Tag Archives: criticism

Diderot’s Pleasures

Over the summer I read Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1767 and he became one of my favorite art writers. He knows what he likes, and he knows how to say why it’s good. As you read it you get a sense of him moving through the space of the Salon, observing the paintings, listening to the other viewers, and making his judgments, quickly, with wit and with feeling.

Diderot is credited with the invention of modern art criticism. Before him there were theories about art and histories of it, and theoretical histories—but there weren’t examples of writers who would look at a bunch of artworks and then record their response. He was the first writer to put into words the bodily experience of being among works of art, and having a sense of how his taste conditions a response to them. His approach was descriptive, lively, often conversational—a way of writing that defined journalistic criticism and persists in the best examples of it today: the reviews of Andrew Russeth, Peter Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz. All of those critics write for general interest publications. But the general tone in art criticism today is set by the professional press, the many magazines and journals that are dedicated entirely to art, and for the most part in those publications a sense of taste—or taste as a sense that is connected to an embodied experience of art—is invisible, excised during the writing process, as writers try to project an air of scholarly objectivity, and inscribe art into the systems that govern the professional art world.

In the preface to the edition of Diderot’s writing that I read, Thomas Crow talks about how salon reviews were written before Diderot, and they were widely read and anticipated, because for people who couldn’t make it to Paris for the Salons these reviews were the only way to keep up with the latest in painting; reproductions weren’t available. But these reviews were mostly written for aristocratic collectors around Europe, who factored salon reviews into their choices of whether or not to purchase paintings, and so writing about art was highly regulated. Painters of the academy didn’t want outsiders commenting on their work because it could affect their sales. Diderot’s choice to write in a non-academic style, one that echoed the voice of art’s new public, the people who came to look at the Salons but didn’t have the money to buy anything there, was therefore a political gesture.

Diderot’s choice to write in a way that expresses the potential for spontaneity and emotive response in encounters with art works runs nicely parallel to his main criterion for good art—he likes art that is full of life.

Because Diderot is always looking for life in a work, he can address the subject of a portrait directly: “Madame la Princesse de Chimay, Monsieur le Chevalier de Fitz-James, her brother, you are terrible, absolutely terrible; you are insipid, utterly insipid. Into storage. No nuance, no transitions, no modulation in the flesh tones. Princess, tell me, don’t you feel the weight of this curtain which you’re holding? It’s difficult to say which of the siblings is the stiffest and the coldest.” Sometimes he inserts himself into paintings and imagines himself interacting with the people in them—he talks about the passions or passionlessness of the people depicted as if they’re real, as if he knows them, or could know them. On a historical painting by Halle: “Now tell me, if you will, who is this thin, ignoble, expressionless, characterless man reclining in this tent? ‘It is King Scilurus.’ That, a king! A Scythian king! Where is the pride, the feeling, the judgment, the undisciplined reason of savage man? This is a wretch.”

His judgments are terse (“He also exhibited pictures of fruit and some portraits; the fruit is beautiful, the portraits are bad.”). Or they start out that way. As he writes the review he leads you through the details that produced his judgments, and animates them: “Well, this is heavy-handed and tiresome. The scene unfolds in front of a landscape. And what a landscape! It’s  ponderous; its trees resemble those on the shop signs from the Notre Dame bridge; there’s no air between their trunks and branches; no lightness; no vibrancy in the leaves, which are so firmly glued to together that the wildest hurricane wouldn’t detach a single one.” Then he goes on about “Cupid the Knife-Grinder” present in the foreground. His gut reaction becomes the reader’s gut reaction, but he doesn’t leave it there. He can be nasty but he gives enough description of the work to enrich his account of it—he hits the gut, but gives a sense of the whole body and mind it’s attached to.

This is true his reviews of the paintings he likes as well as the ones he dislikes. When writing about “A Spanish Rider Dressed in the Old Style,” for instance, he starts out by saying “Very handsome little picture, I’ve made a mistake, a handsome large picture!” His point here is that the painter does so much with so little that even though the painting is massive it sticks in his memory as something small. His deliberate correction to his own description gives a sense of the proportion of detail to composition in the work.

He reflects on his method of writing. “A very good method for describing pictures, especially those set in the open, is to enter into the site from the right or left and, advancing forward to the lower edge, to describe its elements as they are encountered. I’m very irritated with myself for not having realized this sooner.” But he never just describes—he tells a story. A story about what is happening in the work, and a story of his encounter with it.

Diderot’s intent, as I wrote above, was to channel the voice of the people—the opinions of people who he heard talking about paintings at the salon. The way he does this is not transcription, but finding a way of writing about art that reanimates in language the immediacy of the experience of being there.

“When I censure I knit my brow,” he writes in his account of seeing some bad portraits. Taste isn’t just about a judgment—it’s a gesture. It’s felt in a body.

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Yelp and Criticism

As I see it, there are three things that art criticism can do:

1) Art criticism can measure a work of art against critical and philosophical principles (which can include ideas about art’s progressive historical development) to determine its worth. This is considered the ideal form of criticism, the task it performed at its origins in a hazy heroic past. When this kind of criticism is written today it usually involves determining whether art is politically progressive or reactionary, and often applies critiques that have been around for forty years.

2) Art criticism can give a detailed description of a work’s appearance (or, if it is a performance or a video or something else that changes over time, an account of those changes), elaborate the artist’s intent and references, and suggest the work’s implications for its social and cultural contexts. Now that holding firm, unwavering philosophical and critical principles of aesthetics (or subscribing to a viewpoint of a linear progression of art history) is considered reactionary and elitist, this is the form that art criticism takes in periodicals (newspapers, magazines, semi-professional blogs). This is also the preferred mode of discourse for press releases, museum wall texts, and other printed matter that officially accompanies exhibitions. When the main task of this kind of criticism is to index an artwork, the writing is bland. When its main task is to describe, it is didactic. It is often a mix of both.

3) Art criticism can take the form of narrative. It can be a story about the contingencies that cling to a work when art meets life. This is the critical biography, the monographic study of an artist’s life and work and the effects of the two on each other. In shorter forms this is some of my favorite art writing—the writing of Chris Kraus, John Kelsey, and the people who invented Scene & Herd (Jack Bankowsky, Rhonda Lieberman, David Rimanelli) as feuilletons about art and its social contexts.

Narrative is pretty cool. Narrative sits next to (ahead of?) quantification/rationalization as a basic (the basic?) means of understanding the world. It situates perceptions in space and time and makes it possible to share them. Narrative is so basic that it’s the default mode of discourse for all the non-art, non-professional criticism found on Amazon, Yelp, and other sites that solicit reviews and ratings. People don’t just evaluate the goods and services and give detached, principled reasons for their ratings. They tell stories—to no one in particular—about their experiences of consumption. They tell stories that incorporate all the contingencies and particularities of an individual life, numbed by the anonymity of the generalized design.

What does Yelp do to art? It is a medium for translating the experience of seeing art into the internet vernacular of consumption narratives. Why Yelp art? The art world has expanded rapidly in the last decade. So many artists! So many galleries! So many non-profits, vanity museums, museum expansions—so many visitors! What is the art critic to do? He has three choices. Art Criticism #1 provides a reusable template. Just figure out your standards, measure any work against them, and BOOM!—you got a review! But this easily descends into hackwork and bloviation, especially in these times, when the rigid position of Art Critic #1 is undermined by the plurality of voices and viewpoints in the inclusive art world. Art Criticism #3 still works but to be really good it requires sustained close attention to a very small number of artists. So you get accused of only writing about your friends, and you can’t write about them often enough to get published regularly. Art Criticism #2 is the reasonable response. It is also the boring response. Art Criticism #2 is so boring that few people read it seriously, let alone remember it. It becomes decorative—filler for CVs, reasons for selling ads, the textual support for reproductions.

I’m interested in what it means to be an unprofessional art critic. Not an amateur but someone who would be a professional if he didn’t reject the codes and standards of professionalism. So what does it mean?? Some ideas: Writing about a lot of art, in all its variety, like a newspaper critic. BUT. Writing about art quickly and badly, like a hack. Writing about art honestly, like a baby. Writing for no money, like a poet. Writing for no one (and everyone), like a regular user. Yelp is a format that welcomes and encourages all of these kinds of writing. It also offers a way of writing about the explosive growth of the art world that doesn’t take it for granted. It offers a way to address it obliquely—by wearing the skin of a consumer navigating a market of great plenty, with the wonder of a browser who can’t buy any of it. That’s an easy skin for me to wear because that’s how I already live.