Thursday, February 15, 2007

Jerry Saltz on Art Criticism

Jerry Saltz, the art critic for the Village Voice had a pithy description of his lack of theory in art criticism, where he said: "Knowing where you're coming from means knowing what you like before you like it and hating what you hate before you hate it. This takes all the life out of art. Theory is about understanding. Art is about experience. Theory is neat. Art is not."

I like that. It's from one of his columns. He's not pretending that art criticism is a science. It's subjective. But he also recognizes his duty, as a critic, to his audience. His explanation of what a critic ought to be doing (from the same column) is very satisfying to me:
My only position is to let the reader in on my feelings; try to write in straightforward, jargon-free language; not oversimplify or dumb down my responses; aim to have an idea, a judgment or a description in every sentence; not take too much for granted; explain how artists might be original or derivative and how they use techniques and materials; observe whether they're developing or standing still; provide context; and make judgments that hopefully amount to something more than just my opinion. To do this requires more than a position or a theory. It requires something else. This something else is what art, and criticism, are all about.
This sort of transparency is especially important in art writing, but I think it carries over to literature, music, and film criticism as well.

I really like how he handled the plea of a gallery owner to avoid writing about art he didn't like:
"You mean all reviews should be positive?" I asked. "Yes," she replied unreservedly. "If you don't like the work, don't write about it." I know there's a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist -- a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a "goalie," someone who in essence says, "It's going to have to be pretty good to get by me." Finally, I blurted, "Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel." At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.
Read the rest of his article here -- it's very enlightening.

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