“A great art critic is the last thing any civilization gets. You start with a house, then you get a streetlight, a gas station, a supermarket, a performing arts center, a museum. The very last thing you get is an art critic. You’re not going to get a good art critic in St. Louis. To be a good critic, you have to be able to make a new enemy every week and never run out of people to be your friend.” –Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for the New Yorker
My friend, L., says that a “good art critic is an oxymoron,” and I’m half inclined to agree. Except that I do believe that oftentimes (and particularly in the case of Schjeldahl) that art criticism can lead a viewer/reader through the complexities of art by revealing intent through application and construction; extolling the virtues of the visual through explication, art historical and cultural references.
Of course, I believe that art must be experienced first hand and that the visceral response that the viewer has is the most important. That first swoon (of love or repulsion) is everything. No amount of ‘explication de texte’ is going to make you love it/undertand it/believe in it/ if you don’t first find something about it that intrigues you. If art criticism is going to be effective, then it must find the primal moment where the connection between artist and viewer meet and then expand upon it.
Criticism, to be effective, must reveal intent; it is discovery through archeology of media, meaning and the marketplace. Many artists have suffered the ‘slings and arrows’ of critics to go on to great acclaim with the public and eventually with the institutions that first shunned them. Many others have not withstood the test of time. And time, of course, is the great leveler of artistic ambition and execution.
Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale School of Art has said, “Great art is essentially work that has proven inexhaustible in terms of value it gives to those who pay attention to it. It says ‘I am in the present tense despite the fact that I was made five or fifty years ago.'”
So, is there a good art critic? Yes and no, but always the decision belongs to the viewer; their past, their future and their present will decide. Bring yourself (all of you) to the pleasures of artwork, and allow those who write about it critically (a physical examination, if you will); allow them to open you to new ways of seeing, understanding and believing.