Article: Picasso’s trousers
art criticism in the age of equity
Robert Nelson, Heat 17, New Series, 2008, pp. 113–135
Sooner or later, art history will turn to the subject of Picasso’s trousers. Not because we need to know about Picasso’s pants or what he kept in them but because Picasso is famous and we all want a piece of him. Access to the artistic patriarch is compelling in sly subliminal ways, even if we don’t really enjoy his paintings.
The reception of art is structured around an artificial mission: we want to locate and own the mystique. Or some hidden part of it. There’s a powerful unconscious agency behind the public enthusiasm for art, a devious and beguiling curiosity that explains the cultish potency of the charismatic figures of modern art.
The trousers are there in every full-length picture of Picasso. They beckon for inquiry. Our attention is perverse but legitimized by a museological kind of ancestor worship, in which we idolize the great progenitor of modern ideas.
In art history, more and more gets written about less and less. While contemporary art generates an ever-greater diversity of forms and ideas, books on art history, blockbusters and criticism recede to the well-known stalwarts of the market. Of course there’s always more to say about a distinguished figure like Picasso; it’s just that the flattery of this richness errs by degrees to the trouser syndrome, where the discourse—however inventive—is reliant upon the illustrious brand name, and the novelty of the subject matter is extracted from obscure and increasingly trivial detail.
Wherever we move outside, in or around the fetishism of the trouser syndrome, criticism is freakish and precarious. It was a surprise to me—given my suspicion of lionizing famous and seminal artists through the minutiae of their remains—that I was once induced to write, as an art critic for a good broadsheet, about Picasso’s testicles.
On the occasion of a large exhibition from the Picasso Museum, the eloquent director Anna Baldassari had prepared not only a striking exhibition of Picasso’s work from the thirties and forties but a comprehensive monograph on his life, relations with the artist Dora Maar and production during the period. I was drawn especially to one small reference describing the artist’s fear of castration, which Baldassari’s scholarship brought to an astonishing thematic pregnancy. The article that I subsequently wrote for The Age in Melbourne was given a suitably acerbic title by the editors: ‘Balls to Picasso’s masculinity’.
Criticism for me involves resisting the hierarchies of fame, the fashions, the obsessions and preoccupations that determine the jealous pleiad of brand-names. Good criticism seeks independence of viewpoint but also subject matter. I want to discover for myself the inexhaustible luxuries and freedoms of contemporary artistic production. If a canon of inherited wisdom haunts the field, I only want to wrestle with it in order to establish the privilege that every scrutineer should enjoy: to escape the investments that other people have placed in art and to evaluate it afresh.
In twelve years of being the art critic for The Age, I’ve been trying it on. The quest has revealed many paradoxes; and now, while I still have a chance of controlling the damage, I want to talk. I’ve always wanted to be the festive scrutineer, blithely ignoring the reputations that have been long established and are continuously promoted with energy and money. But while I hold to that as a principle, I notice a host of paradoxes that riddle art criticism in the age of equity.
Paradoxes are good if you’re a poet and terrible if you’re an accountant, a taxonomist or an equity officer. In art, we love our paradoxes but only within a picture or within an exhibition. We’re not so keen on them when it comes to curatorship or arts administration. And for many readers, art criticism owes that kind of accountability to the community. It should be responsible to good sense and isn’t licenced with the bias and caprice that we almost demand in art itself. You can handle the paradoxes of art but can’t really produce any of your own. It’s fair to say that if you do art criticism, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble.
No profession could be such a beacon for the foolhardy. You can only get into strife if you’re so temerarious as to commit to public scrutiny your opinions on art. And it’s a paradox. Everything about the creation of art is visionary and inspiring and everything about art commentary is invidious and disagreeable. Sometimes a critic can please both artist and public but the odds are against it. You either annoy people with too much complaint or too much praise; you talk about too many shows in too little space or too few shows in too much space; you review too many conceptualists or too many realists; you only deal with the city galleries or you favour the inner suburbs; you only talk about certain artists in order to promote them and other artists in order to discredit them; you’re too deadpan or too sarcastic; you’re too serious or too flippant, too dense with language or too flamboyant with metaphor; you strive too zealously for original phrases or you ape the rhetoric of ages past; you’re too radical or you’re too conservative.
It’s impossible to win: the ground is pocked with pitfalls; it’s a thankless job and no one would profess art criticism were it not for a love of art so deep that it may be considered sacrificial. Only the great dignity of art-making could elicit the will to weekly martyrdom.
Indeed, art criticism and art are in close alignment in their chances of achieving misery. Human endeavour is poignantly crystallized in the making of art, a bedrock paradigm of spiritual hardiness; for most artists toil with neither guidance nor reward; they by and large produce work which is either inaccessible or commonplace and they have little to sustain their agonies but unrealistic hopes. In the European tradition, they tend to hope for immortal success; they want to be famous so much that the provisional nature of their artistic project, the fierce competitive ambience and the improbability (on numbers) of anyone being noticed a century hence, do not discourage their belief that one day their exertions will result in the certain acclaim of posterity.
Everyone in art will lament the fact that there is not enough writing on the visual arts; and of the volume that is generated, one laments that the quality leaves a lot to be desired. But then people always agree on platitudes. Platitudes unite the world. Yet people artificially brought into harmony by platitudes spring back into their natural state of disagreement—with prolific antipathies—when more specific values rise in competition.
No one will agree on the causes nor even the manifestations of just how bad things are in the critical arena. Some will consider most writing on art impossibly unambitious, unnuanced and popularist while others will consider most writing to be overly theoretical, convoluted and impenetrable. The best ideas are generated by writers in the pay of the curatorium, sometimes curators themselves, who have the chance to explore ideas in depth. But the problem with this sheltered production as criticism is that it always valorizes the art on display and is scarcely criticism in a genuinely independent sense.
Given that you can’t satisfy anyone else, the question remains: can you satisfy yourself? It seems to me vain to speculate on issues of pleasing the public with a judicious balance of kindness or malice or length and swing or any other of the manipulative editorial decisions that buffet an art column in any newspaper around the world. In the end, those choices of subject matter and style are all the necessary contingencies of criticism rather than the structure. There’s no end to the conscientious argie-bargie that necessarily bedevils the genre; and often the criticism of criticism is little but an equity discourse.
This less-than-scintillating theme of equity arises with heightened urgency in newspaper criticism because, unlike the casual critic who writes for a magazine, the regular newspaper critic is assumed to have a responsibility for coverage. So this has to be fair. It seems inadequate to argue that the critic simply writes on the shows that inspire, or for which there seems to be plenty to say. This cavalier position would have no legitimacy if you assume that the critic is instated to represent and judge the whole scene, the industry, the spread, and therefore owes a proportion of representation to each constituency, each one of which possibly feeling more important than the other. Unlike all other art critics, the newspaper art critic is vulnerable to accusations of dilettantism and caprice by the nature of his or her selection and inspiration. This pressure is unhelpful; and attempting to account for the balance of reviews bears little reward.
I would seek greater profit in turning to the dark heart of criticism and asking methodological questions of the critic’s immediate motives, the sense of wanting something from the artistic encounter. Never mind what we offer and how equitably: rather, what do we seek? And what cruels our chances of finding what we seek? What messes up the elegance of a poetic aspiration on our part? I want to contemplate five pitfalls of art criticism to identify the hopes and the paradoxes surrounding this very contested genre.
1 Cheapness and light
how the critic is torn before writing
Cultural production is bipolar. Its highs and lows oscillate in crazy ways, slipping easily from the sublime to the slime. To explain this intellectual and emotional instability takes you to a slippery structural dichotomy of intention that lines all cultural production, from industrial design to music. You want to make a contribution to culture with memorable designs, to enter the history books and have clinched the spirit of your times. But at the same time, you need to make successful contact with an audience, appeal to the buying public and guarantee enjoyment and excitement.
Sometimes—alas rarely—these two agendas converge. The artist or company has a winning formula. But more often than not, the lofty and the profitable are at variance with one another, tugging in opposite directions: the one is centred on conspicuous popular gratification and the other aspires to exalted and abstract virtues.
In criticism, this dichotomous structure is seen to a heightened degree. Depending on the publication, the critic addresses two audiences: there are people who listen for the moment, the general public, in whom interest in art is incidental, fragile and ephemeral, capable of great concentration but possibly only on a momentary basis. The other audience is the artists, the curators, collectors, educators, historians and other critics (sometimes collectively known as ‘the industry’). The interested art scene is dwarfed by the huge mass of people who take an interest in art in an incidental way, with uncertain sympathies and curiosity. They may, for example, take a greater interest in music and theatre but sometimes read about art. With the spatiality that characterizes contemporary art, the two constituencies—experts and spectators—are sometimes chauvinistically typecast in geographical terms, with the anointed positioned as ‘inner city’ (where the galleries are) and the laity as ‘suburban’.
Talking to both simultaneously, with their differences in outlook, demographic, language and interest, is difficult to reconcile, because everything in a critic’s make-up and training (given that the critic is an expert) encourages him or her to speak to the experts, to seek to make a mark on high culture, to inscribe values and visions upon the lengthy scroll of history. Adopting some kind of popularizing pedagogical position to induct the massive unwashed into the temple is a lesser labour and possibly unrewarding.
Meanwhile, the critic who has seized with alacrity the privileged opportunity to write on contemporary art might be conceited enough to believe that the genre constitutes a kind of intervention, just like art itself, which conditions future production. What the critic says may give rise to confidence or disillusion in one direction or another; and so, far from a passive or reactive witness, the critic may be a proactive participant, an instigator, a person who furthers or even spearheads culture. Between these extremes, there is much scope for delusion and vanity, just as there is for cynicism and cheapness.
The urgent job that takes up a critic’s immediate energy is to make art more available to the public. Art is displayed for all to see; but few people look. Visual language isn’t widely understood. So ideas in another language—written language—might induce them to observe the scene. At its most welcoming, art criticism stimulates interest, excitement and even fondness, with its judgements, its love of criteria and the backdrop of factual material that it brings to the work. So if the critical text is full of passion about things that really matter in art, it may felicitously acquit both high and low roles, because they undoubtedly converge in exploring tastes and projecting enthusiasm.
With whatever disparate energies and ambitions, criticism has an absorbing role or series of roles. One of them, which I personally find the most absorbing, is to inform, to describe, evoke, bring to life on the page, to bring art into a conversation which it might be unlikely otherwise to enjoy. Criticism can make magic accessible when the art is magical; and it can thus win an audience for art.
how much do you own the outcome?
In this, art criticism has great overlap with the job performed by art curators. Curators certainly want to increase the audience for art. They are charged with the task of attracting people to see the most interesting artworks that they can possibly exhibit. And like the critic, the curator interprets and writes—at their best—to entice people to see the work and induct them into its peculiar imaginative virtues.
But there are also big differences between curatorship and criticism. The curator is responsible for the works that are shown: the works are selected by the curator—sometimes even stimulated or commissioned by the curator—with the assumption that they are the best things on offer. So in writing to the work, the curator (or the essayist writing for the curator) can be relied upon to provide all the apologias that justify the inclusion, that mark out the art as distinctively good and worthy for the exhibition. The curator is always a collaborator. Meanwhile, the critic (supposedly walking innocently off the street into the gallery) has not selected the work for display in the space and is not expected automatically to valorize it. The choice was never his or hers. The artwork may appeal and indeed the critic may end up eulogizing it more enthusiastically than the curator or essayist. But the assumption is that the critic approaches the work independently and is in no way accountable for the quality of the work.
The critic also selects work, in a sense, because making a decision to write about one thing rather than another is a form of selection. But the critic selects shows for review on the basis of having something to say—positive or negative—and not because the work is necessarily very good or compelling. Regardless of any merits, a story lies to hand. And so the critic entices the audience not with a promise that the work is exceptionally good but only with an assurance that the work is worthy of a response, a critique or even a debate. In the estimation of the critic, it could be bad art. In search of a good argument, the critic may unnervingly head for the rotten art. Sometimes, the reviewer sidesteps beautiful work over which there is no contention in order to concentrate on poor work (in the reviewer’s estimation) because it opens up a theme that the reviewer is keen to explore. So the poorer artworks may feature because their evaluation will make for an interesting and stimulating discussion, possibly one which reveals aesthetic or moral criteria or possibly just good sport, as in the genre of hatchet job.
For the audience as a whole, the appealing feature of criticism is that it lets you into the debate. It helps you investigate criteria of judgement. With some measure of philosophical awareness, a critic can empower the public by passing on his or her expressive discernment, with an argued basis for discrimination. And in art, everyone wants to be able to discriminate. You feel that you don’t know anything about art unless you believe that you can distinguish good material from rubbish.
From the outside, art may be mystifying. The grounds for praise seem arbitrary and you don’t have a way in or a method of checking. Certainly, the judgements are debatable, relative, value-laden, a bit impenetrable in their origins, if not in their explanation as well. The critic cannot supply any absolutes, no matter how forthright the expression and tightly argued the grounds. But at least the critic can dispel the air of unsubstantiated assertion and somewhat open up aesthetic and moral discussion concerning the relevant criteria underlying the judgement.
The public shies away from art because people fear that they cannot judge it. They’re expected to (as if that’s a part of the destiny of art) but they’d rather not have a strong opinion. It makes them nervous. The basis of their opinion may be wrong; and then the neophyte judge would end up being judged. In a sense, judgement could be described as a crisis. It’s a personal crisis for each person who makes a judgement, because the one who judges can be in error and the one being judged can be offended. It’s no accident that the ancient Greek word for judgement is our word for crisis (κρισις), from the verb to judge (κρινειν). This is also the origin of the word ‘critic’ and, of course, criteria. They all point to various kinds of unstable evaluative predicaments (crises) which can end up in painful embarrassment.
So the promise that a critic makes is welcome: let me help you find your way toward a rational opinion with this work, an opinion that you’ll be able to justify with explanations. It’s a good deal. And I think that there is automatic disappointment whenever the critic’s words have an arbitrary character, when they fall short of expansiveness on the criteria of judgement, when they foreclose on debate or seize the terms of the discourse in a peremptory way.
So criticism is similar to curatorship in its purposes, especially to engage an audience; but it differs in the pact that it makes with the public, as opposed to the artist. The critic intervenes between art and public but the intercession is not necessarily on behalf of the artist. The curator does this ‘promotional’ labour (if really necessary) but the critic must not be identified with any promotional agency. The critic needs to guard his or her independence and cannot be associated too much with a given cause or group or individual; because this would compromise the virgin view, prejudice the writing and weaken the authority of the critic.
With experienced artists and amateurs alike, the critic is installed by a publisher to broker an encounter. The audience may know more than the critic on certain aspects of the subject matter; but the critic is nevertheless structurally placed as conduit for an exhibition. The critic is assumed to have intuitions that draw out meaningful elements of the work, especially those around which an appraisal might cohere. For this, certain characteristics are essential if the critic is helpfully to mediate the encounter. The critic must engage subjectively with the visuality, the narrative, the space. The review cannot just be an objective account. The writing has to deal with the feeling that you get from the work or space or narrative sequences. And up to a point, this means engaging with what the work says in contemporary terms.
Beyond these essential preconditions of criticism, certain desirable items can be included. It’s best if the critic can engage with the history of the genre or the subject matter, the style or the interface or the format, the technique, the ethics, the spirituality or sentimental appeal and so on. Indeed, the great question leaping out of this desirable list, given that we have limited space, is which ones? The list is formidable and impressive; but that’s the problem. Like, which histories? How much does the critical text deal with the contemporary counterparts to the work on show? How much does the critic handle the theoretical framework, the curatorial proposition? How much does the text recognize the curatorial labour, that is, the achievement of staging the show? Because there are umpteen moments of intensity in reporting on the organizational opportunities, the logistics and the politics of the situation.
In criticism, there is no bell that rings to tell you when to start and stop with a given theme. None ever reaches fulfilment, because there is always more to say concerning the infinite! And so there is also a hazard that the writing becomes massively unbalanced, because the author is trying to explore an unsolved mystery of great moment to scholars or even journalists (as with a scandal in funding) while quite neglecting the aesthetic calibre of the work.
This danger exists in other forms. The interest of the critic is also conditioned by his or her knowledge. Because we know, we say. There is a strong temptation to enjoy or indulge your patch. You may include lots of history if you’re a historian. There may be lots of Deleuze if you’re a Deleuzian. There would be lots of painting technique if you’re a painter (because art critics often are: I am) and so on. This pattern requires vigilant attention, lest the field be overrun with fancies or hobby-horses, always at the expense of an equally valid concentration on some other thematic hot spot.
Fear over such caprice may be lessened by seeing the critical labour in less pedagogical terms. An art critic is not an instructor. The review may inform, may be rich in fact, may have wisdom in discourses; but the aim is not to impart something autonomously sacred in each of these fields of knowledge but rather to connect them with the work at hand. The mission is to investigate and communicate, not to teach.
Rather than presenting an improving lesson (which presupposes a didactic design in the message, as of syllabus), criticism at best reveals the curiosity of the critic. It achieves a synthesis of perceptions and reactions which are generated out of an inquiry. Good criticism is underpinned by independence and awareness, above all seeking poetic integrity or complaining (with reason) where it cannot be found. But the poetry is not simple, as of an autonomous literary genre (e.g. verse) but layered across several interests that make each observation and each intuition highly relative.
3 History mystery
how do you know what you need to know?
As a critic, you have to manage the matrix. You have to reveal (or at least negotiate) where you’re coming from; you have to say where you imagine the art is coming from; you then need to assess where the curators are coming from and imagine where the public might be coming from. The analysis recognizes the artistic appeal amid the contingencies of experience and history. Because that’s another force: the impact of history and criticism on your awareness. You don’t have neat access to the work but always an entry into the work over a threshold of prior personalized knowledge. Not even perception is pure, because perception feeds off history; perception is never independent of perspectives, because you only perceive what you’ve been conditioned to recognize. The fascination is permeated, sometimes ignited, by histories.
If only perception were innocent, as Cézanne had hoped! Alas, the perception of everything (from cars to clothes) is fashioned by experience and knowledge. And sometimes, rarely, this even comes to consciousness. Recently, on my way to a gallery, I had a perceptual epiphany looking at a church in East Brunswick from the 1930s. The tower (if you imagine the ground-plan) is unsually set on an angle, 45º relative to the façade. By virtue of this angle, the tower seems to depart from the church and addresses the intersection, the force of which aligns with neither the façade nor the nave but the impact of the two streets running into one another and doing a corner. So the tower set on a 45º angle makes good secular symbolic sense as it looks to the corner diametrically opposed; it’s a good landmark design, possibly with automotive overtones. Though a church that has to be suited to liturgical purposes, there would be some link to deco buildings with their cylindrical towers on the corner, the commercial kind, with their horizontal emphasis running around corners with a kind of drum marking the dynamism of the intersection (which was by the 1930s thoroughly automotive).
So, given the coincidence of dates, I began to wonder, when did this motif of a diagonal footprint first appear in ecclesiastical design? How many others are like it in Melbourne, Sydney, England, America and elsewhere? Where was this motif taken from? I would not be thinking about it—indeed wouldn’t even have noticed the distinctive feature—if I hadn’t been looking at the building in a historical perspective, consciously or otherwise. It was the historical awareness that caused the perception to jump into consciousness. I wouldn’t have noticed the angle if I hadn’t figured that this represents an anomaly in the otherwise consistent pattern of churches with towers that align with the walls.
How can you write without knowing? It seems irresponsible. The very reason for inclining the eyes to make the observation is a kind of premonition of the anticipated substance, the consequence, the resonance; and in this, the awareness of the history of architecture is essential. For me, it was not just a knowledge of churches. If I didn’t also have a little archive in my memory of Deco buildings with towers, the neo-Norman job in clinker brick wouldn’t have struck me as curious.
This historical basis of the observation is also the gateway to another problem. In owing your insights to a historical database, the visual encounter rapidly gives way to genealogy. Once you start down this path, the discourse is rapidly consumed with questions of ancestry; and these will dictate the way you’re going to write about the subject matter. The exposition will easily default to an argument of dates and influence, the causes for the design being the way it is. So writing becomes aetiology, a history of lineages, a pedigree-driven discourse which fails, at a certain point, to see more and to experience more from perception and imagination.
It’s the same with contemporaries. Critics can become consumed with the responsibility that they feel to allude to important counterparts in the local scene or abroad. With great ease and even greater authority, criticism can be a roll-call of famous people in the contemporary scene, e.g. the international stars. The critic also gains by such comparisons because the critic reveals connexions (which, incidentally, could be imaginative or imaginary!) and is associated with famous exemplars. But even when legitimate and clever, the connexions are perhaps more meaningful to experts than to the general public, for whom the same references may even be bewildering or alienating. If you only feel half-way toward sophistication, the grid of references spooks or excludes, intimidates and distances you from the aesthetic issues at hand; consequently, it disempowers you to evaluate the work afresh for yourself. The emphasis on big names also implicitly seeks a valorization of the work, unless there’s a specific disclaimer to the contrary. There are so many ways in which the reader will feel browbeaten into accepting the high status of the work, perhaps even through representations of the gallery or the curatorial pedigree, even with the literary establishment of extended families. All of these descriptions of mighty contemporaries potentially have the effect of institutionalizing the encounter.
If I could ever choose between an illustrious comparator and an instructive local analogy, I would err to the latter. In many ways, criticism is a search for familiarity, as the material presents as new but the structures have plenty of old bits embedded in them and are all old at the core. So is it better to restrict esoteric references if they turn people off? Maybe; but it’s an agony. You could equally say that international comparators are sometimes a way in when famous, like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Orlan; though in popular circles, these great names are all still minor relative to those of celebrity culture, such as Beyoncé, Shakira, Delta Goodrem or James Blunt.
Also, in postmodern times, references are inherent in the work. You can’t presume to analyse the work without a whole library of sources and positionings. The photograph or video or whatever has been conceived around allusions and it seems mean to disregard this scheme. In our age, it’s sometimes the essence of the work: to locate meanings within a grid of already established signifiers, to reveal relativity as non-essentialist. This goes with the now famous postmodern case against originality, as all original contributions are perforated by histories, and hence saturated with references and ideological positions. The references are all in the realm of content, not to be denied or marginalized for the sake of ease or fondness for abstraction. And even if we professed an antiquated modernist reverence for originality, still the references will be vital for proving how new and unprecedented something is. If you’re alleging originality or the lack of it, you have to prove the newness or derivative status by talking about comparisons.
Personally, I’m not so hung up on whether work is original or not. If Bach takes a tune from Purcell, it’s all the same to me if it makes musical sense. Musicologists like art historians are right to analyse how much is borrowed and then transformed. But their texts can thus become an anthology of annotations, detecting dependence upon sources. And so with judging the meaning of artworks. My formula for judging how much by way of referencing I need is simple. Do the references inhere? The references shouldn’t be conceived as demonstrating the writer’s prowess in amassing facts; nor should they be introduced for the sake of revealing a grid of knowledge, as when you do a PhD. Rather, the critic may use references either because they’re deeply embedded within the work or for the sake of evocation. The critical text may be larded with signposts requiring knowledge. But you make them available in the prose from the inside. They become necessary as meaning grows, as they arise from the experience of looking. And even so, I think that the special virtue of good criticism is that the references are made unnecessary in the end, so the reader—perhaps without the specialized knowledge—can still cope.
Critics, like artists, seek the poetic. They want the art to be poetic and they want their own text to be poetic. It would all be a marriage meant to happen if the two sonorous archetypes sang the same rhapsodies. Alas, they don’t, because the critic is not just an expositor but a judge. And in this, the poetic is a problem, which you could call the poetic problem. The problem is that the poetic virtue of a description is not necessarily a guarantee of poetic properties in the thing described. You can poeticize anything: an old cabbage, a nail in a tree, the crack in a road. You don’t even need a photograph or painting. In art criticism, the sonority of the ecphrasis does not necessarily accrue to the work because of virtues inherent in the work, but just because the writer has developed an imaginative relationship to the subject matter.
Cracks in the road may sound too trivial to be poeticized; but they are highly available to speculation (and even photographic analysis). If you travel in a car, you scarcely notice them but if you’re on a bike, each bump counts. The peculiar disruption to the surface also registers in a way that invites a kind of inquiry, an absorption that comes close to wonder. Some cracks are caused by the corruption of a join in the tarmac; others have been plastered over with bitumen; others reveal distress in the surface caused by the impact of heavy lorries or even tree roots; and another type betrays the meeting of two materials beneath with unequal characteristics. For one person, there is a minor bump; for another (probably on a bike), the same bump is experienced via a deeper awareness of causes. There’s a bridge under the crack. Beneath the bump, you sense a connexion between earth and a tensile steel support, as the rider becomes conscious that he or she is crossing over an undercut railway with gigatonnes of rolling stock flowing beneath the pavement. This consciousness that the crack betokens the reality of a bridge is precious and has metaphoric or poetic potential. Suddenly the world is larger, more meaningful; its details are subtended by a construct of greater richness; and this chain of phenomenological perceptions and realizations is a poetic structure, in which the one reality gives onto another and the world is seen as an extension of the ways that you might imagine it.
The problem with this economy of accident and imagination is that none of it is owing to the road itself, much less the author of the road. Our rapture is always also a problem, because we never know to what it is owing. The marvellous trajectory of the mind in visiting the crack in the road with its causes is unintended by the crack itself; and while you might get a poem out of it, it’s going to be difficult to get criticism out of it. Consciousness is enhanced and reaches brilliance through language; but this same poetic language is no testament to the poetic calibre of the thing observed.
4 Poetic noetic
how do you separate your insight from the art?
The poetic impulse in criticism is seductive but can also be distracting, when the task at hand is concerned with an evaluation of intentions or agendas. The motive of exposition might be poetically justified but critically or artistically capricious. It could be undiscriminating in artistic terms, lacking rigour in philosophical terms, an indulgence and disappointment in view of the urgency of a response to the proposition of the work. You can assuredly poeticize anything; but to what end?
Before we seek to clap criticism in responsible unpoetic irons, I would question the verb, ‘to poeticize’. It is artificial. A poet might say: I see something poetic. This means seeing a connexion between the phenomenon and the idea. To observe poetically means to be sensitive to semantic potential. This is not a process of artificially inducing meaning on the void (to poeticize the cabbage mentioned earlier); it’s not gilding the silly or merely ornamenting or conflating. To find poetry, to investigate the immanence of ideas in a sensory encounter is congruent with the ‘natural’ motive of the critic seeking thematic delight. Critics frequently look to art for its themes; and I am certainly one who goes out of his way to find the thematic link through the things that I describe.
Poetic things can be discovered without the artist ever intending the
messages or images that you, as critic, consider so poetic; and so can political things. In the suburban landscape every few months (in a city like Melbourne), you can see a great deal of domestic items piled up outside houses by the roadside for hard-rubbish collection. These assemblages have poignant implications, only none is intended. Sometimes, there are beds and mattresses put out for collection. They would be great for homeless people. Except that homeless people don’t have homes to put beds in, or at least not on a permanent basis.
This paradox of the abandoned beds is full of pathos: the thrown-out essential sleep-furniture cannot easily be rescued by the people who might need it most. The beds might cost nothing on the pavement but they have no prospects of being accommodated by their needy potential inheritors. For the poor, the items are there for the taking but the reception is prohibitive. This makes the display of discarded mattresses in the street particularly touching. The refuse on the footpath, once-grandiose items, seems somehow expressive and pathetic, as if conceived as a statement of indignation. To consider a bed so disposable by the wealthy—when not even the preconditions of accepting a bed are available to the poor—is melancholy and bitter.
If you saw these hapless items in a gallery (and certainly in a suite of photographs), I’m sure that you’d tend to interpret the installation as a political statement. You would impute to the collection a whole moral perspective, which is exactly the component missing in the scenario in the street. The wealthy householders of the leafy suburbs do not seek to project any kind of message by their disposal of the bed; on the contrary, they only want to shed their unwanted junk that will otherwise clog the garage or spare room for a further year and create an inconvenience in parking the shiny car. And even if they hang onto the old stuff, what good does it do? It is better to send it to the tip. Even with the finest moral perspective, the householder is more likely to worry about security in offloading the mattress than any compunction over the waste. And so for a spell of prolonged wincing, the abandoned mattresses await collection by a user who can never arrive in time; for very soon, the mattresses become soggy or are collected by the lorry that takes them to the tip.
Every way I look at this scenario, I feel a paradox that I prefer to call poetic. Should anyone else consider it so? On whose doorstep should I return the soft but heavy resonance of the discarded mattresses? Once entering into this vein, your mind is filled with this kind of speculation. You see a world of manifestations hatched by fraught intentions, institutions and accident, a tumble of ideologies and affection, zeal and sloth, that you view with degrees of horror and compassion. Perhaps, for me, it’s the delirium induced by riding a bicycle wherever I go, as the regular pace—no matter how muscular—allows for racing contemplation. But the ‘ritual of going’ reminds me that it is we, as spectators, who activate the world in a phenomenological sense; and if we don’t, we have no title of artist or critic or poet. The author (with his or her stated intentions) is only one inhabitant of this imaginative world among many others, some of which are inanimate.
Spectatorship is prior to all artistic thinking, whether spectatorship of art or the environment or, in the case of Australian Indigenous artists, a spirit world as well as community, the patrimony of song and dance and of course nature. Up to a point, the critic needs to separate the specific subject matter of the art in the gallery from the ambient stimuli that inspire interpretations, potentially inducing foreign intelligence onto the art. Some responsibility remains with the critic to restrict himself or herself to an evaluation of the art and its content as more or less intended by the artist. The critic doesn’t enjoy the literary privilege of being wholly whimful and using the art merely as a point of departure for speculations arising from the kerb or the bedroom. This poetic autonomy would be a boastful indulgence, disappointing the economy of art and possibly deceiving the spectator, who may go to an exhibition expecting something of an inspirational character altogether removed from what is really there. The critic has spun a fine yarn on a hobbyhorse, but rather as a form of cultural schizophrenia, as if some psychotic divorce from reality in favour of wish-fulfilment. And easy to caricature.
But up to another point, the critic is also charged with matching artistic intuitions on either side of a gallery wall. In this, delusion still remains a risk; however, the critic must be able to supplement what is simply seen with things that are remembered, just as the artist did in creating the work. To require that the art critic be restricted to the act and the fact of the art is to weaken the power of art; because art itself is charge with a magic to facilitate a wider wonder, a form of contact with greater fascination. The artistic spectatorship begins with the art but doesn’t end with the art: there’s a cosmos out there to which the art belongs; and as these things—like the spirit world of some Indigenous artists or even European tradition—are nigh infinite, indefinable and sublime, the critical encounter must be poetic; else it will have failed what art does best.
5 Match and batch
how do you decide who goes with whom?
Although I sometimes go out of my way to find the thematic link among diverse exhibitions in a single review, I acknowledge that this practice is hazardous. I’ve often sought to tie a number of simultaneous shows together under the one theme; but I’m less inclined to do it now than I used to, for reasons of art rather than editorial coherence or practicality in covering reviewable exhibitions.
Many approaches to criticism can tarnish the candour of observation, the integrity of exploring the sensory dimensions of the art. Anthologizing shows may have an interfering influence. In batching simultaneous exhibitions, the critic extends the coverage of the weekly review and also extends his or her imagination in apprehending connexions between the often disparate productions seen that week.
The danger with this approach is that it compromises the autonomous concentration that a single show deserves. The quest to possess a theme for any given week becomes a preoccupation which displaces the innocent encounter, the primarily sensory experience which ought to move you or direct your commentary. By prioritizing a thematic interest, you let the key task shrink from the sensory. The key task becomes one of having a topic, not looking at pictures or installations receptively. You cease to look at pictures with an analytical sense of their strengths and weaknesses—judgements that the reader wants to know—and instead risk imposing a synthesizing vision which makes a good story. Of course you do hope that it’s a good story; you hope that it’s imaginative and that the readership admires the writing for its ability to sustain thematic interest; but there will always be visual elements which will remain unexpressed by this method.
In other respects, the sympathy with art is stronger by developing a synthesizing and potentially poetic relationship with the art shown in any given week. The critic is engaged in making his or her own cultural production, possibly invoking an energy analogous to the inspirational character of art-making. This is a specific kind of ‘creative’ art criticism which I aspire to.
Various writers have distinguished between art critic and art reviewer. Many prefer the title of art reviewer rather than art critic. They don’t like the idea of art critic, feeling that it implies too much pomposity; it’s too judgemental for the sympathetic ear. But my enthusiasm—while not particularly cultivating a judgemental position—is for the opposite: I like the term art criticism rather than art reviewing because I see criticism as embracing the larger cultural questions, as creatively organizing or synthesizing intelligible themes or discussions from what is a fairly chaotic profusion of artistic manifestations.
This is the preserve of the art critic, not the art reviewer. The art reviewer takes up a worthy position informing the audience about what is on and what makes it worth seeing. Of course this is all underwritten with the author’s personal values and tastes, just as much as is the case with the art critic. It just looks a little bit more democratic and generous in structurally deferring to the art. Against this, the critic takes up a position which occupies space for the critic himself or herself. The art critic is self-consciously artful, possibly moralized, and must be unabashedly judgemental. This follows, because the critic tends to foreground a vision, ideally springing directly from the art at hand during that week, but a vision nonetheless which takes argumentative precedence and is the organizing trope for all the descriptions and information. The critic assumes positionality.
This issue often lets us identify the constituent parts of poor criticism. Poor criticism may indeed foreground a vision which takes argumentative precedence; but it doesn’t spring freshly from viewing the art at hand during that week: it’s stale from preoccupations of 20 years ago, the incuriosity of a mind made up, filled with old hobby horses that may or may not contain truths but which tendentiously dictate the observations and boost the will to certain conclusions. The dead hand of personal convictions prevents themes from arising freshly from the process of looking, then organically synthesized in the process of writing.
Alas, this is a field where no one has access to infallible virtue. The search for thematic engagement—which is my preference—has risks which are telling. The quest can become its own self-serving contraption, a regime of entertainment, seeking writerly flair rather than sincerity of observation. It can also be suspected of displacing the search for quality. This would be a very serious accusation. Is there truth in it?
Well, it’s true that in foregrounding a thematic idea, you’re probably not going out with the primary intention of identifying quality. But quality can still be discussed judgementally within that framework; moreover, it can be discussed in a functional way without the air of looking for blood. You discuss art for its thematic content, sure, but you’re also seeking its power in delivering, in satisfying the expressive exigencies of the theme. This takes you to the core and purpose of technique. When technique and quality generally are discussed with the purpose in mind, they are handled without autonomously connoisseurial priorities. You don’t risk handling art as a posh and spooky form of craft, or as a vehicle of romantic emotion.
When art is discussed in terms of a general theme, the writing lends itself to a mix of artistic criteria. You don’t leave it to a single matrix of criteria to direct the discussion; the writing isn’t one dimensional in a kind of tick-a-box fashion: ‘I went and saw this collection: it wasn’t good in composition; it was badly drawn with poor formal resolution, indifferent expressions and gestures and so on.’ These are all valid areas for criticizing artworks but they’re always stronger when reflecting on the communicative or speculative purpose to which they apply.
Technique becomes livelier when organically related to expression. It is helpfully drawn out of the ‘merely’ technical because, in that narrow sense, technique is experienced as a turn-off: forbidding for those who know little and boring for those who think they know a lot. Meanwhile, the way figures are drawn or pictures are composed or colours are mixed finds its rightful place in an investigation of a larger nature, perhaps even a little academic, but full of questions and cultural issues. Technique finds itself in the bigger frame, that of art in its wider discursive co-ordinates, in which the skill-based indices of quality are likelier to be recognized as necessary and relevant.
But let me return to the problems with the thematized anthological approach. One of the risks is that you look for art that illustrates ideas. One show gives you an idea and you want all the others that week to reinforce the idea. The onus on the critic is to respect the integrity of each show and to embrace the art that challenges the ideas that you already have; or it gives you fresh ideas. The weekly review will never be a mini show but a small philosophized excursion, a casual search for themes, analogous to the concerns that art is about. The small philosophized excursion should ideally enjoy a congruence with artistic production.
The greater problems of mixing shows in a review are practical. What happens, for example, if there is a great realist show in a week of otherwise exclusive conceptualism? Do you give up the realist artist for dead? She or he clearly belongs to a talented minority. But the dominant coherence has to prevail. Or do you deal with the realist first, independently, and break up the theme? Or do you forge an artificial link? This could mean inserting a false lynch pin, an extraneous device that appears to meld heterogeneous art objects into a seamless discussion. Consider a couple of grotesque examples. These paintings in gallery X happen to contain trees: talking of which, this conceptual artist in gallery Y happens to use timber, the cultural product figured in the supposedly natural state of landscape. Or this painting in gallery A has atmosphere and this installation in gallery B invokes air because it has a fan in the corner; in fact it is a critique of atmosphere, because it shows how the artistic evocation of atmosphere is a cultural trope’. These connexions are hardly compelling. There are no formulae to avoid such embarrassments; but that is no reason not to attempt to embrace heterogeneity while still trying to preserve an argument with curatorial aspirations.
The critic shouldn’t seek to structure reviews to avoid embarrassments. There is a temptation to keep apples with apples and leave out the passionfruit. It is better to look at both in the perspective of the soil from which they both drew nourishment and to which they return by a cumbersome seedy metaphor. The temptation to keep apples with apples will always favour the kind of art which is easiest to discuss and which already has a reputation in the magazines. It is by and large the art of the prestigious commercial galleries and the state or national galleries. There are sophisticated codes of taste and conceptual convention which circumscribe such art with a degree of exclusiveness. By and large, the observation of these codes leads the critic to ignore a great deal of artistic production of great relevance to the general public.
Time permitting, it would be ideal not only to extend the purview to artist-run spaces but to commercial galleries of a modest or even conservative kind, sometimes showing figurative art of a sentimental nature and revealing a cultural disposition which the professional art community identifies as amateur, nostalgic and chocolate-boxy. Often, incidentally, such art commands high prices. It certainly appears to belong to another world, both in its educational background, its economy and its aspirations. It almost never strikes a critic as having any urgency or cultural importance; it comments upon nothing and uncritically celebrates picturesque scenes. The worst aspect of such art is that it very often reveals technical incompetence. I still think that it is worth looking at—especially for the well-drawn exceptions—because it enlarges our view of visual production and has the potential to achieve excellence in its own terms.
None of this is necessary to a curatorial style of criticism; but inclusiveness is encouraged by this ethos and makes the curatorial style worthy if for no other reason.
Criticism can be as critical as it likes. Generosity or meanness should not really come into it. But there are dispositional values that a critic might possess which make for greater receptiveness and empathy; and if you lack these, your encounter with art is chronically impatient. It’s not easy to make art and it’s not easy to write about it; it isn’t easy to judge art, to interpret and sometimes even to savour it. For some, this becomes an intellectually burdensome prospect, as artists recede from readily available critiques to obscure theory, arcane subcultures or inscrutable levels of identification with popular culture and lifestyle. But with all of this, artists furnish us with inexhaustible subject matter to contemplate things of the greatest moment; and, through all their confusing mixtures of obscurity and hyperbole, they not only achieve images of a pregnancy that cannot be reached by other means but they finally teach their critics how to be patient.
Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University and Art Critic for The Age.