02 November 2005

Art Criticism

The 1950s produced some absolute masterpieces of cinematography, and among them is the classic All About Eve. It is the story of a star struck young girl who claws her way to the top of the New York theater world. The viewer observes the behind-the-curtain lives of those at the top, and among them is a critic. Played by George Sanders, he introduces himself in the beginning of the film:

To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live - it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison De Witt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater.

This is actually a very important point about anything that can call itself art. There will be and always have been those who tell the public what to think. They may be worshiped, condemned, ridiculed or praised. But as De Witt points out, they are essential to the process. Why? Because most of the public wants to be told. The public wants someone with verifiable judgment, experience, and education to use it on their behalf. Very few people like being caught with an unpopular, or worse, uneducated opinion.

Ultimately, many things (and I include art) are a matter of judgment. Isn't that why we read the sports page to see how the writers think the teams, coaches, or athletes are doing? Isn't that why we read stock market reports and analysis of business? Aren't all the fashion magazines and news papers in the world published to inform the judgment of their readers? Like everything else in the world, art changes, and those changes are discussed, written about, and critiqued. Should it be otherwise?


Matthew said...

I think most people do want to be told what to think, but I dislike that reality.

Since I work with objectively measuring and logically justifying decisions, the subective assesments of critics really rankle me. I think Bill Waterson really captures the pretentiousness of this culture in some of his Calvin as and art critic cartoons.

cris said...

I think the problem with critics isn’t that people necessarily enjoy being told what to think, it’s that people are often too lazy to critique the critic. While, yes, some people like being told what to think, ideally, critics give their subjective opinions and criticisms for others to evaluate. And so a critic holds an awful lot of power because few people evaluate what s/he espouses as The Truth.

Listening to a critic is similar to asking your friend whether he enjoyed a movie and using his response as a factor in your decision about whether to spend $10 to see it. That question is predicated on your respect for your friend's taste in movies. Professional critics theoretically have a broader knowledge-base in their particular subject of interest, so they can back up their opinions with good reasons. If you suggested an art exhibit, Mary Ann, I’d take that advice… If Matthew recommended a programming book or Ken recommended a good place to see historically-significant rocks, I’d follow their advice, as well. If I go into a beauty salon and the person who’s recommending a new hair color for me has dyed her hair the color of a rotten eggplant, I’d probably move on to someone else… A lot of people would be happy to trust the beautician because she’s a Professional, so she must know best… And that’s why there are so many German women walking around with purple hair. (Okay, it’s easier for me to believe that that’s the reason, rather than believing that they all came up with that color choice by themselves.) :)

Mary Ann said...

I love Cris's assessment of German hair colors. Lebanon's tacky and Germany's tacky should sit down and have lunch some time.

Critics (and limiting that term only to those professionals that are published/publicized in the media) are very powerful, espeically in art. Abiding by/rejecting the dictates of critics has been at the source of some of the 20th century's great art debates and masterpieces. Whether what they say is right or wrong, what critics say is important. And it is important becuase enough people decided to listen and believe, or listen and revolt. I think Cris is right. More critiquing the critic is needed, but sadly, the time and energy for most people to do so isn't there.

Anonymous said...

This post made me go right out and rent "All About Eve", which is a favorite of mine. Thanks!

I'm curious- where art is concerned, do you think that critics always decide for us what is good art?
For instance, with film, there are plenty which are panned by critics, but are still smash hits in that the public loves them and pays to see them. Are there examples in the art (as in painting, sculpture, etc) world of this happening?

Anonymous said...

ugh, the above was me again..


Mary Ann said...

Amy, ultimately the critic doesn't have the last word. They aren't the only ones who decide matters of relevance, popularity, marketability, and so on.

Impressionism was widely condemned by the critics, as were all the artists that layed the foundation of modernism.

And what about Anne Geddes or other highly successful, very profitable "artists". I've never seen a serious critical review of her work. She's just not on their radar, but that doesn't stop it selling.