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.
[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.