Is Art Criticism Too Positive?
Also: Why Rome was such a success, why the Weimar Republic was such a failure, and the surprising connection between our hands and our tongues.
Is art criticism too positive? Sean Tatol thinks so. Tatol runs the website Manhattan Art Review, which he founded, and publishes a regular round-up of gallery shows called “Kritic’s Korner” that is entertainingly direct. In a recent review of a Camille Norment installation, for example, he writes: “Aurally as generic as imitation 70s meditative drone gets, visually the planks assembled into benches and fake trees look dumb but the horn bell thing is alright. Hardly an idea in the building, let alone an original one.”
Today the mere suggestion that some things are better than others, particularly in the arts, is met with confusion and hostility. The insistence that there is no reason not to “let people enjoy things” reigns, as if evaluation itself can be nothing but an act of antisocial pretension. There is, admittedly, a fragment of truth in this. I know very well the dangers that criticism can pose to enjoyment: I was born a pathological overthinker, neurotic and hard to please . . . Being stuck in thought negates engagement and enjoyment, so it’s natural that we approve of art as the product of courage and creativity and distrust criticism as so much foul-tempered grumbling. This criticism of criticism inevitably emphasizes that art is subjective, which, according to experience, it is. No two people will have the same exact experience of a work of art. However, to treat art as completely subjective represses the role that thinking plays in our subjective experience, and in particular the process of judgment (which is part of our experience).
Ben Davis is not so sure and responds to Tatol in ArtNews:
The truth is not that everything is bad, and no one wants to say it; it’s that most things are just-OK, competent but safe, somewhat but not a lot interesting. You are therefore faced with an unfortunate choice if you have to write about them, or force yourself to.
Basically, either you write about them in a dutiful way—which is true to their own dutiful nature, but inherently enervating—or you systematically “pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis,” as Adler says, which is far more entertaining, but encourages sloppiness and exaggeration.
Tatol’s larger point is that overly positive reviews of often overtly political art is boring: “The problem is not political art or ‘wokeness’ as such, but rather with the way that treating activist slogans as sufficient criteria for good art—and any artist who peddles those slogans as an adequately accomplished artist—dismantles the function of art: the struggle toward expression, to eloquently articulate qualities that are beautiful, emotive or otherwise engaging. The problem is with a way of seeing that reduces art to a resolved formula, when in fact it is precisely the opposite.”
(Speaking of slogans, I could point you to a selection of excerpts from a new book on art criticism published by n+1, but why bother? The book, n+1 tells us, “gathers texts by twenty-five art writers and editors, exploring all stages of the art writing process . . . and sharing strategies that encourage solidarity and reparative decision-making to actively challenge structural inequalities within the art world.” Yawn.)
Davis is right to suggest that overly negative reviews can be a shtick, too, but I don’t think that is a big risk right now, though it might become one. The problem, as Tatol suggest, is the unqualified praise of mediocre work that contains the right political messages.
In other news, we need more books for boys, Myke Bartlett argues in The Critic: “There is a mountain of evidence that boys are reading less than girls, with knock-on effects for their learning and, I suspect, their general humanity. Despite that evidence, it’s a question that is often dismissed out of hand. I was on a panel about the gender-reading gap some years ago, and I was genuinely startled when a fellow author said she didn’t care if boys were reading or not. We live in a patriarchy, after all. Boys are doing OK without books. Are they, though?”
Why did Rome succeed? “A classic debate among historians of Rome attempts to answer the question of how this city-state on the Tiber River succeeded in building an enormous empire, first in Italy and later across the entire Mediterranean world. Rome’s most significant early war was with the city of Veii, now a ruin you can visit by travelling an hour by bus from central Rome. By the first century A.D., Rome’s emperors were commanding armies from Spain to Persia. The debate goes back to the very first Roman history that survives, written in Greek in the late second century B.C. by Polybius.”
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Prufrock to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.