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What is the Purpose of Art Viewing?
I don't believe one can answer the question, "what is the purpose of art criticism," without answering, "What is the purpose of art viewing?" That is, one's model for how to view art, and for what one hopes to gain from art, will determine the kind of criticism one writes, and wishes to read. I believe art should be see alone, and in silence. Only then can I be open to the combination of intense aesthetic pleasure and embedded meanings that the best art offers. My deepest experiences of art have been ecstatic ones: being lifted out of myself, having my mind rearranged. And most times, when I like a work even a little bit, it's because it has, in one way or another, some small aspect of the fire, or spark, of the best work. To get the most out of any good work, you have to give yourself over to it. I virtually never go to openings. I almost never go to art exhibits with anyone. I never write about an exhibit not seen at least twice; most often, I view the exhibit three or four times. It often takes me two visits before even deciding whether to write about it. I am always amused by people who proceed through an exhibit as a couple, hand-in-hand, happily chattering to each other. I am more disturbed by people who only view art while listening to something else, whether an art lecturer or a tape-recording. I have little use for slides, because in my view most of what's great about great art, or good about good art, is lost in the translation to a slide.
The Critics Seduced Me
I stumbled into painting through writing, and a decade later stumbled back into writing through painting. Let me explain. I entered college with ambitions to be a writer, to write the Great American Novel. I started writing short stories-trite, coming-of-age vignettes that lurched between the treacly and the maudlin, betraying experience too closely informed by '70s television, but which occasionally contained a pleasing turn of phrase. I began painting, and found visual fiction a far better fit than verbal. Later, in grad school, I began hanging around with the philosophy and art criticism students, finding their labyrinthine barroom discussions of French theory more compelling than the arguments over the continued validity of Modernist thought that engaged the studios most of the time. The critics seduced me. It started with one class, then another, and before I knew it a half-way tongue-in-cheek essay I had written on Lucas Samaras and Kristevian abjection was being published in the department journal, Art Criticism. I was hooked. Writing about art, the subject was supplied, ready and waiting-I didn't have to conjure it from thin air the way a fiction writer does. Since then I've shifted toward writing for a much more general audience, preferring a route that, if all goes well, takes many reader down a wide path to one that blazes narrow trails for a targeted few. I write short, weekly reviews for New City, in which I usually try to discuss a single issue raised by the work I'm reviewing that is significant in other work as well. My thinking is that if someone with little experience looking at contemporary art read my reviews regularly, he or she would be well enough armed with applicable information to enter most galleries and contextualize what was on display. These reviews are so short, however, that they don't allow me much opportunity to go into these issues in any depth, so I appreciate being able to write longer, more targeted pieces for the New Art Examiner and occasional other publications as well. That said, I think my main responsibility as a critic is to my readers rather than to the artist, gallery, etc. Of course, it is my responsibility to the artist to be fair, to be well informed, to look at the work and make my best effort to understand it. But if I don't give my readers something interesting to read-in terms of style as well as substance-I may as well just call the artist on the phone to chat about the show. As a practicing artist myself (a painter, almost exclusively), I think I'm able to bring a certain perspective to my critical writing that has value-the perspective of one who crosses the fence daily between the two disciplines. We should all thank the Lord that not all critics are artists and vice-versa, but it's good to have a few in the mix.
Why Art Should Be a Good Thing
Art is a good thing, at least potentially. As long it is functionally useless, it is the highest accomplishment of a culture, a kind of physical manifestation of philosophy, a way to investigate life, or the world or our perception of it, just because it is possible to do so. Like mathematics, it can be sublime play, unfettered by reality. In practice, though, art becomes useful, functional, a tool. The paintings or other objects are bought as knickknacks, souvenirs, decoration; collected as investments or status symbols. Artists make work as therapy, or as a cottage industry catering to whoever is willing to buy. Galleries are caught in the middle-instead of championing an idea they are reduced to hyping the next new fashion, discovering and promoting the next hot young artist. Criticism isn't the intellectual dialogue it could be, just free publicity. The university system was originally set up to isolate scholars from the outside world, to leave them free for research, for thinking. Our art departments have failed, become trade schools, with faculty interested in advancing their own careers, and setting students on the first rung of theirs.
Claire Wolf Krantz
Artist and Critic
I write about art because I can address some topics more effectively discursively than by making art. I like the process of using the skills I've gained as an artist to help me understand other people's work, and thus to translate this more intuitive, visual information into a verbal medium that can be communicated to others. Writing forces me out of my own head into the minds of others, and it enables me to focus critically on what I see. It expands my mind, allowing me to examine issues, discourses, and ways of thinking that I would never do myself, and leaves me free to pursue my own concerns more intensely in the studio. Although this process of writing criticism informs my artwork, it must not be a function of my own artistic concerns or ambitions in order for my writing to be useful and fair. My point of view, as an artist, often is quite different from that of critics coming from other backgrounds. In seeking to understand art as it relates to the artists' concerns, I evaluate how what I see is communicated to me, the viewer-I am fascinated by the process of examining the many ways in which art works. Other critics may focus on what trends may be emerging, or how one artist's work compares with another. They may situate their evaluations within favorite theoretical or art historical frameworks. While these approaches are interesting to me, they are not focal. I'm informed by feminist, deconstructivist, and cultural theory, but I don't force artwork into a single lens. My interest lies in whether the work has anything to say and how it says it; whether the idea and/or the means of execution is freshly posited or has an interesting point of view. I examine my reflections on that point of view; and most importantly, whether or not the work stimulates me to care about it.