolfgang van Goethe (1749-1832) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1783) — and such philosophers as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).
Others, of course, joined in the fray, and such thinker/writers as the French Denis Diderot (1713-1784), did in fact serve as an early art “critic” —and, to my estimation, a very fine one — giving his opinion on the works of various artists as he traveled around in search of prospects for wealthy patrons, including in his letters his assessments of art. Such wealthy patrons — usually royalty, incidentally — really got the ball rolling for artists, boosting them up the social scale. Once the idea caught on that art was special, was worthwhile having in one’s possession, artists began to be wooed, even invited to palaces around the world to serve kings and queens as court painters. Since many royal personages knew nothing about art, they had to depend on the members of their more cultured retinue to carry out their assessments for them, to tell them which artists to buy from or to invite to court — thus, such men as Diderot proliferated — and the role of the middleman became entrenched — (more about this “middleman” in a moment). Diderot, you might know, played a large part in Catherine the Great’s art collection housed in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg. Catherine claimed to know little of art, but she did know that owning it represented culture — and she bought it by the truck-load to prove just how cultured she was. She bought entire collections, relatively unaware of the artists — or the individual pieces — which made up those collections. You might also know that Catherine’s father, Peter the Great, who began the Hermitage collection and who also knew little about art, was said to have given his agents one simple directive: “Don’t buy bad pictures.”
This ignorance on the part of royal patrons highlights that such middlemen became necessary fixtures on the art scene. Thus, people who could not paint a picture or sculpt an object, trained themselves to write about art—they critiqued, they wrote artists’ biographies, they reviewed, they wrote art history. Courses grew up at universities. The makers — the artists — and the patrons — the buyers — eventually found themselves separated by a formidable army of “experts,” middlemen that eventually included curators, museum directors, dealers, gallery owners, and teachers — in addition to all and sundry who chose to become artwriters.
Now remember, this is an extremely abbreviated overview — many important figures have been left out — figures who have added much to the business and development of artwriting. The reason for this brief overview is to make just one important point: And that is that artwriting — in its many manifestations — is still in the making and still pretty much of a mixed bag. Unlike Latin, artwriting is not a dead language and it is being changed from day to day. Pick up any trade magazine from one of the artwriter’s organizations and you’ll see that hardly any of them agree with each other let alone with the artists. I am a member of the International Association of Art Critics, the American Society for Aesthetics and a few more such groups and I can tell you that the articles in their journals and newsletters can make your head spin. I also review a good many art books and if you learn anything from them, you begin to see that although many have joined the bandwagon of middlemen no one has yet cornered the market on answers. Only a few years ago, for example, I received a set of books—the first five in a projected series of many from the Oxford University Press which promised to look at art history — and I quote — “from a fresh perspective.”
All of which points up why I have entitled my lecture, “The Art of Art Criticism” — since, like art itself, it is in constant flux, still in the making, still, in Plato’s words, “becoming” — and far from being a “science.”
The very latest “cutting edge” critics — and I am thinking now of the philosopher Arthur Danto — even suggest that we are back to square one. In one of his books, After the End of Art, Danto maintains that the very paradigm that brought the concept of “art” into being at the beginning of the Renaissance has collapsed, no longer applicable to what is now termed as “art” — indeed, he calls into question the very notion of “art,” claiming that since no rules can be brought to bear on a definition of it, any object has the right to be called “art.” He gives credit to what is called “Pop” art for the collapse, and to Warhol specifically for his “genius” in bringing it about. Thus, in this view, we are back to a pre-Cennini age, another period of “Dark Ages” where people simply made things — usually for other reasons than for creating “art” since no one at that time had ever thought of placing these objects apart as “art.” The line once drawn between a box of brillo and a picture of a box of brillo has, for some, blurred for all time and there is no longer felt to be a distinction between art and non-art. If Arthur Danto is correct in his assumptions, we might say we are now in a “Danto’s Inferno” where the terms “art” and “artist” are no longer relevant, each of us reduced to naked sinners maneuvering for position in a series of concentric circles of a modern-day, art-market Hell.
Still, for all the claims of its “death,” art, meanwhile, is still being produced, changing as new styles, techniques and materials are discovered and mastered, the artists — whether hired by kings or not — busily going about their work. Artists have heard about the “death of art” before and don’t seem to take the pronouncement very seriously. I recall a small dinner party up in Woodstock some thirty years ago at the home of Jane Jones, the wife of the muralist Wendell Jones. Present were Lewis Rubenstein, a painter, his wife, an art historian, Eugene Ludins, also a painter, his wife Hannah Small, a sculptor, myself, and, of course, Jane Jones, herself a painter. Lewis remarked that the first time he had physically seen Picasso’s “Guernica,” he was stunned. At the time, he considered it a landmark work that had captured the ultimate in artistic meaning and political impact. Then, some few years later, he had seen a newsfilm of the same attack on Guernica and felt that so effective was this filmic documentary that, for ever after, Picasso’s painting could only be seen as a decorative but irrelevant footnote. “Painting,” Lewis mused, “seemed doomed to irrelevance.”
Wow! I thought to myself. That’s pretty profound. And I began to form my next editorial — my next “Peek & Piques! — in my mind.
But then, Eugene Ludins spoke up. “Suppose Vincent van Gogh had a camera and instead of painting his self-portrait, he had just taken pictures of himself by using a time setter. Do you think we’d get the same intensity in snapshots as we find in his paintings?”
Wow! I said to myself again…and so the process goes on.
Now, again, I’m not going to attempt a serious art history course here and run down all the schools and movements and so forth that continue to crop up after art is declared “dead” by the critical coroners, but the second point I think is important to come away with is that it is art that has always been and remains to be the prime mover in the artwriting business. Art, because it preceded a verbal or written language, precedes all artwriting — in fact, makes artwriting possible. If this is so, then the old saying that “one picture is worth a thousand words” is still a valid one. Right now, in some studio, in some place on this planet, an artist is creating something that will alter art history, art criticism, or the study of aesthetics. It has always been so and, by necessity, will continue to be so.
Artists not aware of their history, might be led astray by what they read — but they ought not do so. The artwriters are always going to be a step behind. To my mind, artwriters can only witness styles, methods, innovations, schools, techniques, materials, trends — they cannot (and should not) predict them or try to direct them. As Goethe wisely pointed out, "Genuine works of art carry their own aesthetic theory implicit within them and suggest the standards according to which they are to be judged."
The gulf that separates the artist from the critic is no small thing. If we do not yet fully understand the difference between creative thought and analytic thought — and both can partake of the other, with analytic thought being creative and creative thought being at times analytic — the fact remains that there is a crucial difference between both ways of looking at the world. Perhaps an analogy might help. I’m sure that no one in this room believes that the experience of listening to a Mozart concert is the same as reading a critique of it the following day. The same may be said of any work of art compared to a written exegesis of that work of art. It takes two different “heads” — two different mind sets not only to produce, but also to understand — both products. Kant differentiated the two different processes as being a “judging faculty” and a ”productive faculty” — and it is a very rare person indeed who is equipped to effectively do both kinds of mind work.
From time to time, I’ve written about the difficulties in writing about art. Briefly, the crux of the problem lies in the translation of one method of communication — one "language" — into another. Everyone knows — or ought to know — that you cannot read a Japanese Haiku poem in an English translation. This is true of all translation from one written language into another. The problem is exacerbated even further, however, when you are attempting to translate art — a visual language — into words — a linear, verbal language. Writing about art-making is not the same as writing about a particular picture. Only the picture “says” what it wants to “say.” If the painter wanted to put it into words, he or she would have written an essay or a poem or a short story. Richard Pantell — an artist, printmaker, and teacher at the Art Students League — puts it in proper perspective when he objects to galleries demanding “artists’ statements” to hang alongside their work. “If they invited a poet to speak,” he asks, “would they ask him to paint a picture?”
Rick, of course, is right. Art is a language in its own right and has always spoken on its own terms. Like music, it not only predates a spoken language, but also has its own set of rules — its own “grammar”, so to speak — and has been communicating on its own terms ever since its appearance in prehistoric times. We do not have to speak Italian, for example, to “get” what the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa “tells” us. Nor German to “get” Beethoven or Mozart. Art and music are individual and distinct forms of expression, and both have been communicating on their own for untold centuries before the critics got into the picture. Both are in fact more direct means of communication than the spoken or written language — and anyone not convinced that the word is indeed an inferior means of communication need only consider what daily transpires in the United Nations. Words have always fallen far short of transmitting truth or reality. Once again we find that one picture ought to be worth a thousands words — and not vice-versa..
In relation to our topic this evening, the real problem begins when artwriters do try to “explain” or “define” or even “describe” a work of art. (Example: Display object used in writing classes to demonstrate how difficult it is to translate a physical artifact into the abstraction of a written and/or spoken word.)
WHY I WRITE
So, if it is so difficult — and still an “artform” very much like art itself — and if, as I say, probably impossible to do, why do I write about art and artists? Believe me when I say, there are times I am not sure. To clear some air, let me first point out what kinds of artwriting I do for ART Times — Each one is different, each one with a different purpose or thrust — in fact, each kind of writing labeled differently under what are called in the newspaper trade, "standing heads."
Profiles: From time to time, I write profiles on living artists. A profile — for me — is a look into an artist’s inner world. What I attempt to do in a profile is to uncover an artist’s motives for doing what he or she does. Although I usually include examples of the artist’s work in my profiles, I do not sit in judgment — do not “critique” — the quality of the work. My purpose is to let my readers know who the artist is, something about his/her motives for creating art, and to let them get a representative overview of the work. Again, the focus is on the person and not the product.
Reviews: When I write a review, my purpose is to let my readers know about an exhibition that is presently being shown or soon to be shown. My reviews aim to be timely — that is, written in advance of or at the very beginning of an exhibition so that readers may decide whether or not to go and see the show. Generally, this is an overview — a little about the artist being shown, a little about the work, a little about the time and place in which the artist lived and worked. I say “lived” and “worked” since my reviews are always on major shows of past masters — dead artists. I do not “review” the exhibitions of living artists. (Aside).
Critiques: In my critiques, I try to critically analyze the work of a living artist as it appears in a given exhibition. At times, my critiques appear in print after a show has closed since my purpose is to assess and not to invite — It is the business of the exhibiting host (or of the reviewer) to entice viewers and not that of the critic. To the best of my ability, I bring to bear everything I know about art and art history, about artists and their techniques, to make value judgments about the body of work being shown to me. This, of course, is the most difficult kind of artwriting to do — and most often what causes the most flak. "Who are you to judge me—etc., etc., etc." Look — let’s face it: a Critique is an opinion. And whether or not our multi-cultural, pluralistic, no-holds-barred, politically correct, open society likes it, all opinions are not alike or of equal worth. I’m pretty sure that even the most vocal pluralist, the one who screams the loudest that there should be no rules or standards for art, will consult a doctor and not a carpenter, a butcher, or the man on the street, when they feel that little twinge in the chest. And yet, even the prognosis of a doctor is still an opinion — since medicine, like art and artwriting, is not a science but itself an art. Of course, there are opinions — and there are opinions. Theoretically, at least, a critic — like a doctor — has done some homework in the field and brings a certain amount of expertise in making judgments.
Editorials: I use my editorials—my “Peeks & Piques!” — as a catch-all. In these essays, I vent, saying things that I do not feel are appropriate in a profile, a review, or a critique. (Anecdote: “Dust on frames). I’m fortunate in this respect since unlike many artwriters who are either pressed for space or under assignment and must include irrelevant commentary in their reviews or critiques, I can insert my piques apart from my artwriting. It’s a luxury not many artwriters have. To paraphrase Mel Brooks — It’s good to be the Editor! Anyway, in my “Peeks & Piques!” I can wander, philosophize, make grand conclusions, argue and reveal — to my heart’s content. My more astute readers have come to figure out that these “Peeks & Piques!” offer a pretty good clue as to what biases lie beneath my Profiles, my Reviews, and my Critiques.
Biases: A word about bias. No one can be totally objective — unless they are dead. Just like artists, critics have biases. My viewpoint, like that of artists’, grows out of my experience and my knowledge — it can’t be any other way. Look!—It’s a human thing! My education has gone a long way toward forming my judgment-making abilities. I received my BA and MA in Liberal Arts from SUNY New Paltz. I began as an art major and eventually switched over to Literature with minors in Philosophy and a smattering of art history. Practically all of my graduate work concentrated on the art of criticism — mostly literary criticism but, because of my interest in art, a bit of art criticism too.
Criticism — in all of its guises — whether of literature, music, drama or art — is serious business and I have always held the discipline in great respect. I collect criticism quotes because I do respect it and because I think it is a never-ending job to be good at it. I vividly recall a comment that Hal Levitt, my one-time theatre writer for ART TIMES, made over lunch one day. “When a theatre critic pans a show,” Hal said, “he not only helps to put a play off the stage —he puts actors, prop-men, light-men, costume makers, make-up artists — the whole crew backstage who make a show possible — out of work.” A serious business. A heavy responsibility.
Behind my artwriting, then, lies who I am and what my philosophy is. My Liberal Arts education has essentially made me a humanist and I tend to seek out those things in life which support my desire to fulfill all aspects of my own human-ness. I enjoy — and respond to — those things which answer — or at least speak to — my intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and psychological needs. My preference is to have art engage all those needs simultaneously — and when that happens, I’m exhilarated — and moved to write about that exhilaration. As Bernard Berenson once put it: “Art ought to be life enhancing” — and I heartily agree with him. In fact, the reason I turned to artwriting some thirty years ago, was the belief that artists — and artists alone — because they were descendants of those early image-makers “in tune” with some higher reality — were the only people who might satisfy my ever-expanding humanist appetite. Although a great many artists have indeed remained artisans — picture and object makers — I believe that some artists are in fact “inspired.” And, I mean “inspired” in the original sense of that word — “breathed into,” presumably by some higher power — and that such artists are privy to insights unavailable to the rest of mankind. This is the bias — and I admit it is a very big one — that I bring to a work of art.
For some — and I return again to Arthur Danto — this identifies me as a “response-based” critic — i.e an idealogue who evaluates what I see from a set of beliefs, rather than as an an objective philosophical observer who assigns equal weight to all things until proven less valuable to mankind. I do not necessarily think that it is wrong for me to be so. I am, after all, an organism that responds to stimuli — and if this particular organism is bounded by his experiences than I don’t necessarily see this as wrong or incorrect either. No more, incidentally, than I see an artist bound by his or her experiences as wrong or incorrect. Effectively, it simply means that for some critics, some artists can have no relevance — and, of course, the opposite is also true — for some artists, some critics can have an equal lack of relevance. The bottom line is that we are all limited beings condemned or privileged — depending upon your outlook — to live out those limitations.
If I could name all my biases, chances are I’d try to correct them. So I’m sure they’re there — and my readers usually point them out to me. There is one final bias, however, that I’d like to address. I do not like to critique or review group shows — and I very rarely do. This is because I’m a people person and group shows do not allow for any kind of in-depth analysis — whether in a review or, especially, in a critique. All you can do is name a lot of names — and that’s a job for the local newspapers and they do it effectively and well. I can’t add much to that process.
I’d like to share a few more quotes, this time reading a few of those which I have especially admired and which I have tried to emulate over the years by patterning my own criticism after them. If I can some day attain some of the wisdom they show, I’ll be happy (and so will a lot of artists I write about, I’m sure).
“A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of an [artist], and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.”
“Criticism is the endeavor to find, to know, to love, to recommend, not only the best, but all the good, that has been known and thought and written in the world.”
“I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”
And here’s my all-time favorite and one that I have printed and put up over my desk:
“To criticise is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relationship with the criticised thing and to make it one’s one.”
“We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it…If we pretend to respect the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom of choice…”
“The effect, if not the prime office, of criticism is to make our absorption and our enjoyment of the things that feed the mind as aware of itself as possible, since that awareness quickens the mental demand, which thus in turn wanders further and further for pasture.”
“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its presence.”
And finally, placing myself at the opposite poles of cutting-edge criticism, I readily admit my admiration for the thoughts of David Hume as expressed in his Of the Standards of Taste when he identifies the good critic as a person of good sense who is practiced, open to a wide range of art, able to compare and, thus, able to discern the beauties of design and reasoning.
I’d be more than satisfied to be such a critic — to be such a person.
Let me wind up by saying that I write about art because I believe that genuine art is one of the few things in this short, brutish life that is worthwhile. I don’t want to get gushy here, but I think that artists are among our most important resources — genuine national treasures — and ought not get squandered or abused or wasted. I spoke earlier of limitations — if any of us can break through those limitations it is the artist whose genius and vision allows us to see beyond our human condition. If Otto Rank is anywhere near correct, the true artist has inherited that ability from his earliest stone-age counterpart.
Such artists — sadly — are few but it is they who continue to make the critics revise their pronouncements. It is they who push the process along from stalemate. It is probably they who will deliver us from what I jokingly call Danto’s Inferno. So — it is more important to save a true artist then it is to save a whale, a snowy owl, or a baby seal. Ever since that first caveman etched some squiggles on a cave wall, we have been steadily evolving from barbarism to civilization. Artists — when they are genuine — civilize us — enrich us — ennoble us.
I want my writing to acknowledge that debt and to encourage such artists to continue. Theirs is not an easy task. They are not making buckles or bullets or beads — you know, things that we really need — things that might earn them a decent living. Each one goes back to the silence and loneliness of a studio, facing a blank canvas or a block of stone, waiting for that call that only they can hear. When they are serious — when they are genuine — what they come up with will probably not make any money but will civilize — enrich — or ennoble — one more of us.
I want my writing to bear witness to that fact.
Before I close, I can’t resist sharing just one more quote on critics. John Osborne wrote that "Asking a working writer [or artist] what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs."
I hope I’ve enlarged your thoughts just a little bit about critics this evening. We need not think of them as either “fungus at the foot of oaks” — as Victor Hugo would have it — or as having some inner secrets as to how we should look at or evaluate art — as too many now do. As long as you keep in mind that they are neither infallibly wise or incredibly stupid, you should be able to steer a reasonable course through most of today’s artwriting.
Good luck in separating the wheat from the chaff — and thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you.
Holt, Elizabeth Gilmore The Triumph of Art for the Public: The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics. 1979. Anchor Books, Garden City, NY.
Kultermann, Udo The History of Art History 1993. Abaris Books, Inc. USA.
Venturi, Lionello History of Art Criticism 1964. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. New York.
Lecture, Raymond J. Steiner
August 24, 1996, at the Woodstock School of Art, Woodstock, NY
Revised April 7, 1997, delivered at The National Arts Club, NYC
Revised April 2, 1998, delivered at the National Academy of
Design School, NYC,
Revised May 31, 2007 delivered at the Salmagundi Club, NYC.