The Terror of the Naked Critic – Part 1 of 2

The comic bit, on which there’ve been many variations,goes something like this:  A Hollywood pitchman addresses a group of studio execs, exhorting them, “I’m tellin’ you this project is box office gold!  It’s like Godzilla meets Terms of Endearment!”

We’re supposed to smirk at the crassness of the agent’s tactic, at the “jurors'” implicit fear of the new.  We disdain the smug moneymen who won’t sign on without warranties from market research and sales data, who don’t have time or tolerance for anything complex or profound.  The joke mocks the workings of commercial pop culture.

But the same timidity and conformity holds sway in the halls of high culture, too, including the corridors of photography criticism, journalism, and judging.  (“Wow, I love those Cindy Sherman sex photos!  They’re like Hans Bellmer meets Bozo the Clown meets Joel Peter Witkin.”)

I wrote in a previous post how a famous poet warned his students that 95% of criticism is more harmful than helpful to our understanding and, more important, to our experience of art.  What he then went on to explain was that most critics, most professors can’t really deal with the living reality of artworks, can’t perceive the life that’s in them, can’t illuminate how the artist generates that life in a reader or a viewer or a listener.  And, he said, that’s partly because professional commentators, like other people, are afraid of the painful emotions, the inexplicable and uncontrollable realities, that great art lays bare.  We’re often disturbed by what great art implies and what it seems to demand.  In his poem about an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rilke captured how all the parts of the statue, even in its headless state, blazed with undying vitality, seeming to say to its viewer, as Rilke wrote in his poem’s last line:  “You must change your life.”

So, my teacher said, instead of talking about rhythm and atmosphere and the suffering of shame or the terrible wastelands of the soul, most academic critics talk and write about the data of biography, the history of the artist’s homeland, the philosophical trends of the artist’s era, or the intellectual fashions of the critic’s own generation (maybe Marxism, or gender politics, or the “post-modern” ideas that Barthes disavowed just before he died).  They talk about rational things that they think they grasp, things with which they’re comfortable.  More than once, as an adolescent, I was dragged a long way away from the heart of a great writer’s work by reading critical essays in collections from the popular 20th Century Views series.  I wish I’d had the chance to hear and heed my mentor’s warning before I’d been fuddled and frozen out by all those scholarly disquisitions.

These art authorities often know what Blake wrote or what Goya painted, but they don’t really know what leads the artists to create such works, or why those creations are priceless for other people’s living.

When we look at pieces of criticism or the decision of jurors, we need to remember that, like most of us in every walk and station of life, the aesthetic “authorities” are afraid of being wrong, afraid of being embarrassed.  And they’re concerned with how their opinions and judgments will affect their fortunes.  Like people in every other field of endeavor, they tend to join groups and buy into programs, and once they enlist, they’re going to do what they can to enhance the status and success of the cause — whether it’s Abstract Expressionism or Post-Modernism or the progeny of the Bechers.  Just as a sports team owner, having spent a fortune on a talent of questionable character will stubbornly exaggerate his athlete’s worth and downplay his bad behavior, so people of position in the art world, once they latch onto a certain idea or cadre of artists, will exaggerate its singularity and its value in order to guard their investment.  Like most investors, they’re risk-averse.

I once heard a curator who juries many photo exhibitions say that she tries to pick works “that look contemporary.”  What this usually means is that the juror wants to select pieces that look like generally-accepted work that the juror has seen and that other professionals have already validated.  I remember one juried exhibition that consisted almost entirely of inferior imitations of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore.  Just this week, I saw a photo that was awarded First Place in a well-known competition, and that did little more than rip off diCorcia’s famous image (“Mario 1978”) of a man in a darkened kitchen, leaning into the light from an open refrigerator.  But then the prize-winning photo did make the astonishing innovation of adding a second person in front of the luminous appliance.

To varying degrees and in different kinds of discomfiting situations, we all wear internal protective suits to save us from the fires of rejection, pain, failure.  I don’t talk about this kind of thing in order to condemn particular people or groups of people.  My point is to make sure that we understand that no authority figure in photography or any other field deserves our unquestioning trust on the basis of position or resume, that common fears and selfish interests frequently inform or deform their judgments.  We don’t need to add to our burdens the discouragement that can follow from rejection in public competitions, or that comes from feeling thoroughly deadened and doubtful after ingesting the cold “authoritative” tripe that’s served up in so many journals, lectures and panel discussions.

In the last year, a rare opportunity arose to see what can happen when authorities are confronted by an artist, appearing “late” and almost “out of nowhere,” without their having the help of years of received opinion, without knowing that he belonged to or considered himself a member of any labeled school or movement, without a history of validation through an art school degrees or gallery representation or museum exhibitions.  Please plan to come back here soon for a striking and revealing case in point, in “The Terror of the Naked Critic — Part 2”!

About Lawrence Russ

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards by jurors including Judy Kim of the Brooklyn Museum and Eva Sutton, Chair of the Photography Department of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Posted on August 16, 2012, in Art in Society, The Art World. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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