Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant
“Good Art should elicit a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! Huh?’”
I sometimes like to do a mental exercise. I can’t do it all the time, only when my mind is primed for this kind of thing — usually in states of exhaustion or jet lag. I contemplate an idea and let all the points of view I can muster around it clash between each other. I sit back, suspended in some imaginary resting place, and let this battle unfold. Invariably, there is no winner, just complete dissolution of the thing at hand. A sort of mini satori, a victory of contemplation over “mentality”.
This is a state I often think of as being one of art’s missions, a state beyond mental nitpicking, being in rather than being next to and judging.
Of course this only works with artworks that have the innate power to cut through thought, maybe by jarring our cogs or bypassing our barriers. Maybe that is the sublime.
If this only works with “good” art, and even though thinking of the amount of bad art in the world can stimulate a different breed of bewilderment, what distinguishes the two? Different people can have different reactions to artwork and can argue about its intrinsic value (the old “my four years old could have done that” angle). But what allows for some kind of common ground to be found? What assigns value to work — outside of these aesthetic moments that are hard to attain- even more so when the amount of “art” is in itself a cause of mind-numbing.
I think critique is one answer. Critique is stimulation. From the emitter to the receiver, it forces people to form an opinion, which is hard, and to receive commentary, which is useful.
Critique is not the same as “critical” art. It isn’t about pointing at injustice, dysfunction, cruelty or greed, it is about probing artwork, contextualizing it, playing a game of meaning and hunting for intangible attributes such as “quality” or “beauty”
People say that critique is a dying trade. That may be so, but in the field I work in and observe, it never existed. Critique is an attitude. It means looking at work, and taking it in, as a viewer would. But then it means digesting it and offering an opinion, a structured, developed opinion that is also an opening towards an understanding. Critique is a crutch, a door, a punching ball, and a trampoline.
Critique is not promotion (i.e not Vice’s “Creators” or other techno-optimistic publications hyping the field to get more readers.)
The “immersive new media” art field is almost completely void of critique. I am not talking about internet art, which seems to have somehow slipped through the cracks of art industry snobbiness, but about generative art, large-scale light installations, the work of people by UVA, Troika, Onformative, Rhizomatiks, Ryoichi Kurokawa, Casey Reas, and so many others. It is often seen as either a technical feat, eye candy, a “far out” embrace of the possible. The art industry complains about its lack of conceptual framework, among other things (http://www.flong.com/blog/2017/some-objections-to-interactive-computer-art/). A few artists are able to squeeze through this invisible barrier (Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer or Ryoji Ikeda), but still, the body of critique around these artists is in large part sparse because art critics are not bred in computational practices. Their tools are art historical, philosophical, sociological, theoretical. Understanding why the work of media artists is pertinent requires an understanding not only of computation but of computation’s role in creating new ontologies, it’s re-arranging of the social fabric, it’s rewiring of the brain. This is all important stuff, and the best I’ve been able to do after years of hunting is piece together fragments of thought and discourse around the works I’m interested in. That isn’t really acceptable.
4.Critique as “immunity”:
Henry Michaux, the French poet, wrote in Poteaux D’Angle that he is dubious of people who never “hated” anything because they lack “antibodies”. I will soften this by saying that the ability to criticize is the antibody of the creative field, it is what allows the organism to grow without useless parts. We need critique to cut out the crap, to look at work and say to the artist and his/her audience that this attempt failed, but this one succeeded, that the work is worth it or not. Everybody is an artist today, but being an artist is also about having a thick skin, taking in critique. It is also about putting yourself out there, and when you do that, you deserve the right to critique others. I once met a very established fashion designer who had been producing collections at the highest level for over 30 years. He encouraged critique of his peers and justified it by his own exposure to critique. When you are vulnerable you can attack. When you are safe you stay safe. And this leads to a “critical” point: artists need to be critics of other artists, of trends, movements, ideas. If the artists are plugging away in darkness only to receive praise without context, they have no guidance (aside from maybe the market’s recognition of their monetary value)
5. Critique as stimulation:
I had a high school teacher who, when he gave us the opportunity to watch movies as a class, demanded that we avoid two things: saying the movie was good, or saying it was bad. What he wanted were reasons. At the time I found that difficult. Today I find the opposite difficult. Even in a notoriously outspoken city like New York, it is hard to hear people tell you what they think. To the point that I sometimes wonder if they do allow themselves to think in that critical way. When I’ve shown work, either my own or others’, I’ve almost never been able to eek out anything better than “it’s great” or “I loved it”. There have been rare occasions where people have told me they didn’t like something and even rarer occasions when I’ve heard why. I remember being in a terrible performance once with two other artists and the curator of the piece. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and wanted to express my opinion, but my peers would rather be quiet than upset the curator.
What we need is a healthy critical environment, one where artists can talk about other artists’ work without being perceived as “haters”. To do this the critique has to be well articulated, present reasons, poetic or historical or personal or societal or computational or contextual, whatever it takes.
Almost every other branch of the art world has critique, and sometimes taken to the level of an art form in itself. We need more of that.
6.Critique as growth:
To receive critique can be painful. We are usually our own hardest critics and maybe because of that, we fear to inflict on others the same pain we inflict ourselves. But it is also necessary. The media arts world is full of works of all levels of quality, and there are no forums to discuss them. Because of that, the works of artists with little real quality are served to us over and over without any question as to their true value. Powder in the eyes.
As an artist, received real thoughtful critique, however biting, is extremely useful. You can take it, and decide to make changes to your work, or decide to ignore it and reinforce your belief in your work. In both cases, your artistic immune system has been strengthened.
7. The great leveler:
There are good reasons why it is hard to critique these days. One of them is social media. We are asked, with the various social media platforms, to express our opinion on other people’s offerings. However, our responses are extremely limited. Like or not like is exactly the opposite of a useful response. What does “like” mean? What did you like? Which part? Why?
Parallel to this aridity of opinion is the lack of real depth that can be expressed in comments or twitter posts. Nuanced, complex thoughts need space and time to unfold. For this different platforms are needed, and they exist (Medium, blogs, …), but require people to move beyond the cozy comfort of simple responses.
8. Art History and appropriation:
It is sometimes surprising to read the words of great artists from the origins of light art, media art or installation art. Their thoughts are so pertinent to today’s practices that it seems as if they had been written yesterday. If we ignore them, we become ignorant parrots. And the same thing happens for their work. When I discovered some of the pieces of Julio LeParc or Francois Morellet, I was stunned at how many contemporary artworks were contemporary copies. And in the same way, I’ve been stunned at how many contemporary artworks are copies of contemporary artworks, usually unknowingly mimicking the work of others. Few people seem to be willing to point this out, because it would imply that the artists were imbued with bad intentions. But that isn’t always the case, ignorance is as much to blame as laziness.
There are good reasons to refrain from critiquing other people’s works. One may feel under-educated in topics such as history of art, lacking the tools to develop a coherent theory to host arguments for or against aspects of a piece. One may also feel peer pressure to approve, or fear being called a “hater”, being perceived as having a chip on the shoulder etc…As valid as these may be, they are the same arguments that prevent people from creating work in the first place. Critique is just feedback. It doesn’t always have to be wrapped in literary or theoretical devices, it can simply be the expression of a point of view, stated as clearly and honestly as possible. The goal is to create a conversation, not have the final word on why something is good or not.
10. The atmosphere:
In conclusion, the goal would be to create an environment, an “atmosphere” where critique is healthy, given in honesty and accepted in gratitude. A world where the flaws of certain pieces can be called out without making it sound like you can’t get rid of the chip on your shoulder. To do this requires trust in the intentions of our peers. But also a certain daring to put our opinions out there, to form them enough that they make sense, that they help, that they provide useful feedback, but also integrate our own point of view in ways that are truly unique. It isn’t just about theory, even though phenomenology, object-oriented ontology, art history, aesthetics, literature, and so many other vectors of human thought are thrilling ways of building inroads into artistic structures. We don’t need them but can use them. What we do absolutely need are a willingness and an environment.
Note: this article is a follow up to my thoughts on lack of critical thinking in motion graphics