In 1969, when I was living in New York, the critic Clement Greenberg held a talk at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts. At the core of Greenberg’s lecture was his famous credo: “If you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong.” Writing my critique of the critic at present, I run the risk of being, in his words, “as stupid as a painter,” and being summarily ignored, since “all artists are bores.” But, facing this danger, I nonetheless am obliged to reveal my irritation over this “great” critic, an irritation that I also experience from another “great” critic from the previous century: John Ruskin.
What is this creature, the art critic? He is like the bird with a small sharp beak sitting atop large beasts like the rhinoceros, feeding on the parasites embedded in the massive epidermis. The rhinoceros has no real need of the bird and grazes unconcerned as the bird chirps to the world how much he knows about rhinoceri. The only art critics of the past truly qualified to comment on Art were the artists themselves, like Goethe, Delacroix, Whistler and Baudelaire, to name a few.
Criticism is beside the point unless it is made by one who is fully initiated into Art. The art critic renders no service to Art, although he often suffers from delusions of grandeur over his presumed importance. He actually believes that he has the power of bestowing or denying fame to an artist, when in the long run his opinion is of no consequence. Plutarch, an adept in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, also complained that those who try to penetrate the ways of the gods and spirits are “like persons with no knowledge of the arts trying to grasp the mind of artists through fanciful guesses as to their probable meaning.”
The profession of the art critic brings recognition to many who do not deserve it, and neglect to many who deserve recognition. In this respect, the critics represent a danger to Art, for they falsely claim to educate the public, while in fact disseminating ignorance. Each generation becomes indoctrinated by their misjudgements, as Ruskin indoctrinated generations of critics who came after him. Ruskin’s “expertise” is therefore meaningless if he ignored the genius of one of the most important 19th-century masters, whose portrait of his mother is now canonized in the Louvre as one of the immortal images of the entire century!
After the public defamation of Whistler by the critic, Whistler brought a libel suit against Ruskin. The entire legal system of England, the entire society, was on Ruskin’s (the Mob’s) side. The Master, whose only weapon was sarcasm, confident in the knowledge of his superiority, valiantly defended Art in the courtroom which Ruskin cowardly avoided. The judges joined in the mockery of the Master, and awarded him one farthing in damages. A tiny satisfaction for the mistreated artist (whose works are ironically treasured today in England).
Far from acknowledging Whistler’s genius, Ruskin accused him of “willful imposture”. This ignorance passed off as “expertise” also inspired Ruskin to demean Rembrandt as a painter. For the extremely famous critic, it was “evident that in Rembrandt’s system [...] the colors are all wrong from beginning to end.” (Quoted by Whistler in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.) In the following century, the extremely famous critic Greenberg wrote: “The trouble with Michelangelo’s sculpture is that it’s too slick. He was damned good [brilliant observation!], but he was too arty.” And considering Leonardo da Vinci’s mastery of words and ideas, as well as Whistler’s and Delacroix’s, we can also examine more closely Greenberg’s theory that “painters are less cultivated than writers and therefore pretentious in ways writers know enough to avoid.” (Would that we painters could be as “cultivated” as the writer Greenberg!)
However, if the art critic Ruskin put his foot in his mouth in London concerning the art of painting in general, and Whistler in paricular, a bonafide critic in Paris, the artist Baudelaire, immediately recognized the genius of Whistler, “un jeune artiste américain” whose art was “poésie profonde et compliquée d’une vaste capitale.” Until critics undergo full initiation into the art of painting, becoming artists themselves, the value of their utterances will always be questionable, as Ruskin’s utterances are questionable. “None but the artist can be a competent critic.” (Whistler)
The grievance that Whistler nurtured I in turn nurture, for I feel that the non-artists in control of Art – the same diletantes, amateurs and critics whom Whistler condemned – are by far more qualified to wield the janitor’s mop and broom than am I. It strikes me as odd that the ”art world” is controlled by non-artists. Those who most often write about Art are non-artists. Those who are considered experts of Art are non-artists. And for the most part, those who live comfortable and luxurious lives from Art are non-artists. Like Native Americans, the artists have lost their homeland to invaders, been forced onto a reservation, and obliged to dance to the conqueror’s pipe. This is the dance I perform daily as a janitor with my mop and broom, to the steady tempo of allegro ma non troppo (happy, but not too much).
As for being a middleman between Art and society, the critic has abused the trust given him. If he has interpreted Art correctly for society, then why do galleries and museums the world over still patronize the public’s insatiable hunger for mediocrity? For whom does the critic write, if not for this public? Certainly not for the artist, who has no need of such prattle and who has far better things to do with his time than listen to the opinions of uninitiated people. Then, if he does not write for the artist nor general public, who could possibly be his readers? A circle of admirers, perhaps? Like those who gathered at the Nassau County Musem of Fine Arts to hear Greenberg talk? What was being admired here? Art or Greenberg? In his position of expert, Greenberg ironically projected a truth about himself when he said: “To be an artist is to be pompous.” What does twentieth century art have to do with Greenberg? It has to do with Greenberg’s vanity. Despite his false claim to the light emitted by the brotherhood of artists, the critic is not among us: “He is condemned to remain without – to continue with the common.” Here Whistler speaks for all artists. He did not feel critics to be a necessary evil, “but an evil quite unnecessary.” (The Gentle Art of Making Enemies)
Of course, the vice of claiming unmerited membership in the brotherhood of Art is not restricted to the non-artist Greenberg alone. It is a general vice, festering in the ranks of curators, collectors, critics, dealers, professors and the general public like the AIDS epidemic sweeping the world today. Then why satirize individuals for vices of the throng? Alexander Pope answers:
General Satire in Times of General Vice has no force, and is no Punishment: People have ceas’d to be ashamed of it when so many are join’d with them; and ‘tis only by hunting One or two from the Herd that any Examples can be made. (letter to Dr. Arbuthnot)
Greenberg complained that de Kooning (officially classified as an “abstract” artist) was painting "figures" - his Women series. Shall the critic now tell the artist how to paint? Shall the sharp-beaked bird tell the rhinoceros where to graze? Such crude conduct is proof that he has not yet learned the humility for confronting a great man. How could he have learned such humility? The critic thinks himself to be a great man!
La peinture, c’est comme la merde,
ça se sent, ça ne s'explique pas *,
says Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the bonafide art critic. What more of a qualified statement can Greenberg utter on the subject?
* Painting is like shit, it is smelled, not explained. (Note: The French verb se sentir means both to smell and to intuit.)
Home | Books| Sheet music for guitar | Visual arts | Biography | Syukhtun