Thursday, 16 April 2009

critics + artists = love

Is it better to create or critique? As someone very interested in both the creation of art as well as the criticism of it, I've always found it hard to swallow the bitter relationship between the two. Recently expressed in a very facile blog post on the Guardian's website, the writer insists that critics shouldn't befriend artists for the sake of maintaining perfect objectivity. She felt that she might be unable to write a negative review of one of her artist friends for fear of hurting their delicate feelings, as if artists were composed of nothing more than wispy layers of tissue paper.

All art, as well as criticism of it, is subjective. A truism perhaps, but neither has the final say which one could argue rests with the consumer of both. Artists who "can't handle" criticism are missing an important part of the process of art. The best and most respected critics, who care passionately about their subject, can function almost as patrons of artists, providing needed support, encouragement, and exposure. Certainly lazy or vicious critics can do much damage, but again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of criticism.

Creators need critics to write about their work as much as critics need creators to produce works worth reviewing. So why shouldn't there be more intimate relationships between the two? I suppose it's partly because the consuming public enjoys buying into the myth of the artist as a fully-formed genius descended from space: the loners, the womanisers, the larger than life personalities - myths largely perpetuated by the critics themselves, for it nothing else, this myth sells.

Many artists hold negative views of critics because they feel, as Whistler famously did that, "none but an artist can be a competent critic." Perhaps, but artists and critics, and furthermore the public, all have different measures of success. Who knows why the public likes what it likes, critics are trying to look at the bigger picture, understanding the artist in relation to himself, his culture, and the larger canon as well as the artist's mastery of his material. For argument's sake, let's say most artists are concerned with their craft, with the technical details of it: the metre of poetry, the painterly technique, etc. Essentially, artists admire other artists who have perfected their craft, who display a mastery lacking in more amateur craftsmen. While any good critic will of course appreciate these skills, they are also considering the more banal issues of enjoyment and emotional response.

It isn't enough for an artist to say that he hates critics because critics don't understand the art making process, a ridiculous claim. Artists cannot have such fragile egos that any subjective negative criticism drives them to despair. Critics have been proved wrong in the past by changes in public taste and they shall no doubt be proved wrong in the future. Certainly, positive criticism can help a fledgling artist establish a career, but the assumption that a critic owes any artist anything other than a carefully considered opinion is ludicrous. Note I stress carefully considered opinion as too often critics indulge their own egos for the sake of shock-factor or publicity.

But to stress that critics and artists are natural enemies makes no sense to me. These two should be allies against the indolent and more and more culturally ignorant public as well as government budget makers who continually attempt to slash funding for arts programmes in this country. To say that critics are failed artists is a mistake, for what is criticism if not a creative exercise. Not that artists cannot and should not be critics, for on the contrary, some of our best literary critics are also some of our best writers. I suppose if anything, this then is my point. Instead of widening the gap between the two, banning artists and critics from being Facebook friends (that's actually what the Guardian blog writer suggests), we ought to encourage a more fruitful relationship between the two.

No comments: