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Best of…

Monday, 13. January 2014 0:30

With the beginning of the year come the inevitable superlative lists of the year past which include lots of things, including the arts. You can find lists of the highest paid musicians, the highest paid visual artists, the most paid for an art work, the best movies, the best songs (in all categories), the best photographs, the best new whatever or whomever. Americans, at least, seem obsessed with “best-of’s.” There are even best of best of lists.

And, of course, most of these lists will evaporate just like New Year’s resolutions and mean about as much. Some will have impact, e.g. when a list of best movies is tied to this or that award, it means more money for the investors and perhaps a larger paycheck for the star on his/her next project. And some will even provide the winner with a plaque or trophy to display.

The impulse to look back and evaluate a past block of time is understandable. What is troubling about at least some of the lists that have been recently published, however, is the “small print,” or more accurately, the invisible print. Some organizations are up-front about what the rules and criteria are. The Academy Awards, for example, have page after page on rules and eligibility. The Golden Globe Awards do not seem as transparent, given the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s ineligibility this year for her performance in Spike Jonze’s Her.

Many lists come with no apparent rules at all, but it doesn’t take long to discover the bias of the compiler. For instance, many “best photographs of the year” lists have crossed my newsreader screen in the last week and a half. Although some are travel images, most of them are really “best photojournalism of 2013” lists. The notable exception is Rangefinder Magazine, where the editors compiled several lists, and often organized those lists into categories.

There is certainly nothing wrong with photojournalism; it has produced some of the most memorable images ever made. What is wrong, at least in my mind, is to suggest, even by implication, that photojournalism comprises the totality of excellent photography created within a 12-month span.

Aside from the need to summarize the past, I suspect that the impulse to incorporate art works into lists are bragging rights—the ability to be able to claim that the compiler was the first to recognize the worth of a work that becomes iconic at some future date. But some of the most iconic works of art didn’t receive the prizes they were up for. Case in point: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The lack of the award did not prevent the play from being one of the best of the twentieth century.

It is certainly a good feeling to appear on a list of winners, whether it is the list of those accepted to a juried show, or the list of those who won an award of some sort or a list of the best whatevers of whatever year.  But it’s not why we do what we do. It is doubtful that Scarlett Johansson took the role in her, thinking she might get a Golden Globe, just as it’s a stretch to believe that Albee sat down to write Virginia Woolf with a Pulitzer in mind. We make our art to say what we have to say in the best way we know how to say it using the best tools we have. Sometimes we make it onto a list; mostly we don’t. That’s just fine.

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Becoming Your Own Critic

Monday, 29. April 2013 0:54

Last week I quoted Georgia O’Keefe saying, “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” I then suggested that we all do likewise and free ourselves from depending upon criticism to tell us whether our art was any good or not. But now we have to figure out a way to do that.

Stephen King says that the way to settle it is to have a “trusted reader,” someone who will tell you the truth about your work and upon whose judgment you can depend. Having this feedback then allows you to ignore everyone else; you and your reader know that it’s good, so you can then send the work out into the world. Having a trusted reader is a good idea. Finding such a person is a bit more problematic. King happens to be married to his trusted reader, a solution not necessarily available to everyone.

Since reader implies written art, it might be better to change this person’s title; since this person is offering feedback only to you, the term “personal critic” might be a good choice.

The personal critic has to satisfy a long list of criteria. He/She has to be someone whom you respect, who knows something about art, whose judgment you trust, who is willing to take the time to look at your art and give you an honest, unbiased opinion, and who is able to articulate that opinion. It’s difficult to find a single person who can fulfill all these criteria. And even if you do find such a person, you must then constantly be asking that person to evaluate your art and supply feedback. That’s a lot to ask and can sometimes put a strain on a relationship.

Another choice is to become your own critic. This is more difficult, of course, because you have to essentially become two people: the artist and the critic. You have be able to separate yourself completely from your work so you can evaluate it impartially. That means that you can no longer defend parts of your work that you really like or protect certain things because they are especially meaningful. It means that you look at your work with fresh, objective eyes.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s almost the same procedure that you use for editing that was discussed a while back. The only difference is one of degree. To be a self-critic, you have to be even more removed from the creative process and the ownership of the work. You must be willing to acknowledge weaknesses, to highlight flaws, to target inconsistencies. You have to be able to look at the overall piece and evaluate its worth. You must be willing to declare the whole project a failure if necessary. You must be ruthless.

And you do that exactly the same way you became your own editor. Wait until the work is complete; edit. Put the work away for a while again—the longer the better. Then approach the work as though it were not your own; that may mean pretending someone else did it. As silly as that may sound, it works. You say to yourself, “If someone I don’t know brought this to me and asked for an honest critique, what would I say? Take notes on your answer. Put the notes and the work away again. After a time look again at the work in the light of the notes.

Initially it takes enormous time and energy to do this, but as you practice this procedure, it becomes easier and more automatic. And so long as you are honest with yourself, it should be successful.  And if you are successful, you will no longer be dependent on those who offer your praise or criticism. You, like O’Keefe, will have the matter settled for yourself.

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Dealing with Criticism

Sunday, 21. April 2013 22:36

All of us have experienced criticism, sometimes positive sometimes negative. (By criticism, I do not necessarily mean only negative comments, but rather a judgment about the quality or value of our work by someone else.) Sometime we have sought out such judgment; other times it has appeared unbidden. Occasionally, we read it in print or on a web site. Then we are faced with a decision: what do we do with that criticism once we hear it?

Artists from almost every discipline have commented on critics and criticism, artists as diverse as Aristotle and Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol and Stephen King, W. A. Mozart and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Most of the comments are not very complimentary. Some involve the comparison of the act of criticism to the act of creation; criticism does not fare well. Others argue that only by creating work equal to or better than that being evaluated can someone be qualified to criticize. Some have offered advice on how to deal with both critics and criticism. Almost to a person, they tell you to ignore it; some will also tell you to never read or listen to it in the first place. This, of course, is almost impossible to do.

Artists, as most of us know, are riddled with self-doubt (a topic on which I have written previously, here, for example) and crave some sort of approval of our work from outside. This lack of confidence unfortunately forms the framework which underlies our dealing with criticism. Because we are unsure of ourselves, we grasp at positive criticism or any response to our work that reinforces what we ourselves think of it. If, on the other hand, we are dealt negative criticism, it can be devastating. Sometimes we take it personally. Other times we let it feed our insecurity and discourage us, which can then lead to a downward spiral in our self-esteem, which, in turn, can negatively impact our work.

Criticism can be useful, at least in one sense. Thoughtful criticism can be useful to help people decide how to spend their time and their money—and that can range from buying a movie ticket to purchasing a multi-thousand dollar sculpture. That is a far different thing from an artist listening to a critic and moving forward based on that criticism. Yes, performing with respect to criticism is a very practical approach if you are in school and the critic is your instructor. Otherwise, if you listen to criticism, you may find yourself modifying your work to deal with that criticism instead of listening to yourself. This may lead you to make a more marketable piece, but it certainly will make the work less honest, and perhaps less your own.

Georgia O’Keefe had it figured out. She said, “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” Rather than listening to the voice of others, we have to be our own critics, evaluating our work for ourselves, determining what is good and what could be improved and where to cut and where to enhance. No matter how much we hunger for approval and appreciation, once we have established ourselves as our own judges—settled it for ourselves—the words of others will impact us far less. And in that less-dependent atmosphere, we too can be free—to develop our art.

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It Ain’t About Pretty

Sunday, 4. November 2012 23:37

A while back, a friend of mine went to work as a studio assistant for a high-dollar photography studio.  After hearing about how people would travel across the country and pay enormous amounts for headshots, I went to the studio’s web site to see what was what. Everything was pretty. And I do mean pretty. Very slick, very commercial, very pretty—technically perfect, in fact—but completely soulless. All of the images of a type looked alike, down to the makeup. The photographers had found the formula for commercial success, but not necessarily for creating art.

Art may be pretty, but that is not a necessity. In fact, many artists bypass pretty, and attempt to create art that is beautiful. And beauty is an entirely different animal. Beauty goes far beyond mere pretty; for some, prettiness actually interferes with the beauty of the art.

Many artists believe that to be truly beautiful, something must have some strangeness to it.  This sentiment has been expressed by artists as disparate as Karl Lagerfeld, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Francis Bacon. The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire has said “’I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which is no melancholy.” Author Stephen Crane has gone so far as to defend ugliness in art: “I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment.”

Although there is little agreement among aestheticians on what beauty is, there is general agreement that it conveys something meaningful and significant to the viewer. Regardless of the medium, if you ask knowledgeable people about the best art, the most beautiful art, you are very likely to get answers that include plays and poems and novels and paintings and sculptures and films that are anything but pretty. They may be uplifting or depressing or breathtaking or sad or heartwarming, but they are likely not to be attractive, and they certainly will not be superficial.

The artists who created such art will have told their audiences the truth. And even though that truth may be uncomfortable, it will have been presented in a way that invites contemplation, consideration, speculation, thought. Even art that appears initially to be whimsical or humorous does this. Art, good art, does not worry about being pretty; rather, it tells us something, often something that we need to know—although we may not want to hear it—and it tells us in a way that strikes a resonating chord within us.

Sometimes I hear [visual] artists say with reference to the art they make, “but no one will ever hang this on a wall.” (The equivalent for the writer is “no one will ever publish or produce this.”) They say this because the art they make is not pretty. If they want to produce pretty, then perhaps they should be into the more commercial illustration or decoration business.

Art is a different thing. And most collectors of art know this and dress their walls accordingly.  Just in the last week, I have seen hanging in residences images that tell stories about relationships, memorials, ambiguous abstract ideas, abandoned buildings, cemeteries, nudes, burned homes, flowers, complex concepts. Only a few were pretty in any kind of conventional sense; some were not even attractive. All were beautiful. All were compelling. All invited contemplation. They were not only art; they were good art.

And that’s just two-dimensional visual art. We haven’t even touched three-dimensional art, music, dance, theatre, film, or the various written genres.

Sometimes in art there is a place for pretty, sometimes not. If you are an artist, make the art you need to make. Make it the best you can to say what you need to say, what your audience needs to hear. And, if you are tempted to dress it up a bit here and there, remember: it ain’t about pretty.

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Artists Are Dangerous

Sunday, 28. October 2012 15:08

In her YouTube video “Why I Do Theatre,Patsy Rodenburg declares that actors are dangerous, and then goes on to remind us that some of the first people to be taken to the camps in Nazi Germany were actors. For example, cabaret performer Max Ehrlich was imprisoned, then tortured, and finally executed at Auschwitz.  She also says that all of the actors she worked with in South Africa after Apartheid had been tortured—because actors are dangerous. Tortured. All.

“This could not possibly apply to me,” you are probably thinking. “Surely all those actors were political” Not necessarily. There are and have been a number of artists who have been considered dangerous by their governments, and it does not seem that being politically active is the criterion by which such things are judged. Consider the diversity and politics of these artists who were either exiled or executed by their governments:  the Roman poet Ovid, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, the Spanish poet/playwright Frederico García Lorca. You will note that the work of some of these is completely apolitical.  And currently, the Chinese government considers painter/sculptor/installation artist Ai Weiwei to be a threat.  

Sometimes the artists themselves are not targeted, but their works are. The list of books, poetry, music, plays, paintings, and sculptures that have been banned is long and varied. Usually there are specific reasons for banning works of art, but they all boil down to the same thing: the fear that audience members will somehow be contaminated by the offending work. The range of reasons is enormous and borders on the irrational. The works banned and the reasons are so extensive, there are even entire college courses on the subject. But regardless of the reasons, one must assume that the reason art works are banned is because someone with influence considers them dangerous to some segment of the population. By extension the creators of such work must also be dangerous. 

They’re just artists; why would anyone consider them dangerous?

Not long ago I was on a hiring committee for an art instructor.  One of my standard questions for potential hires in the arts is, “given the current political climate and constantly-looming budget cuts, why is it important that we teach art?” Never are two answers the same, and often they provide insight into the person interviewing. One of the applicants for this latest position gave an answer that I had never heard before. He said that art teaches a different way to think about the world. Then he went on to say that politicians sometimes prefer that we think the way we are told rather than approach the world with an artistic outlook. How did he arrive at such an opinion? Perhaps it was by growing up in a small South American country, where, it seems, art really matters.

His view is certainly not typical of the US. We have a different view of art here. As Stephen Colbert, an artist himself, says, “In America, we know to ignore artists if they’re serious in any way.” Colbert’s comment seems an accurate representation of the view of many Americans. Because of that, many of us, particularly those of us whose work is devoid of anything overtly political, have seldom thought of our work as having dangerous potential. Perhaps it would be well for us to take the time to acknowledge the power that we possess and to recognize that we too might be dangerous.

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A New Set of Criteria for Contemporary Art?

Monday, 23. January 2012 2:13

How I Became 100 Artists, a TED talk by Shea Hembry, has proved to be very creative, very funny, and, if one considers the comments attached to the video, very controversial.  In his talk, Hembry proposed two criteria for contemporary art:

  1. The Mimaw test. This involves explaining a work to his grandmother in five minutes. If he couldn’t explain it in that length of time, the work would be considered “too obtuse or not well-enough refined.”
  2. The Three H’s: Head, Heart, Hand: the work should have “interesting intellectual ideas and concepts.” It should have “passion, heart, and soul.” And it should be “greatly crafted.”

Although in explaining these criteria, Hembry uses himself as an example, he states that these are the criteria for contemporary art, not necessarily his contemporary art. One wonders then if they apply to contemporary art, wouldn’t they also apply to all other art as well?

Many before have tried to establish criteria for art, and the only theories that could be called successful have been so vague as to be nearly useless or so complex as to almost defy understanding.  The alternative, of course, is to say that art is anything the maker says that it is. I am already on record as being absolutely opposed to this view. Hembry’s criteria are fairly clear and decidedly lacking in complexity, and, on the surface, seem quite reasonable, so maybe they occupy that elusive middle ground in the world of artistic criteria.

The Mimaw Test: If it can’t be explained in five minutes to a grandmother, it’s too obtuse or not-sufficiently refined. Setting aside the issue of what a grandmother might or might not know about art, might not the reason that it can’t be explained in five minutes be that it’s just too complex. I recently saw a video of a person explaining a painting by Picasso. In five minutes, the person managed to discuss all the parts of the painting, but had not yet begun to talk about how all of those parts work together to produce the effect they produce. Another question would be, of course, one that was mentioned last week. Why does the work need an explanation at all? Can’t Grandma decide what she thinks of the work herself without an explanation? What Picasso said about painting can certainly apply to any art: “As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”

The Three H’s: Head: The work should have interesting intellectual ideas and concepts. The immediate response to this notion is “well, of course.” But there are some artists who are not so much interested in communicating intellectual concepts as they are in communicating emotion or beauty. Fortunately, that is an idea that is still alive and well and far more prevalent than you may think. Even the most cutting-edge artists may be moving into this camp. Consider this recent tweet from Hazel Dooney: “I used to be most interested in art for the ideas behind it. Now I only want to see art that makes me feel something.”

Heart: The work should have passion, heart, and soul. This is a criterion with which I have no argument. Interestingly, this aspect does seem to be absent in some contemporary work embraced by the art establishment. There exist a number of pieces which are merely clever or which are strictly intellectual. These, in my opinion, are lacking.

Hand: The work should be greatly crafted. Again, no argument.  Technical quality is, in my opinion, a requisite for art. The artist’s skill certainly does not need to call attention to itself, but it must be there.

Hembry’s criteria for contemporary art seem to be an oversimplification of a very complex subject. In fact, while they may work for the pieces that make up his biennial, they certainly do not work for the whole project, which is quite intricate. After all, his TED talk, which is delightful but does not explain the entire project in full detail, took over sixteen minutes.

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It’s All About the Money…Or Is It?

Monday, 19. December 2011 0:23

It’s That Time of Year when there is much public discussion of materialism. Interestingly, this year the discussion takes place during the same time frame as a show in Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi called “Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities,” which “explores the links between that unique interweave of high finance, economy and art, and the religious and political upheavals of the time.” The opening of this show about the connection between banking and Renaissance art was followed by a “a private conference on the future of art and finance” and numerous articles on the show and both the historical and contemporary interconnections between art and money.

Although the connections between art and money may not be fully understood, almost everyone in the arts is aware of some link. The patronage system that was developed during the Renaissance is still alive and well, if not in the form of direct sponsorship, in the form of scholarships and grants to both individual artists and arts organizations. Basically, money keeps the art world going, and big money keeps big art going.

This is true even of individual sales to collectors and is seen in both the primary and secondary art market. Daniel Grant says that art and money are now so intertwined that price has come to substitute for quality.  He goes on to say that the emphasis on sales coupled with a “lack of any consensus about aesthetics or standards of taste” has resulted in a new definition of art: “Art is whatever someone puts down money for and says ‘This is art.’ The corollary of this is that quality is identifiable only in terms of the sums spent.” Jed Perl goes further to say that “culture is now in retreat before the brute force of money.”

For those interested in the topic, the tangle of art-as-commodity and money is fully explored in Robert Hughes’ International Emmy-winning The Mona Lisa Curse. This documentary, which is very difficult to find, is summarized on “Art for a Change.”

Because the current measure of artistic quality is money and because of the enormous sums currently being paid for the most-in-demand art, a number of artists have begun to network and hustle and promote themselves. The result is group of artists who have developed larger-than-life personas in order to generate larger-than-life incomes. They have become celebrities. It is quite common to read about these “art stars,” almost as if they were performers. Perhaps they are.

The attitude of this new breed of artist is much that of a salesman or marketer rather than that of the traditional artist. This approach is summed up by one of the most notorious of the current “art stars,” Damien Hirst: “You also have to ask yourself as an artist, ‘What would be more appealing … to have made the Mona Lisa painting itself or have made the merchandising possibilities — putting a postcard on everyone’s walls all over the world? Both are brilliant, but in a way I would probably prefer the postcards — just to get my art out there.’” Somehow, in Hirst’s case, it doesn’t seem to be about just getting his work out there, but about being paid very well for it—about, as he says, “merchandising possibilities.”

One would hope that art is about more than merchandising possibilities. We will never disentangle money and art. I’m not sure that we should even try. But we can resolve to use standards other than price to evaluate art. And maybe, at this time of year, we might remind ourselves that, at least for some of us, it’s not just about the money.

And, if you happen to be in Florence before January 22, 2012, you might drop in and see two curators’ take on how it all started.

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Likes, Dislikes, and Quality

Sunday, 5. September 2010 21:50

I remember explaining to my English professor that I just did not like the (American) romantic poets.  She informed me, in her British accent (which gives any academic an air of authority), that it was not important what I, or anyone for that matter, liked or disliked; what was necessary was that I understand what made those particular poems good.  It was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got.

I find that students often dismiss a play or a movie or some other work or art that they do not like as not worth the time it would take to understand it, or at least figure out how it works, or know why it might or might not be important. And I think that many of us who are not formally students do the same thing.  We often confuse what we like with what is good, thus making the individual, educated or not, the arbiter of quality.  Without troubling ourselves to really examine the work in question, we fail to apply some standards outside our own personal feelings to determine quality.

I moved on in the course, and I remember how pleased I was with myself when I finally figured out exactly what those romantic poets were doing, how their poems worked, what made them good. I still did not like them, but I understood the difference.  And that was important.

My taste has changed since those days; the quality of the romantic poets has not.  My opinion of at least some of the romantic poets has modulated; the quality of the poems remains unchanged.

The capability to make that distinction between quality and personal appeal is an ability that every critic must have, and by “critic” I mean everyone who renders an opinion. That ability is even more important in today’s world of instant electronic, often uninformed, opinion than it was when I was learning it as an undergraduate.

You may be saying, “But my opinion matters. What I like and don’t like is significant.” Of course it is. It’s called taste. It’s part of what you bring to the art work. And it is important to you, and maybe even to the people you hang out with.  It is not, however, the determinant of the quality or worth of a piece of work. That is something that the artist puts in.

I am not suggesting that, like Phaedrus in Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we spend our lives and our sanity in the pursuit of the nature of quality, although I think that is quite possible. I am suggesting that, before we spout our opinions about a piece of art, that we learn enough, educate ourselves sufficiently to have some foundation to begin to determine the quality of that piece.

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