Why does art exist? Most artworks have themes and ideas; some go so far as to make arguments. Why not just write down what you want to say and hang it on the wall? There are, granted, conceptual artists whose work often consists of written descriptions of an action they have performed (or want you to perform), and there are artists like Jenny Holzer and Ed Ruscha who put text at the center of their work—but those artists tend to incorporate text within their work, rather than make the text itself the work. This refusal by artists to tell us what exactly they’re doing, what exactly they’re saying, is damned frustrating.
But of course, that’s the genius of art: its ambiguity. It’s precisely that ambiguity that locates art on a separate plane, that allows us to feel like art somehow helps our conscious minds connect with the parts of ourselves that are irrational, unpredictable, foundational, and profound. When it works, it’s a nice effect.
And then…in we come: the critics. Why do we exist? Isn’t it spoiling everything to take such a flat, literal approach to something so rich and beguilingly elusive? Aren’t we like the economists who come in and say, yeah, you think you fell madly in love with her bright spirit—but actually, you subconsciously made a rational calculation that pursuing a romance with her would satisfice your desires for financial stability, social prestige, parity of education, intersection of leisure interests, and, of course, sexual satisfaction? Isn’t criticism—even positive criticism—a cold shower on the aesthetic impulse?
Well, sure, but the art world needs us, right? It’s the critics and academics who bridge the gap between artists, immersed deeply in their struggles with the Muse(s) and distasteful of deconstructing their work, and the confused, intimidated public. It’s we, the critics—and our academic brethren—who do the dirty work of writing the features and the previews and the reviews and the audio guides and the plaques on the wall that allow Joe Schmeau to walk into the Walker and say, okay, now I get it! It just looked like a mirror with some scratches on it until I read the brochure, and now I understand that it’s actually Duchamp’s method of incorporating me into his artwork—that clever bastard! He even signed his name on me! That’s cool. That was definitely worth my ten bucks.
So by that argument, it’s worth it for artists to tolerate our demystifying ways in the interest of accommodating more patrons to appreciate their work (financially and otherwise). Further, one could argue that artists need us to communicate about their work to their peers and, indeed, to themselves. Because we aren’t personally invested in the creation of the work we review, we’re in a position to evaluate it objectively in a manner that may help an artist understand that her work isn’t making the impression she had in mind, or doesn’t cohere in a satisfying manner. Artmaking is also a science, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that there’s no method whatsoever to all that divine madness. If only out of curiosity, you probably want to know whether your work is causing people to search their souls or scratch their skulls—and unlike Mr. Schmeau, we have the gall to shoot straight with you.
Communicating with the public and communicating with artists are different goals, but in both cases, the idea is precisely to communicate. Since art is, more or less by design, difficult to parse in words, it would seem all the more imperative that we go out of our way to be transparent and clear-spoken (or, as the case may be, clear-written). Why, then, is so much art criticism so completely impenetrable? Why do critics so often go beyond deploying technical jargon and veer into opaque, near-lunatic constructions?
You Marxists have your own theory, I know. You believe that we are serving to perpetuate class inequality by casting a veil of obfuscation over art that has already been carefully constructed to thoroughly alienate patrons of the proletariat persuasion. We need to be just accessible enough to make casual readers start to believe that maybe this stuff is something they can wrap their heads around, and then…whammo! We surprise them with a sublimated motif from the left and crack them in the jaw with a little mythopoetic geography, and they’re down for the count. They’ll be back for more, because they know they oughta. Ha!
Maybe that’s a bit paranoid. Sure, sometimes we button our imaginary trousers a little too tightly lest they slip off and we be exposed, naked and naïve—but if we’re forced to dumb down our analyses and render our close readings in the language of a fifth-grader, we’ll be deprived of our sharpest tools of the trade. To communicate most precisely what we intend to say, we must be free to deploy sentences like this wowzer Lynne Cooke wrote about Alfred Jensen for the Dia Art Foundation: “As even the most syncretic works, notably The Sun Rises Twice, attest, the spectator rarely goes beyond appreciating the aspirations of this distinctive polemics toward a redemptive metaphysical engagement with the ludic poetics, which reside more in pictorial rightness than in programmatic iconography.” Obviously, she could never have conveyed her meaning with such exquisite subtlety were she writing with a fifth-grader’s diction. Right?
Wrong. I’m here to spoil it for everyone and spill the beans: it’s because we wish we were artists. That’s right. We wish we could do what artists do, so we try to recreate that alluring ambiguity even as we pretend to do precisely the opposite. We can’t, of course, but who cares? Critics are largely employed by editors and curators who are critics themselves, so we’re very often allowed to frolic gaily in the pastures of utter incoherence. Whoopee! Blassa glallassasa zimbrabim! You can all kiss our iconographical significations of ostensibly interlocking buttocks!
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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