The Artist’s Judgment

In a brief but suggestive State of the Art column in the new Frieze magazine, "Can We Really Suspend the Power of Judgement?", critic Jan Verwoert raises questions about the expectations, interests, and effects in play when one writes about a work of art.  Alternately assuming the position of artist or critic, he expresses reticence about the making of clear and definitive judgments.  Commenting on A Visit to the Louvre, a recent film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Verwoert relates that, in the voice-over, the narrator speaks "with the passion of someone who has an intimate understanding of painting, but also with the pride and competitive élan of an artist who, through a series of rigorous assessments, sets out her own position in relation to other artists by dividing them into genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents."  We learn later that the narrator is not speaking in her own voice, but reciting the words of Cezanne.  (The text is taken from the artist’s writings.  The artists and works to which Cezanne is responding are not indicated in the Frieze essay.)

Now Verwoert observes that "[t]he power of the words lies in the passion behind the artist’s verdicts", but the critic is torn between the opposing positions of speaking with authority and conviction, on the one hand, and withholding judgment, on the other.  "The conventional ritual of praise and rejection…limits art criticism to a tiresome Oedipal game in which a paternal pat on the back or an indignant slap in the face are the only gestures available. To relinquish authority thus actually means gaining the freedom to think and speak differently."  But, in the end, Verwoert asserts that "remaining undecided is precisely what you cannot do as a critic".  "The trick", he concludes, "…is to refrain from symbolically claiming the position of power that in practice is already assigned to you. That is what scruples are about."

Verwoert’s main concern is the way contemporary art criticism runs the risk, wittingly or otherwise, of promoting the market interests of collectors and the compromises faced by museums and galleries in exhibiting and acquiring new works or art.  Much of what he says about the leverage of wealthy collectors — or, should I say, investors — is both true and important.  But what is lost in his analysis is the crucial distinction between the voice, values, and interests of the artist vis-à-vis those of the critic.  As an artist who writes about art, my concern is to avoid conflating the two in order to better understand and articulate the unique perspective offered by the artist qua artist who responds from an inevitably interested position.

There are many differences between the artist and the critic.  One of these has to do with the challenge presented by the work one confronts in a gallery, museum, classroom, or studio.  While the critic may be presented with puzzles, obscurities, apparent inadequacies in the work, the artist sees these and more.  The work is, in some sense, always seen in relation to the artist’s own practice, and very often in the same medium.

What is it about this work that intrigues me?  Why is it a painting rather than a wall drawing or a photograph?  How was it done?  These are elementary questions, I admit.  And they’re not unique to the artist.  What is unique is the personal way in which I find myself responding to those questions.  While clearly oversimplifying matters, I have to say that at a very basic level my concern is how the work I encounter directly affects what I do and how I think about the work I’ve made.  What are my affinities with this artist?  What interests do we share?  Are there things here I can use?  What’s wrong with the piece?  What would I have done differently, and why?  No matter how inspired and impressed I am with a work, there’s almost always something that’s not quite right about it.  Too much empty space.  Too didactic.  Too derivative.  Not enough paint.  The color is too harsh in places.  There’s not enough attention given to the support, or the way it’s mounted on the wall, floor, or pedestal.  It’s constructed in too cavalier and haphazard a manner.  There’s not enough concern for the integrity of the work as an object.  It engages important issues, but in too heavy-handed a way.  While one work is too explicit and painfully sincere, the next is too opaque, convoluted, or austere.

Now, of course, the art critic will often respond with precisely the same language.  The difference is in the way the words are felt and what’s at stake.  For while the critic attempts to open the reader up to the work, to enliven one’s perceptions, to reveal the work’s possible meanings and significance (or lack thereof), the artist is compelled to accept or reject the work as part of an ongoing negotiation of his or her own identity as an artist and everything that represents.

There are, of course, numerous exceptions and not everyone’s experience is the same.  But I can say with a fair degree of confidence, on the basis of conversations over many years with other artists in galleries, studios, classrooms, and bars, that artists see themselves and their work, first and foremost, in the context of other artists and other works of art.  This has little to do with markets, donors, collectors, or curators.  They’re all outsiders from the artist’s perspective.  The only ones who really matter, in a life or death sense, are other artists.  That’s why they tend to be divided into "genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents".

Here, as simply one example taken at random, are revealing and passionately partisan remarks made by Camille Pissarro to his son Lucien about "the schemer" Gauguin:

Paris, April 20, 1881

I am sending you…a review which contains an article on Gauguin by [Albert] Aurier.  You will observe how tenuous is the logic of this litterateur.  According to him, what in the last instance can be dispensed with in a work of art is drawing or painting; only ideas are essential, and those can be indicated by a few symbols.  Now I will grant that art is as he says, except that "the few symbols" have to be drawn, after all; moreover, it is also necessary to express ideas in terms of color, hence you have to have sensation in order to have ideas…. This gentleman seems to think we are imbeciles!

The Japanese practiced this art as did the Chinese, and their symbols are wonderfully natural, but then they were not Catholics, and Gauguin is a Catholic. I do not criticize Gauguin [in his Jacob and the Angel] for having painted a rose background, nor do I object to the two struggling fighters and the Breton peasants in the foreground; what I dislike is that he copped these elements from the Japanese, the Byzantine painters, and others.  I criticize him for not applying his synthesis to our modern philosophy, which is absolutely social, anti-authoritarian, and anti-mystical.  That is where the problem becomes serious.  This is a step backwards; Gauguin is not a seer, he is a schemer who has sensed that the bourgeoisie is moving to the right, recoiling before the great idea of solidarity which sprouts among the people — an instinctive idea, but fecund, the only idea that is permissible!  The symbolists also take this line!  What do you think?  And they must be fought like a disease!

[From Artists on Art, Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, eds., New York: Pantheon, 1972, 317f.]

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