Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reflections on Criticism: Acts of Committed Imagination

Let's take a moment to review. Why do I write art criticism on the internet? 
Ann Starr, from Home Security, 2005,
ink on paper

Reviewing art unasked by a self-constituted audience could be taken as an egotistical overvaluing of my own opinions; the more so since I do this without being employed by a media outlet that might pay me minimally for a certain number of words that illustrate an image or two.  But anyone who is offended can simply ignore rather than challenge the ideas I propose. In a twenty-first century of multitudinous bloggers, the world is awash with opinions for readers to drink deeply or dabble in. There's no curriculum. And essentially, there's no competition.

I write these reviews because they organize for my own sake my reactions to art shows that I see. Writing forces me—forces anybody—to dig deeper. Writing is a certain path to discovery. And what is any art about if not discovery? 

In writing I try to imitate the artist's process of digging in, observing, and solving a sequence of related problems—materials, colors, structure, size, memory, attitude... When I reach a conclusion, it may not be the artist's conclusion, but it will hopefully follow similar logic. Or it will arise from contemplation of the same materials with the opportunities they offer. To write is to shadow; it brings me as close as I can get to the generation of the artworks without having been there in fact.

So, to write reviews—to write criticismis to observe as closely and comprehensively as I can. To observe closely is an act of committed imagination. 

Readers will have noticed by now the way I have allowed the nouns "review" and "criticism" to assume the same space. "Criticism" usually carries the idea of evaluation more heavily than does "review," but both imply evaluation and analysis. 

Neither "review" nor "criticism" means synopsis or description without the addition of the writer's own analysis, evaluation, or insight. A reviewer or a critic has something to share with the audience beyond prose received from a press release and what observations will serve to prove that he/she did indeed visit the site of the show.

"Criticism" is often associated with academic study for whom the intended audience is scholarly or deeply informed. This is why I stick to the term "review." Criticism is popularly thought to be fault-finding and esoteric. There is enough witty, rhetorical criticism, too, that rips apart easy targets and constitutes its own sub-genre of writing to maintain general readers' leeriness of the term. Criticism is seen as a negative act that dismisses the content most people would be interested in. Criticism, as many understand it, focuses only on form, poetics, technique, tradition, and such aspects of art as non-specialist observers might consider secondary. 

While academic conversation is crucial for the advancement of knowledge, and while the work of academic intellectuals is to be respected, I wonder if its influence hasn't stunted the emergence of more practical criticism directed at a general, educated, and eager audience—those of us who visit museums and galleries for pleasure. Even the vocabularies of the premier art magazines are specialized, traceable back to the academy, not to standard English as it is popularly used.

"I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." It's a beginning, but it's not a place to remain. And I think such a statement implies a question about how to know more.

My job as a critic is to help that person go farther. It's a practical job, one rooted in non-specialist language (though not in watered-down language), and in modeling. 

I wish for my reviews to show the reader what I do when I look at a show and how I get my ideas about it. I hope to show what prompts me to make comparisons with other things I've experienced. The connection between experience and imagination will appear.

Ultimately, I hope that readers of my reviews—of all reviews—appreciate that good criticism can open doors beyond the simple recommendation that a particular show worth seeing. A good review—solid criticism, should give the viewer information that helps her/him see any show more deeply, with more searching questions and keener observations. No one is obliged to like any show, however warmly recommended. A substantial pleasure comes in the process of taking it in, considering how the artist must have made the work, how the curator put the show together, and how the whole piques our own feelings, memories, and imaginations. 

And, after all, how badly can you dislike something when you've invested yourself in genuine scrutiny of it? Liking and disliking aren't the goals we should set for ourselves in viewing art. How can we know what we like until we have invested ourselves in it? 

And how can we know who we are until we've invested ourselves in the work of observation of complex works in which others have invested their minds and their time? In learning how to consider art and to like widely in art, we become more fully human in the process. I write reviews as a practical matter, for those who would help along the way.

Ann Starr, Gouty Hand, 1998, pen and
marker on paper.


  1. I like your idea of a practical review with a non specialist language. Free of academics. Your reviews are beautifully written, and remind me that the work of looking closely and formulating a thoughtful reaction, is also part of my job as an artist.

    1. Thank you for this thought. I think you are right about the latter point: that artists need to be able—at some future point—to engage with their work as viewers. It's asking a lot.