Criticism Really? What For?

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by Christine Huskisson

Critical Review is a regular discussion about the arts in and around Lexington, Kentucky.

Is critical review of the arts just an insiders’ game, accessible just to those who get the language, know the references, and frequently patronize the arts or produce art? We at UnderMain resoundingly say, “No!” UnderMain is committed to regularly presenting critical reviews because we, along with many of you, are aware that art criticism serves a vital function in promoting a healthy art market, and enriching our community’s cultural life.

We want people to care about these things and, in turn, we are challenging ourselves to present critical reviews in engaging and accessible formats. As the discipline is made up largely of educated opinion and purposeful observation, it is quite subjective in nature. So, rather than subjecting you to our collective mindset, we thought it wise to begin by sharing some comments from area professionals.

We begin with Daniel Brown, who is the editor-in-chief of AEQAI, a nationally-recognized publication dedicated solely to critical review of the visual arts. AEQAI is based in Cincinnati and has, on many occasions, ventured into our market to promote both our artists and those who write criticism, call Lexington home, and have no place to voice their opinions.

UnderMain and AEQAI have teamed up to sponsor a class in writing and appreciating art criticism; the class will begin this April at the Carnegie Center for Literature. Daniel’s comments also give us some historical recollection of the origins of art criticism.

Other contributors were chosen for their long-time commitment to the arts, their willingness to push boundaries, their abilities and experience in writing critical review, and their solid roles in building community centered in collaborative ventures that start with local and extend well past all geographical, psychological and emotional boundaries.


Daniel Brown

Editor-in-Chief, AEQAI

When someone asked me recently what a somewhat provocative photograph said, I remarked that photographs, or works of art in general, don’t speak, per se: they are silent, and really consist of the materials from which they are made, and the ideas and concepts of the artist who makes the work. And although Western art from the past almost always dealt with religious, mythological, or allegorical topics, the viewer needed to know the story being told, though one can always enjoy the beauty of the composition, its colors, the figures if there are any. Art’s purpose was didactic and meant to reflect the interests and pleasures of an upper class of aristocrats and The Catholic Church.

All of that changed with modern art; the pictorial language and symbols all changed, along with revolutions in physics, optics, medicine, psychology, as people learned that what you saw wasn’t necessarily what you got. Art criticism is an interventionary language, an attempt on the part of writers/thinkers/teachers to explain both how a work of art is made, whether the artist is succeeding in doing what he or she set out to do, and whether the art in question makes any difference in our sense of ourselves, our world: these criteria were Immanuel Kant’s, and I have never found any better. Ideas on what art is and why it matters (or not) go all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Since art helps us to explain the world in which we live, interpreting its intentions and multiplicity of meanings enriches both the work of art and the often confusing world(s) from which it is fabricated. With an increasingly globalized world, we are going to see more hybrids of style and intentions as artists combine ideas and techniques, particularly including the radical infusion of photography and other new electronic media. The critic is much like a translator, translating the language of images into the language of words.


Heike and Irwin Pickett

Owners Heike Pickett Gallery

When we first opened the gallery thirty-one years ago in Lexington, there were very few opportunities for serious visual artists to exhibit a coherent body of their work through one-person exhibitions. When approached about the lack of visual arts coverage, the Lexington Herald Leader enlisted a critic to cover the visual arts on a regular basis as they had done with music and theatre. These articles and photographs encouraged and stimulated not only attendance and discussions in the community but also contributed to expansion of other visual arts developments and venues in Lexington.

A competent visual art critic has the tasks of translating, much like a foreign language interpreter, the varied forms of visual presentations thus stimulating a point of departure for further dialogue with the viewer. The critic describes, as well as voices an opinion about the work on view. This opinion is not always in agreement with the artist and/or the viewer but is merely one individual’s viewpoint. It enhances the process of looking and seeing art for everyone. The art critic is essential in encouraging visual literacy and appreciation.

Since many newspapers can’t afford any longer such specialized staff or have room on their printed page, it is a brilliant idea to use the electronic media to pick up where they have left off. We certainly could not have survived without support and coverage from an art critic by the local newspaper when we started out.


Louis Zoellar Bickett

Artist

The importance of including critical review in an on-line magazine dedicated to arts and culture cannot be overstated. Consistent criticism of the arts in this format does not exist for this area, and, we suffer for it (the free magazines in the area only present fluff – they might as well be a product of the Chamber of Commerce).

When the Lexington Herald Leader all but eliminated arts coverage (certainly critical art reviews) it was a giant step backwards for the arts community. That arts community is small but intense. There is no chance for growth or change in the arts in the Lexington, KY, region without a critical presence. The planned 21C Museum on Main in Lexington will be an amazing addition to the area. Critical review is a much needed push toward positive growth. I can’t think of another period of art history (since the 1913 Armory Show in NYC) where critical thought was not an important part of the scene. I predict that UM and its cadre of writers from the region will be a force that will greatly add to the cultural worth of this region. The artists of this region are indebted.


Candace Chaney

Freelance Critic, Lexington, Kentucky

After I see a play, I like to imagine the post-production conversations taking place during the car ride home or later over drinks. Sometimes I overhear them in the theater bathroom or lobby.

“What did you think?” one person will ask. “I liked it,” the other person might respond. Or sometimes they don’t like it at all. Occasionally they will say this or that actor is good or bad. And that’s usually the end of the conversation. My eavesdropping or hypothetical imaginings always leave me feeling like the English teacher writing in the margins of a term paper. “Why or why not? Elaborate!” I think in mental red ink.

Artists work very hard at their craft. And they deserve thoughtful responses to their work. Critical review offers the kind of thorough and (hopefully) informed response to the work that it deserves. In my opinion, a critic’s job is far more than merely liking and not liking a work and saying why. I review work based on a singular criteria–did the piece (the play, the book, the film, the painting) do its job? If it’s a low-brow comedy designed to make your forget your troubles, did it? If it’s a dark, psychological thriller, were you darkly, psychologically thrilled?

Still, not everyone will have the same experience. That is part of the reward and challenge of responding to art. It’s also why we need more voices in criticism. Critics, like audiences, respond differently, and despite the best intentions at objectivity (see my criteria above), their responses are filtered through their individual aesthetics. Like everyone, critics are fallible human beings and not authoritative know-it-alls. We get it wrong sometimes. We fail to “get it.” But we do try to respond to the work in a meaningful way, and that can be really scary. When I’ve asked other writers why they don’t consider writing critical responses, they almost always say because they want to be friends with artists and not enemies, and that there’s no way they could “be nice.”

But you don’t have to be “nice,” you have to be professional. When artists are serious about their work, they deserve an equally serious response from folks who care about art. When you are a bona fide artist, responsible criticism is a welcome conversation, an invitation to go deeper into the work, not a threat. It’s part of a thriving arts community. Even if folks’ read criticism and vehemently disagree, the dialogue has been deepened. And that’s what we need if art means more to us than a few words on the car ride home.


Becky Alley

Curator, Lexington Art League

Critical writing and review of art is an integral part of any vibrant arts community because it helps art do what it was meant to do: advance conversation and create meaning. A well written critical review, whether positive or not, offers readers insight into what the artists made and what it might mean given the context in which it exists. A skilled critic will craft a thoughtful argument, asserting the quality and value of the work, weaving in information about the artist, the work created, and how it all relates to the broader scope of contemporary art. In doing this, the critic elevates the conversation about art by increasing the general public’s knowledge of art.

When a community is able to support critical art writing, it also supports accountability of artists and art institutions that show their work. There is increased focus on quality of work and content, and a public informed enough to demand high standards in art programming.


Dima Strakovsky

Associate Professor of Intermedia, University of Kentucky

The contemporary art world is one of the more interesting byproducts of globalization and as such, has an amazing pull that goes beyond the immediate geography of its production. Effective critical writing can connect community to its artists and to the wider cultural context. The discourse generated by our critics can point to the amazing global interfaces that exist in the Kentucky area.
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