Long Live the Critic

An article that appeared in the Sunday Times, shortly before the end of 2010, has remained in my mind somewhat inexplicably. Titled ‘Long Live the Critic’ [i] and written by Cristín Leach, the article certainly prompts some kind of discussion. Not least for the fact that the role of the critic appears in a state of demise, particularly in a country where art criticism does not afford the same amount of interest as in, say, Britain or America. That is not to state that the field flourishes by comparison in other countries; rather, it is simply a smaller amount of people who hold in interest in reading art criticism. However, though the field involves fewer people, for such a small nation I would suggest there to be a disproportionately substantial level of engagement.

But now, back to the article. I do agree with much of what Leach says, but at the same time I am in strong disagreement with some of her views. I feel she generalises the kind of people who actually read art criticism, or might be tempted to show an interest in some way. Thus Leach demeans her own profession: by flattening these crucial differences, she also sanitises the possibilities inherent within art criticism as a discipline. If the critic could only write for one audience, could only formulate one solitary form of criticism, then all possibility, all excitement, is nullified. It is not simply to do injustice to the role of the critic, but also to the central proposition of the viewer.

For example, a critical text in Circa will surely differ from the tone of a piece for inclusion in the Sunday Times. The audience dictates this. It is important to note that these different strands should not necessarily be antagonistic towards one another, but should nevertheless remain as separate and distinct entities. Therefore, when Leach disparages Imelda Barnards’ critical text, which was included in the publications’ newest online incarnation, she misses the point, the possibility, of art criticism. Circa is a space in which, I thought, meandering, dense and often infuriating articles could be found [ii]. In short, it is not the Sunday Times. Barnards’ language is clear, and yet at the same time willfully obscure; that’s the point. Leach says that, ‘we need art criticism that is opinionated, informed and readable’, yet she misses the whole concept of audience. The writing in Circa is clear, but clarity in Circa diverges from a notion of clarity demanded in a daily newspaper such as the Irish Times. Clarity, in art criticism as in any other field, is relative. The writing to be found in Circa, therefore, is not illustrative of ‘what’s wrong with a lot of writing about art’: it is simply wrong to place the same demands of it that you might of a publication that reaches a wider, more mainstream audience.

However I do agree with some of the points made in the article. Negative criticism is perhaps necessary in more mainstream outlets, and more attempt should be made to accommodate this negativity. Though personally I haven’t really felt the desire to write about anything I don’t like. This could be something to do with the fact that I don’t get paid to write about art or review shows, therefore I really couldn’t be bothered exerting myself for the sake of some spiteful review. Some shows I might write about will be patchy, but yet at the same time hold some kernel of promise, that bit that makes me want to write about it. However, in this case I do feel it necessary to situate the good alongside the bad, and even the awful.

However an article such as this does kind of provoke a kind of self-evaluation: what do I expect from criticism, and how should my writing situate itself with regard to this expectation? How should I write?

I think an important point to remember is to retain some sense of humility when writing. Barnard does this well, I think, in acknowledging criticism as an activity faced with an immobile impasse: how can words be used to describe truly the physical thing, the piece of art? They cannot; the critic, by granting the work of art the power of resistance, in a sense dooms him or herself to interminable failure. The work of art cannot but win, for it cannot be conquered by the critic, no matter what words he uses. Leach says that, ‘it is not impossible to say exactly what one wishes’: perhaps, if we  were to banish this phrases’ dominion solely to the realm of language, it might prove to be true. However language, though it may be be faithful to itself, and furthermore to the intention of the author, cannot ever be wholly true to the physical reality that it attempts to describe. Criticism is thus, always, some form of encounter with the impossible.

[i] I couldn’t find an online copy of the article, but some clarification of the points made can be found at http://cristinleach.com/?p=3

[ii] I apply these terms in a wholly positive sense. As much as art criticism educates, it should also challenge preconceptions. Not only preconceptions of the reader, but also of the writer. In a publication such as Circa I don’t really believe the writing, or the reading, should be easy.


12 thoughts on “Long Live the Critic

  1. Cristín Leach seems to have rattled a few cages. Good for her. With regard to your comments above, I had to smile when you referred to Imelda Barnards’ language being “clear and yet, at the same time, willfully obscure.”
    It brought to mind a quote from C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures in which he refers to the wilful use of obscure language :”This attempt at excessive unsimplicity …involves a skill which all conservative functionaries are masters of, as they ingeniously protect the status quo: it is called the technique of the intricate defensive.”
    I have to say, I am appalled by the excruciatingly turgid language adopted by the art establishment. Most of it is incomprehensible. I really think you are trying to defend the indefensible or maybe the staus quo.

    • Hi Dermot, thanks for your response. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for rattling cages. I just think Leach promotes a somewhat one-dimensional argument regarding the discipline of art criticism. There are many strands to it, many different approaches, and all equally valid. However, I do think the question of audience is of of paramount importance. This is what I attempted to point out in my response. Personally (and obviously I accept my position as part of a minority art school educated audience) I prefer writing that challenges and sometimes infuriates, reflecting the frequently infuriating field of art itself. Perhaps this is a more fitting approach to take, I don’t know. What I do know is that art writing, like any other writing, can adopt the form of the art that it attempts to incapsulate. Writing about art, I hope, should be a space to challenge the reader. In this sense I do not understand how art writings’ frequent tendency towards obscurity can be seen as an act which serves to defend the status quo. If anything, art criticism is a space where that status quo might be undermined. Obviously these incidences are rare, but all we can do is keep on trying.

      • Hi Rebecca
        When I read someones commentary on an art work I do so to find some illumination. I hope that the writer can provide insights that add to my understanding and appreciation of the work. I don’t want to be challenged or infuriated by the writers commentary; my focus is on the art work and the artist.
        Recently I have this uneasy feeling that the artists’ work is simply becoming the raw material for curators, administrators and arts commentators who use it to develop and promote their own sometimes tortourous notions on art.
        Obscure commentary is exactly what people use to protect the status quo. Politicians are masters of the art.
        I am really pleased that this debate is happening and that you are engaging with it in an open and honest way. I hope I am representing the views of the ordinary public who feel alienated from the contemporary art world and even more alienated by a great deal of the commentary of the ‘experts’.
        Best regards

  2. Hi all,

    I’d just like to touch briefly on something that Dermot mentioned in his comment above:

    This attempt at excessive unsimplicity […] involves a skill which all conservative functionaries are masters of, as they ingeniously protect the status quo: it is called the technique of the intricate defensive.

    The way that you’ve actually used the term “intricate defensive” is fully political. First of all by mentioning ‘all conservative functionaries’, you’re invoking the idea that someone with an organised mind can explain a topic in plain language, and that mistruths take the form of arguments that are unintelligible to the “ordinary public”.

    I disagree, a simple and broadly appealing idea is the most dangerous kind of lie. For example: Death Panels, or Richard Nixon: The Law and Order candidate.

    This debate originally came from Gemma Tipton’s blog post on Circa, which claimed that Dublin artists were producing poor exhibitions, that the critics were completely unserious about impartiality, and that everyone needed to just toughen up a bit. Then she completely ignored her own advice by refusing to disclose which exhibitions or articles she was talking about. The hypocrisy of that really bugged me, which is why I would point out that when you want to talk about something as specific as ‘commentators using exhibitions as raw materials to promote their own torturous notions on art’, it’s far better if you just say what exhibitions you’re talking about, and which commentators you’re thinking of.

    That said, I understand your position that you don’t want or need to be challenged by art criticism, but ultimately art criticism will challenge artists, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Feature-writing about art, on the other hand, can satisfy the requirement that you talk about, by explaining and discussing the backstory of exhibitions or arts organisations, or by providing pictures and dates for good upcoming exhibitions. I worked for Visual Artists Ireland for a while after college, their newspaper is specifically aimed at artists who want to read about art, but don’t want to read art criticism.

    I think that Rebecca made a really valid and important point in her post. The audience for The Sunday Times is enormously different from the audience for Circa, and just because Cristín Leach can write an article that rattles cages, doesn’t make it particularly virtuous to tar the elitism brush over faceless critics, artists, curators and college graduates. There is more than one style of art writing, as there should be—just as there’s more than one style of novel.

  3. Hi Sean
    I think you miss the point of C.P. Snows “intricate defensive”. What he is saying is that conservative functionaries when challenged by simple ideas retreat behind the jargon of their particular trade in order to present the idea that things are much too complex for plain language. Professionals very often use “excessive unsimplicity” to prevent the ‘layman’ from discovering that what they, the professionals, are talking about is very simple. Basically they want to protect their patch and mark out their territory with language only understood by the brotherhood.
    We have witnessed some perfect examples of the “inticate defensive” by bankers, regulators and financial experts who, when pressed by simple and straight forward questions at Oireachtas Commitees, immediately launch into the long, jargon loaded diatribes that they hope will confound their questioners. They are not lying; simply obfuscating.

    You differentiate between art criticism and feature-writing about art. That’s an interesting differentiation, but I struggle with the implication that art criticism is ultimately there to challenge the artist. Is it book criticism’s purpose to challenge the writer? It may do so, but that is not it’s primary purpose.

    I made a general remark about commentators and you ask me to be specific. I have to say from my perspective, my remarks apply to the majority of commentators on contemporary art that I come accross. I am not tryiong to be provocative. I simply do not understand, for example, the writing typified by CIRCA. I have discussed this whole topic with a quite a few artists, writers and others and they seem just as bemused as I am.

    Are art critics simply talking to themselves? It really does seem like it.

  4. Interesting article and debate here.
    Whether it’s relevant or not, this isn’t an issue which is limited to art criticism in the slightest but pervades much of academia. Perhaps a function of the culture of the academic institutions which foster the use of such ‘willfully obscure’ language? I don’t know. If critics wrote more ‘intelligibly’ they wouldn’t get published.

  5. Your point about academic transparency reminds me of the parody that George Orwell used in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, where he rewrote a well-known verse as modern academic English:

    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

    As compelling as that kind of comparison seems, it has a caveat. For an academic, or an art critic, there is no intrinsic value in confusing and frustrating your reader. In the example that Dermot gave, the Irish Financial Regulator and the representatives of Irish Banks who were called to testify before the Oireachtas had a very clear motivation to use an intricate defensive or excessive unsimplicity. But I don’t think it’s an example that’s useful here, because an art critic who writes impenetrable English doesn’t do so because they fear prosecution. In the extensive examples that George Orwell gives, it is obvious that impenetrably pretentious language is a very clear indicator of a writer who simply doesn’t know any better.

    I would like to take that example a bit further, because for me, the crucial question is: what does motivate good critics to write exclusively?

    I can tell you from personal experience that there’s no salary in art criticism or curation, nor is there any terrific public recognition. Case in point: public discussion for curators realistically involves defending yourself from being verbally assaulted by some drunken uncle at a wedding. A friend of mine tells men in the pub that she’s an accountant, because she can’t deal with the pontificating bastards after she’s told them that she works in the arts.

    There’s a public sense of entitlement to art experiences that doesn’t reach into other academic fields—you’ll rarely hear an argument that the expertise in medical journals should be accessible to everyone who reads The Sunday Times. Or that the interior physical engineering of an iPad must be invented on the layman’s terms, so that anyone can take part in its technology. I believe that in cases of genuine exploration, accessibility is not a reasonable demand. (On that point, in my previous post, when I mentioned that art criticism needs to challenge the artist, what I should have said was that art criticism needs to challenge what artists are saying).

    “The public”, as we’re referring to it here, loses its sensibility when it comes to the arts. A broad range of contemporary critical theory is not created for light entertainment, exhibitions and art criticism are serious academic pursuits that seek to scratch beneath the surface of normal social order. James Surowiecki recently pointed out that Netlix queues are filled with films like Hotel Rwanda or The Seventh Seal, but when it comes time to pay most people opt for The Hangover. The point that I took away from that was that we all have the best of intentions with our cultural appetites. But in the cultural artefacts that we seek to enjoy, we’re searching for a way of enlightening ourselves by using things that are still ‘worthwhile’.

    Personally, I write critically about art issues and exhibitions. But, I’m also a regular feature writer for The Visual Artists’ News Sheet. I like doing both of those things, one requires a serious academic exploration, and the other requires clear explanations in short, declarative sentences. The dividing struggle is in knowing where to hold your horses with language. For instance, no newspaper wants to print terms like “intricate defensive” or “excessive unsimplicity”. You’d have to read the Op-Ed pages to even find the word “obfuscate.”

    Clarity is directly relative to the reader, an art journal like October will mostly attract postgraduates who will use it to increase their capacity to understand their own work. Whereas the lay-person who simply wants to pop by to see a show can find all they need in the Culture section of the newspaper.

  6. Hi Sean
    I agree with quite a lot of what you write. There are professions and disciplines that use a specialist language to communicate complex concepts and ideas within the profession. It is not language one would use for broad public consumption. You mentioned Medicine and Technology as examples of these disciplines.

    If you say that art criticism is one of these disciplines, then why would anyone outside the profession of art critic be expected to understand the specialist language of such a ‘serious academic pursuit’. In essence you are saying that art critics write for art critics and students of art criticism in the same way that medical research papers are written for medical experts and students within the medical profession. You also say that contemporary art exhibitions are also ‘serious academic’ pursuits.

    Based on the above, you argue that the public should not expect that art criticism should be accessible. Using the same argument, they should not expect to understand contemporary exhibitions.

    The problem is, that, unlike other specialised shows and exhibitions, Art Exhibitions are held expressly for public consumption. At or concerning those same exhibitions, curators, arts commentators, contemporary artists and critics use this “serious academic” language with abandon even in the daily papers.

    So I think you face a dilemma. If, as you say, art criticism and exhibitions are serious academic pursuits, then they are unsuitable for the lay-person and should not be presented for public consumption.

    My view is that, if you presume to address the public, or present your work to the public, you owe them the courtesy to communicate, in the clearest possible way, what you would show or tell them.

    Rebecca, the two articles you provided links to are most interesting and informative.

    Regards to All

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