The aims of Criticism Now, which took place today at the Lab, certainly appeared valid and worthwhile: to prise open a contemporary understanding of criticism itself in a specifically Irish context. Towards what ideals what should art criticism strive? How does the act of criticism differentiate itself from writing ‘proper’? And perhaps most crucially – though it all seems like thoroughly trodden territory at this stage – is there any necessity for it? I would reply immediately in the affirmative; not because of its capacity to educate and win the ‘public’ over, as many of today’s panellists seemed to demand, but rather by virtue of its character as a space for freedom and obscurity. I must add, at this stage, that one can be simultaneously clear and obscure, easy to read and infuriatingly dense. Therein lies the joy of criticism; like the creative act that it mirrors and refracts, criticism should not be saddled with the burden of pedagogy. People will inevitably learn from good criticism. As with good and illuminating art, it does not necessarily require full comprehension.
I am not sure exactly why this conservative tendency is so apparent within the Irish art scene. As far as I can see, it appears to be in direct contradiction with the art that it generally tackles, which is often of an experimental and rigorous ilk. But make no mistake, it is there. At another event, the launch of The Wheel publication in April, I was struck once again by what I can only describe as an irrational distrust of theory or indeed anything that might pollute the hopefully virgin vocabulary of art criticism. Bizarrely enough, this communal aspiration for the field of criticism appears as one shared not only by artists, but by writers also. Obviously certain participants did not share these views, Tim Stott most forcibly speaking for the necessity, and joy, of big words. However a view prevailed then, as today, that situates criticism at the behest of readability and transparency. It negates the capacity of criticism as a radical and often challenging process; one that does not patronise by succumbing to these demands but rather attempts to rewire and redefine the means by which we come to understanding.
During my masters at NCAD I noticed, along with fellow scary theorists, that the battle lines were distinctly drawn. On one side, there were people who liked to make art cos y’know I just make things. Which is all well and good; for many artists the process of art is just that, a process. It is self-enclosed, and can often be brilliant for that very reason. But going further than these people were those who displayed the deeply reactionary view that anyone who employed theory or other tools in approaching the field of art – be that a critical or curatorial approach – was acting in direct conflict with the ideals of art, and of artists. All these erroneous approaches, they argued, made us somewhat dubious characters. These sorts, it was implied, will screw you over, lambast your first solo show, steal all your money, probably kill your Granny (…) Just because of our readiness to utilise other forms of information in an attempt to gain a new – not necessarily better – means of approaching art. We were on the other side, made to defend ourselves, though the futility of self-defence in the face of such conservatism seemed potent.
During The Wheel’s panel discussion Tim Stott talked about Foucault’s definition of his own work as that of a toolbox. People could take what they wanted from it, twist it to their needs and gain something useful in the process. The space for the novice is thus a pre-requisite; the reader does not need to be an expert in order to gain something meaningful from the process. It is a useful analogy for the way by which theory might be used in art criticism. There should be no demand for it, but at the same time there should not be an irrational distrust of those who do opt to take it out, try it out and gain some insight from it.