The pointless exercise of the art critic

art critic

Today, I’d like to talk about critics, the people who make a living writing about things you may or may not have already seen. Granted, I myself have thought of myself as a critic throughout my college years, but I focused on films and video games. Never in my lifetime did I consider art criticism a thing, and today, very little about that perception has changed.

Art criticism is a lot like music criticism – it attempts to set a standard of quality for a creative outlet that which is ultimately subjective and less tangible, which in my opinion contradicts the point of art. For me, the whole point of art is that everyone has a different idea of what they see, and what they think it means. For some, even a banal drawing of a house can hold some sort of philosophical meaning if one perceives it, and what others call a masterpiece can be perceived as meaningless by others. In other words, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That is the true power and value of art, and I feel that’s what art critics miss.

Of course, this wouldn’t bother me so much if art critics weren’t so pretentious about it. The problem with art critics is that they make it their mission to tell you the meaning of a certain artwork in a way that makes you sound like a complete idiot for “not getting it” in the first place, and what they usually churn out sounds like the kind of claptrap that only reinforces the stereotype of a pretentious ivory tower intelligentsia that is hopelessly out of touch with the common man. In other words, they make a living spewing what one of my art lecturers would call “arty bollocks”, and yet when they do it it’s called a career, while if I tried that, I’d be a considered a loony.

Whatever they’re actually saying, the vast majority of art critics, in their attempt to try and sell an objective meaning for an artwork, are highly likely to be driving a bias steamroller when it comes to various forms of art. For instance, Banksy is still quite popular with art critics, even though, as I’ve mentioned before, he’s basically a hack. A lot of these critics only seem to like what’s new and shocking, while they’ve had a history of simultaneously dismissing newers forms of art.

In the early 20th century, critics such as Robert Coates would dismiss some of Jackson Pollock’s artworks as “mere unorganized explosions of random energy”, and yet decades later, his painting “No. 5, 1948” would end up being sold to a Mexican financier named David Martinez for $140 million, even though I doubt that the buyer or the critics had any idea what the artwork even means. Earlier still, in the 19th century, Impressionist painters were despised by the French Academy of Fine Arts because they were different to the more realistic style of art preferred by the establishment at the time. Now the works of the Impressionsits and the Post-Impressionists are now part of the art establishment.

To me, the art critics represent the art establishment, whom I see as little more than a bunch of clowns flailing mindlessly as they try to interpret the meaning of art. Is there any reason why we can’t simply like our pretty paintings for reasons that don’t involve pretentious drollery? If not, then why not? These are the kind of answers that art critics won’t answer, and that being said, I’d strongly recommend not trusting art critics. In fact, the next time I hear an art critic loudly espousing some vague idea of what you’re really looking at, I might have the right mind to ask that critic what he or she was even thinking of to begin with, or if any of that had anything to do with the artwork itself.

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3 thoughts on “The pointless exercise of the art critic

  1. It is a good idea to remind oneself of the original purpose of art criticism. I have to disagree that art criticism is pointless, it’s just easy to lose sight of its point for both audience and critics themselves.

    There are two main kinds of art criticism:

    First, journalistic criticism. Its original purpose is actually quite humble: Recommending artistic products to the critic’s audience that they might enjoy but not be aware of, and warn them of artistic products that they might not enjoy. Since art consumption can be a significant expense, both financially, temporally and intellectually, there is a great demand for recommendations.

    Level-headed critics realise that tastes differ and people enjoy different things, and that their audience tends to be more or less heterogeneous. It is inevitable that a critic has a taste of their own, but critic who are overly preachy about their own taste and fail to concede that different tastes can be as valid as their own come across as arrogant and annoying.

    However, given the realities of the entertainment industries, it is understandable that critics tend to gravitate away from the mainstream and towards the obscure; that they will develop a pedagogic tendency. After all, readers will likely be aware of the newest bestselling novel, Hollywood blockbuster or mainstream pop hit due to aggressive advertisement campaigns (including airplay in the case of pop music), while more intellectual novels, artier European films or more underground or niche music will likely fly under their radar, which will make critics more likely to pan mainstream products and champion obscurer ones.

    Roger Ebert is an example of a critic who to my mind seemed to be doing it right. He tried to watch a movie through the eyes of its intended target audience. That’s just sensible. Robert Christgau, on the other hand, has blind spots, whole genres of music he just doesn’t like and will always rate poorly. It’s acceptable to be not open-minded to everything, even for a critic, they are only human, after all; but you need to know your biases, and if need be, just avoid the hell out of what it is that is your bête noire.

    Second, there’s academic criticism. It explores the interaction of works of art with their cultural environment and with society at large, which notions and stereotypes it reflects and reinforces or subverts, for example, and what it can tell us about the environment in which it originated and perhaps its author(s). This is an en exercise that aspires to be objective much more decidedly, yet, again, a pedagogic or political bent is hard to avoid (although I guess it can easily shade into activism, which is prone to attract controversy). As a basically sociological endeavour, I would not call it pointless, either.

  2. I found this interesting, but I felt it could be applied to all critics, rather than just art and music critics. I have always thought a problem with film critics (for example) was that each person has their own specific taste and favourite genre. For example, someone who likes romantic films will likely to be very negative towards action films because they prioritise good action sequences over the emotional content of the characters. A lot of critics also praise complex story and character development in films, while others may prefer enjoyment.

    • As someone who frequently tries his hand at movie criticism, I find it rather difficult to balance my own personal biases with objective judgement. Film is very much like art, in that they invariably appeal to different tastes. I think the main difference between art and movies is that you can tell which films are genuinely horrible.

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