Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Encore: Criticism, As Companion to Art; and As An Establishment Tool

On the web pages of City and Country, Boy and Man, “Criticism, As Companion to Art” appeared previously on April 21, 2009; and “Criticism, As An Estatablishment Tool” appeared April 27, 2009.

Criticism, As Companion to Art

I have thought of art as a necessity; and I have thought of criticism as a companion to art, and it has become a necessity as well.

I see a film and read a review of it--before seeing or after; and sometimes, if I find the film interesting enough I write a review of it. I listen to music and try to imagine how I would describe it to a friend or a disinterested acquaintance. The content I discover in a work of art or entertainment, and the pleasure I find, is deepened and extended by a review--or a bunch of reviews.

Criticism is the recovery, in language and thought, of objects from the near and distant past; and it provides context, an explanation of genre, and a disclosure of artistic strategies that are social as much as they are aesthetic. Critics can help us to understand the current work of an artist in light of standards established by the artist's own work as well as the tradition or traditions to which he or she belongs; and criticism can celebrate the highest manifestations of craft, as it introduces us to new talent or reminds us of the existence of neglected or obscure artists: describing the rare qualities of each artist.

There is little more valuable culturally than the reinterpretation of misunderstood or maligned artists, sometimes offering retrospective summaries of artists' careers: that reinterpretation can tell us as much about ourselves, our society, and our values as anything, illuminating the politics of art.

We can learn about the nature of experimental art (what is to be gleaned from it); and about false radicalism, when experiment exists merely to impress and not to express or teach. We can be reminded that art has a spirituality, that it is infused, always, with the human spirit. We can learn about each other--through folk art, international art, expanding knowledge. Criticism can help us to understand how artists express themselves in ancillary words (in books, speeches, interviews) and how that complements or contradicts their works? And criticism can help us to appreciate, to sympathize with, to tolerate, how practical matters--money and power--affect the artistic world. Criticism can be a companion to art, to us.

Criticism, As An Establishment Tool

It may be less so today than it is has been in the past, thanks to the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the cultural and theoretical leaps of the 1970s and 1980s, but criticism can be an establishment tool: a way to reaffirm conservative traditions and values. Criticism can be a way of solidifying the status quo, of policing works, things, and people who are different. Sometimes those people who are different are people who belong to traditional minorities--but sometimes they are people whose cultural interests are different: people who prefer Rembrandt to installation art or video; people who prefer European classical music and jazz to indie rock and hip-hop. Criticism can be used to mock, to shame. It can be used to disseminate prejudice. It can express malice and resentment toward figures of mastery, toward what is perceived as safety and security in a society that is impressed by hedonism and riot. Criticism can be a way for the mediocre to join together against excellence. It can be a form of laziness, a rebellion against having to recognize the abundant, diverse talent in the world. It can be an establishment tool simply by encouraging things as they are, the prevalence of the lowest common denominator in much of popular culture.