In yesterday’s Guardian Jonathan Jones wrote percipiently about how the status/role of the art critic has changed with the advent of and access to social media: the critic can no longer dispense judgement pope-like from ‘on high’; she/he must be prepared, like the rest of us, to engage in debate and defend her/his position. Just as, with the digital age, the question as to what constitutes ‘art’ continues to become more open, so, inevitably, must the discussion.
This is an entirely good thing.
Just this week I was delighted by the discovery of a ‘new’ van Gogh, Still Life with Roses and Field Flowers; I was equally appalled that, on the strength of some numpty’s opinion that it was “uncharacteristically exuberant” (had she/he not read Vincent’s letters? His reactions to the Impressionists on his first trip to Paris in 1886?) it was consigned to the art world equivalent of a broom-cupboard for forty years. Admittedly, it is recent technology that has made it’s attribution possible, but this does not detract from the fact that it never pays to be totally in thrall to so-called ‘experts’.
Again last week, another ‘expert’, the writer and occasional art critic Mark Hudson, decried the ongoing attempt to uncover Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, reasoning that it would “destroy one of the great legends of Renaissance art history”, and the ‘idea’ of the lost work would prove “more potent and inspiring than the actuality”. This is arrant, reactionary nonsense: ‘art history’, like art itself, is no longer ‘arcane’ knowledge possessed by the few and disseminated by them as and when they feel like it to a grateful audience; mysteries, in an age of freedom of information, are there to be solved, and one should not be bowing the knee to some retrograde notion of the Renaissance as somehow sacred. If that is the Battle beneath Vasari’s depressingly mediocre work, then I want to know about it; if it ‘disappoints’, so what? No-one’s perfect, not even Leonardo.
It has been ‘experts’, after all, who have been so sniffy about Hockney’s show at the Royal Academy, while falling over themselves to eulogise the conveniently dead Freud; it has been the public, people like you and me, who have marvelled at Hockney’s achievement, come away over-joyed, exhilarated, and kept the queues going round the block by reporting their sense of sheer pleasure (a response much under-rated by professional arty types) via Twitter, Facebook and blogs. I think Brian Sewell, who wrote a particularly arsey review of Hockney for the Evening Standard, was nevertheless on to something when he talked about art critics “writing anxiously for each other”: the game became neither about the art, nor the artist, nor about communicating with the general public; it was about proving to one’s peers that one ‘understood’ the blatantly incomprehensible and had a fine line in the lastest abstruse jargon.
In other words, one great big circle-jerk.
That’s not to say, of course, that critics are redundant; it is always worth listening to a well-informed, well considered opinion (especially from one’s doctor); the good critic will, even if we disagree with her/him, at most teach us something, at worst make us think. But the time where any view from someone in ‘authority’ can be taken as gospel is long since gone. The critic may frame the debate but, thanks to the access provided by the internet and people’s readiness to engage with it, she/he no longer has the final word.
Everything has the potential to be regarded as art, everyone can have an opinion and state it. Let’s enjoy the debate on our terms for once.
(None of the above applies to the divine Sister Wendy, who shall forever remain blameless, if only for not bowing to societal pressure and getting those teeth fixed.)
Jones’ Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/mar/21/jonathan-jones-internet-art-criticism
Sewell’s Standard review: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/arts/david-hockney-ra-a-bigger-picture-royal-academy–review-7439570.html