I met someone today who described themselves as a critic. I’ve always found that term an odd one to grapple with – wondering who are these people confident enough to criticise the work of others and then publish it. But the notion of critic is not about criticising really, it’s not describing the flaws in things. It’s about making judgements based on opinion and evaluating particular things against some sort of accepted standard. Even so, it’s gotta take balls or moxy, or presumption or gumption, to extol your opinion on other people’s work. It’s not like someone will go into an office and watch an accounts receivable clerk perform their job and then go home, write about it and tell a whole swathe of people what they thought of the effort. The difference of course is that no-one’s going to visit the desk of an accounts receivable clerk and watch them work. Or pay money for the opportunity. And the accounts receivable clerk isn’t posting invitations to encourage people to come and have a gawk, or having a colleague write an essay explaining or elucidating on their work.
Of course, the boringly simplistic criticism of critique is that those that can, do. And those that can’t, critique. The same thing gets bandied around about teachers. Which, frankly, is shorthand sloganistic bullshit. Some of the best criticism comes from people immersed in philosophical thought like sociology and psychology. And some of the best teachers have a gifted talent for communication and motivation. Intellectual rigour and the ability to inspire don’t require you to be able to do the thing you are addressing. They are completely separate skills not necessarily connected to the creative abilities of production. I can pretty well tell when a pilot has made a decent job of landing an airplane without having to know how to land one myself.
Perhaps the reason I’m thinking about this is because of this blog – my own art writing. I’m an artist myself, and I write about other artists and their work. Does that make me any more qualified to talk about it? I don’t think so. It might mean I have a different awareness of the life of the artist, of the decisions inherent in studio production and the behind-the-scenes activities that lead up to the actual presentation of work. But unless you’re talking specifically about that aspect in an article, then that’s not necessarily going to make your commentary on the presentation of the art any better or any more insightful.
Just like art, where every artist has a unique voice, so to in writing. Each writer brings their own experience, knowledge and biases to bear on their expression. For me, I’m simply looking for what I can find in an artwork that activates me. It might make my heart race, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, my stomach churn, bring a tear to my eye or make a little bit of vomit come up in my throat. It might make me think about the past, about my sense of self, about the way the world works or about sex, death and the meaning of life. Whatever it is, I just want to be stimulated. I want to feel something – either in my body or in my mind.
I read recently that contemporary art might have some of its roots in zen buddhism, via John Cage and the conceptualist New York art scene. Nothing explicit, nothing orchestrated or planned, just a subtle bleeding influence creeping in through a selection of artists and their research, discussions and experiments with new ways of making art. The basic premise being that open-ended riddles, like the famous zen meditation ‘if a tree falls in the forest…’, open new ways of thinking and understanding. The proposal then, is that conceptual art took on this approach and operates in a similar way. Artworks are open-ended riddles for you to meditate on.
I’d never thought about it that way before but it’s an interesting proposition. But this is pretty much how I like to write about art. Spending time in the gallery space, or wherever it is you encounter art, contemplating and meditating on the puzzle of meaning. If the work is interesting to you a whole synaptic cross-firing of references, ideas and interpretations will shoot around your mind. Being contemplative, being almost in a state of meditation, allows for you to feel the effects of artworks on your body too. To be attentive to those effects.
Writing about art is just a way to share the excitement of those stimulations. To say to other people that you think someone has brought something into the world that has the capacity to stimulate mind and body. It’s a marvellous thing that artists are out there conjuring up things. They’re plugging away in their studios, in their bedrooms, in their backyards. They’re making stuff to fire your mind and stir your stomach. Not all of it’s great. Not all of it works. Some of it works for some people and not for others. Some of it works sometimes and not at other times. But, wow, when it does work – it’s fucking great.