Debate: Should critics ever savage the work of artists?

Published 19 May 2016

Without the contrast to harsh judgements, does praise have any meaning? Or is the role of the critic to simply inform and encourage readers to go and see for themselves? Jonathan Jones and Simon Wilson go head to head. Vote on the winner below.

  • Yes...

    Without harsh criticism praise can never be meaningful, argues Jonathan Jones.

    T.S. Eliot once observed that it would be very dull to have a conversation about poetry with someone who loves all poetry. When people talk in the pub about films, plays or sport, it’s natural to praise this one and disparage that one. The more intense the opinions, the more passionate and witty the conversation tends to be. What we are pleased to call criticism is just a formalised version of these chats or disputes. To ask a critic to be polite is to ask them to be a dullard.

    Art criticism as a genre of writing grew out of the rivalrous polemics of artists themselves, expressed in pungent words on the piazzas of Renaissance Italy. Giorgio Vasari’s enduringly popular book The Lives of the Artists, published in Florence in 1550, is spiced with the vicious and often highly perceptive critical remarks the great artists made about one another. Vasari tells how he and Michelangelo visited Titian in the studio in Rome where he was painting his Danae: Michelangelo said nice things to Titian’s face, records Vasari, but as they were walking away he commented that these Venetians would be really great painters, if only they bothered to draw.

    In my experience this kind of criticism is still bandied between artists today – from art students competing with their classmates to octogenarian masters dissing one another. When I first started reviewing art in a small-circulation magazine it was artists who egged me on to be rude. This is not just because artists are spiteful, but because the grit of criticism is necessary, to stop the art scene turning into a bland blancmange of mediocrity. Tough reviews keep everyone edgy and creative.

    Obviously, no-one likes getting one of those bad reviews, but without the cruel outpourings what meaning can praise have? I hate bad art because I love great art. It makes me angry to see weak, pretentious, talentless, ugly or stupid work overvalued and overpraised while genius gets ignored or taken for granted. No review is written in a vacuum. Today I write for a national paper and the context I am continually aware of is that of media hype and the overexcitement non-specialist journalists can get whipped up into over the latest fashionable name. The critic’s challenge is to point out the fakes, frauds, poseurs and charlatans and uphold true brilliance.

  • It is the critic’s job to be honest even when everyone else is cooing about the king’s groovy new suit

    Jonathan Jones

  • Why would anyone think that it is a good idea for art to be spared criticism? In Britain this notion has historical roots. There was a national prejudice against modern art until a few decades ago. A President of the RA even proposed to horsewhip Picasso. People who championed new art in Britain in the 1980s and early ’90s understandably saw themselves as guerilla fighters in a culture war. Critics who sneered at everything new were their enemies. Criticism itself got a bad name because too many critics had dismissed original art without a second thought.

    That was all a long time ago and the problem today is that rude criticism is too rare. London has become a glittering art capital. Commercial galleries have been known to employ art writers as part of their publicity teams, as well as commissioning catalogue essays from eminent experts. There is a real danger of the entire national conversation about art being shaped by dealers, art fairs and the most influential museums – of everything arriving pre-packaged and pre-praised as an icon to be revered. Meanwhile, celebrity culture means that artists who are good on telly are able to define their own status. It is important, just for the sake of balance, that someone is rude about Grayson Perry’s pots.

    Critics are now too careful about what they say, paralysed by the fear of looking “conservative” or stuck in the mud. Much of today’s esteemed art is backed up by complex, or apparently complex, theory that can terrify us into silence. Dare I say that I am left a bit cold by that empty room with the lights going on and off? Well, dare I? It is the critic’s job to be honest even when everyone else is cooing about the king’s groovy new suit.

  • No...

    Critics should ignore artists whose work they dislike, says Simon Wilson.

    It is peculiarly appropriate that this question should be posed in the pages of this magazine and specifically in its summer issue, since the most cogent case for a resounding no to it that I know of was made within the very walls of the RA and by the guest speaker at the Annual Dinner which marks the opening of the Summer Exhibition.

    In this case it was on 3rd May 1851 and the speaker was none other than Prince Albert, a man with a profound love and understanding of art. In his address he delivered a forensic attack on hostile art critics and what he said sadly remains as strikingly true today as it was then: “We have on the one hand a vast array of artists of every degree of talent and skill, and on the other a great public, for the most part wholly uneducated in art, and thus led by professional writers who often strive to impress the public with a great idea of their own artistic knowledge by the merciless manner in which they treat works which cost those who produced them the highest efforts of mind or feeling.”

    Prince Albert’s denunciation was made in response to the storm of hostile criticism that had descended on the work of certain young artists at the RA Summer Exhibitions of 1850 and 1851. These were the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who went on both to become much loved by the public and to exercise a profound influence on art, architecture and design both in Britain and internationally. Another early supporter of the PRB was John Ruskin, who less than a decade before had been driven to write what became the six volumes of Modern Painters as a riposte to the hostility of the critics to his beloved Turner. To its great credit the RA stood by both the PRB and Turner. But it and almost everyone else in this country suffered serious failure of the critical faculty in the case of Constable, whose work was incomprehensible to his contemporaries. If he hadn’t had family money we would certainly have no Constable.

  • The history of art is littered with calamitous critical misjudgements

    Simon Wilson

  • I wonder how many of the visitors to the RA who revelled in the lush Impressionist masterpieces in the recent Painting the Modern Garden exhibition were thinking as they did so of the hysterical hostility with which Impressionism was greeted by the critics and public when it first appeared. The history of art is littered with such calamitous critical misjudgements.

    Savage criticism of a work of art is simply the expression of the critic’s tastes, prejudices and, as Prince Albert acutely observed, their ego. And such criticism can be immensely damaging. How many readers may be put off seeing a show that they might in fact have found interesting and rewarding? And what about the poor artists who are attacked in the public prints? Not all of them are as rich and famous as Tracey Emin RA or Damien Hirst, and surely even they are entitled to ask, “If you prick us do we not bleed?”

    Of course newspaper editors tend to take the view that what the readers want is indeed blood on the carpet. A classic case of the combination of this editorial attitude with a critic perfectly fitted to express it was the 25-year reign at the London Evening Standard of the late Brian Sewell, who made a consistent unrelenting hostility to art (and not just contemporary art – I recall a television programme in which he even savaged Leonardo) his journalistic stock-in-trade. As the response to his death confirmed, the media and the public adored him.

    The purpose of newspaper art criticism should be to describe, analyse and inform in such a way as to encourage readers to go and see for themselves. If critics personally dislike certain artists then they should simply ignore them and leave the job of judgement to posterity. There is nothing worse after all than not being talked about. They should also remember the wise words of Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one remain silent.”

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