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Elkins on Art Criticism

How do we judge art and what is the role of the art critic?
This article compares James Elkins’ (2003) views on art criticism, with those of others and my own. I am an amateur collector and a psychologist.
James Elkins (2003) claims that art criticism is produced and ignored in equal measure. It is not rooted in any academic discipline as art history is. There is no common ground. Should it even be a single practice? He suggests that most critics have stopped judging art and merely describe. The majority of art criticism is produced for gallery brochures and is both descriptive and promotional in essence. Some is academic, setting the art within a historical, cultural or philosophical context. Some is downright critical, haranguing the art in sarcastic ways revealing the writer’s political views or personal agendas and resentments. Some art criticism has intrinsic literary and, at times, poetic value. When asked what they think is important in art criticism, art critics’ top three answers were: description, historical context and writing well (Columbia University’s survey of art critics in Elkins 2003). Elkins himself makes a plea for ambitious reflective judgment within a well-researched historical context, which is significant enough to count as art history.
My view of art criticism is that it needs a degree of evaluation, and that this cannot be done in a vacuum. How can you assess something if you do not know its purposes or functions? My reflections on the functions of art for the visual experience would include the following. (It is not an exhaustive list.)To be engaged or inspired at a spiritual or emotional level
To have one’s boundaries expanded or challenged intellectually, politically or socially
To be stimulated to empathise with others
To lose oneself, be transported temporarily and diverted from day to day existence
To have one’s senses of beauty, harmony, rhythm, awe and wonder enriched and enhanced
To see one’s identity reflected or understand more about the identity of others
To feel part of a shared or community narrative
As a financial investment
As adornment for one’s home(s)
To acquire status. As Vanessa Thorpe writes in The Guardian (22.6.2019), “From the Medici onwards, the rich have adored the gloss of sophistication offered by association with highbrow creative types”.

These could all be a take on the fact that human beings always have and continue to worship or revere images.
What might be the functions for the artist? At its root, it is making a mark. This has been true since the caves of Lascaux and earlier. This is how the mark-maker communicates, not through direct dialogue, but through an artistic medium. I hear them say ‘This is how I express myself. This is my voice. What I think and feel matters. I am exploring my identity, the boundaries of myself. I do art because I have to. I do art because it enriches me, it feeds me and I lose myself in the flow. I want to communicate the intensity of my experience. My work is a celebration of nature.’ Why do you paint it then? Why not just look at it or photograph it? ‘Because I have to take it into myself, make it my own version, interpret it in a different way’. Art contributes to the development of society just as science does. It increases our humanity. It comments on the state of society.
How do we determine if the art is good? There are as many definitions of good art as there are art critics.
The art critic Clement Greenberg (1993) thought the immediate experience of the art work is what counts but that qualitative principles are operating subliminally. These are not purely subjective “because a consensus develops over time amongst those who care about art”. I think this is a spurious argument because the propinquity of art critics, curators, collectors, gallerists etc., whether in real time or the virtual world, will likely ensure convergence of views.
The British art critic David Sylvester, considered to be one of the finest writers on art in the second half of the 20th century (Guardian obituary 20.6.2001), wrote about art as viscerally as he did analytically. According to Elkins, he judged art by his own bodily reactions – not something one can argue with!
Inevitably artists are influenced consciously or unconsciously by other artists. Indeed foundation art students are often actively encouraged to produce work in the style of great artists.
DeWitt Cheng, the artist, critic and curator, based in San Francisco, felt it was the art writer’s job to “explain an artist’s work as readably and informatively as possible” (2019). He maintains that “good visual art looks stunningly right, and in retrospect, obvious or inevitable. Yet” (and this is my favourite) “it is also continually surprising – how can someone possibly have made this? How in the world could it not have been made?”
Robert Shimshak, a collector, from California says good art “will connect to the past and feed the future. It has a simple and rigorous beauty that commands your gaze and thoughts whenever you look at it”. Yes, we keep returning in a gallery to the works which compel us. I spent over two hours viewing the Bridget Riley exhibition in Edinburgh this year (now in London), returning again and again to the same paintings which inspired such marvel.
For John Berger, the British art critic who died in 2017, good art “brings reality back into focus and in that sense could be revolutionary”. He said the job of the art critic was to distil and understand how and why an artist accomplished this and why their work resonates. He grounds his thinking in a question. Of Vermeer he asks “What was it that he wanted to say in the stillness of his rooms which the light fills like water in a tank?” This is certainly an example of poetic art criticism which Elkins refers to.
We can continue to deploy the principles of balance, rhythm, harmony and unity which were used to assess art post-realism in the 20th century. Sandy Ray maintains that a piece of art criticism must include description, analysis, interpretation and then judgment. The judgment stage is often omitted.
We can think of other definitions of good art: you can’t take your eyes off it, you fall in love with it immediately, it strikes a chord in your soul on first impact, and it establishes a positive memory. I think of an exhibition I saw recently of paintings by Bernard Irwin. I walked into the gallery and my heart was lifted. There was such joy in them. I felt as though I had taken a lungful of cool, calming air – rather in the manner of Sylvester’s visceral reactions.

In summary, I would argue that the function of art criticism is to determine how good the art is and how well the art meets the desires of the consumer/viewer and the artist. It may be hard to determine the latter unless you have a chance to interview the artist. One of the members of my writing group wants to know only the reviewer’s human reaction to the art, what the writer sees and feels, and then to wonder at the fact that she sees something completely different. I think this is too one dimensional. What do I want from a piece of art criticism? I want to know the context of the work, where and when it was made, some idea of how it fits into contemporary world art and how original or derivative it is. I want enough description to make me want to see it. I want some interpretation, preferably psychological and sociological and yes, I guess I would like to know what kind of impact it had upon the reviewer, in terms of the ‘functions’ I list above. What do you want from art criticism?

Victoria Howard

Volume 34 no 3 January – February 2020 pp 35-36

DeWitt Cheng, ArtSlant final edition 2019
James Elkins: What Happened to Art Criticism? (Prickly Paradigm Press Chicago 2003)
Clement Greenberg: Complaints of an Art Critic in John O’Brian (Ed) (1993)
Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4, Modernism with a Vengeance 1957-1969

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Al in Washington DC
07/02/2020 3:04 pm

By and large I find it quite natural to agree with the overall “wash” of Victoria’s ideas in terms of what the critic of art seems to do, I congratulate Victoria on her work. I happen to think there are a few other items to cover when looking at a work of art and, of course, it really depends on what you are looking at. I tend to think of myself as a “decoder” or “interpreter” of a work of art. Although one can say the more significant the work may be, the harder it will be for the work… Read more »

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