Monday, November 22, 2010

We look for Real Criticism, but does it exist?

I’ve been looking around for good examples of art criticism lately since there seems to be a lack of it in the art quilt world. I’m beginning to feel that this deficit is not confined to quilts!  I read a review about the fibre work of artist Orly Genger recently.  She uses rope to crochet mats and amorphous shapes which are then stacked up or leant against the walls of the museum or gallery.  Two things obviously stood out in the reviewer's mind: the scale of the work, and the pain suffered by the artist in creating the work.  It’s both interesting and depressing that no other judgment was given of the value of the  work  other than a basic description of it. There was no (as far as I could see) evaluation of how this was art, or how it added to truth , discovery or beauty within the world, or what it might inspire in others.

This does seem to be a pattern in many of the art "reviews" I've perused recently.  They  focus mainly on a description of the work using words like zine and trope quite frequently (I'm always looking them up and then forgetting what they mean, perhaps I could find a way to incorporated them into my quotidian discourse (2 more favorites). 

Furthermore, when you do find what purport to be actual evaluations of work (other current artists, not Genger)  rather than just plain descriptions, they are extremely generic, being  limited to phrases like:   “her work is uneven”, and “the paintings are competent but uninspired”, the work “feels forced” although there are “witty details”.  You could apply these vague comments to many pieces in any quilt show, they’re so generic.    Here’s one I like: “uncannily pertinent”! Yes, I think I might apply that to some work I’ve seen!!  But, think about it, whenever was pertinence really uncanny? Arn’t they just taking any old adverb and attaching it to any old adjective?     The quilts of Ms Smith were so superbly arrogant in their witty loftiness.   And Mr. Brown’s pieces were seen “ at once to be unabashedly romantic and oddly remote” while at the same time displaying a competent wonder.  If that fails, then one should double up on the adverbs as in: “unexpectedly and unforgettably alien”.

Of course the descriptions could be like those of real estate.    One man’s paintings were described as “sumptuous” – presumably they were over large (or should I say expressionisticly mammoth?)  and  dripped with paint.   Another’s work was considered to be “affecting”.  Probably made you sneeze as you looked at them.   “Strikingly original” (yes another happy adverb adjective combination!) would suggest that as you gazed at the work boxing gloves came out on extending arms and jabbed you in the nose.

Some critics adopt a scatalogical pose (it’s not only little children who delight in this!): “they are exquisitely painted, dignified when they look like a phallus, and morbidly funny when they look like a pile of excrement”.  It really makes you want to rush to the gallery doesn’t it?! To laugh at a pile of shit?  What are we coming to?

And then there’s the Jane Austen school of critics who are much persuaded by the sensibility of the much admired work they view, as they generally accept the tropes of gentle irony.  Oops it’s getting to me.

It’s always good to mention metaphor if all else fails in trying to understand art (and we all know that it’s currently fashionable for artists to say “Oh the interpretation is whatever the viewer wants to make of it”) so you don’t even need to specify the actual metaphor.  Here’s  a phrase that could apply to a lot of work: “the metaphor is massive and crosses boundaries of time, taste, tragedy and stuff a housekeeper won’t touch”!!  though one could always make a guess.   And at the same time be sure to temper any phrase with  a useful “perhaps” as in: “Perhaps the picture represents a spirit rising above death’s reach, a mixed message both ominous and hopeful” – let’s be sure to fall squarely on each side of that one!  Especially  when one is “grappling with the human spirit’s transcendence of the flawed, mortal self”!!  Yes, these are real, and from different critics writing about different artists. I kid you not!

So back to the pain and the size… I was wondering if we might be able to get Art Quilts taken more seriously by the Real Art world (which of course is not in any way to be confused with the Real World!) if we just made our quilts immensely large and in the most painful way possible.  (And we already have the phrases as outlined above for the critical review!).

So how could the size be achieved and the pain more visible?   How can our work be expressively gigantic and painfully rendered?  Perhaps if we got many art quilters together working on one piece?  A quilt that stretched between acres of sewing machines, and we could have arrows sticking out of our shoulders and maybe flames thrusting up from time to time underneath to portray the mental heat involved?  or something else…..

If we did that….and made the subject of the pieces an artistic trope of  elimination and erection, exquisitely and metaphorically rendered…I think we might be ready to call in the critics!  We should of course supply them with two little bags (oh yes, Tim, I think black velvet drawstring ones!) – one would contain arcane adverbs and the other an ambiguous agglomeration of adjectives! Onward and upward! oops I   should say : let us go forward in a surprisingly upward and unforgettably and obscurely onward direction.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  and do send any examples of such critical bon mots as you might stumble over!   Elizabeth


Deb Lacativa said...

Thanks for this egregiously uplifting, if harrowing in the manner of the masters, post. I waded through the NY Times art section last night and decided I have to come up with a new way of describing the way art is written about because I really like the smell of horse manure. Now, PIGSHIT is another matter altogether but then I have to give deeper consideration of the art they are so in thrall of.

Anonymous said...

I tried to copy a random buzzword generator onto your comments but it wouldnt work so have popped it onto my blog. Enormous fun!

Edana said...

been reading this blog with interest - I like a bit of food for thought :-)
regarding the point in question - I would guess art critics may or may not believe in evaluating artworks. I tend to go along with the Dada idea as expounded by Kurt Schwitters, that 'everything the artist spits is art' - which I feel means you can't make value judgements about art, you can only say whether or not you like it and why - which isn't much use to anyone since we all like different things for different reasons, all of which are valid because personal taste is just that. Success in the art world seems to be more about marketing yourself and networking than so-called talent - if you can walk the walk and talk the talk (which I tend to refer to as bull***t) you will go far with a bit of good luck thrown in, which also counts for a great deal I think!

The Quilted Librarian said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I'm a big fan of the feminist art critic Lucy Lippard and also enjoy reading Camille Paglia when she turns her x-ray vision on art.
Love your blog,
Dana Fisher

Rayna said...

Yes, I thought about the random buzzword generator, too. Great for meaningless artists' statements, as well as what is obviously the Emperor's New Clothes School of Criticism...which by the way, is probably not new. Sigh...

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that the real reason for a lack of art criticism in general, but more specifically with something like quilting is the anemic state of the arts in Western culture as a whole.

Quite simply, there are not enough artists. There is not enough support to sustain professional artists. We're inundated with hobbyist art, which we'd all feel bad dissecting and would make the creators feel bad for exposing their hobbyist/amateur status.

And to be clear: I think there is a general, culture-wide thinning of art's primordial soup. We're left with un-technical, loosely planned (if at all) stuff that has been created for creation's sake. Art has purpose, if even in intentionally having what ostensibly appears to be no purpose. It provokes.

Unfortunately, I find myself being provoked and intrigued less and less often. In a sense, it's nice for more people to participate in art, but unfortunately that participation lacks much purpose beyond the rote task of creating something. And: to criticize that...what do you say? "Here's how you polish a turd?"

kathy loomis said...

I think I'm already making art as huge as possible and with considerable pain, except any would-be critics don't know it. Maybe I need to write in my artist statement how much my shoulders hurt.

Linda B. said...

Thanks for opening my eyes! It makes you wonder why quilters want to be taken seriously as artists when I'm no longer sure that artists are taken seriously.

In fact I'm surprised that "no one's mentioned yet that the metaphorical resonance of the figurative-narrative line-space matrix threatens to penetrate the exploration of montage elements." Google 'Pixmaven' for the source of this particular twaddle.

Elizabeth Barton said...

anonymous makes an interesting comment that no one wants to dissect an amateur's work and that there are very few professionals out there. At my local university the BFA exit show was 17 photographers, one sculptor, one painter and one textile design. It's a circle, a whirlpool going round and down. Sadly amateurs rarely make it to professional status and that's true in most professions. it takes time, a lot of time, and we have too many calls on us to produce (in every arena).

Patty said...

I am reminded of wine reviews, or even restaurant critics! I suppose no one would read or remember, "I liked it."

Anonymous said...

You've given me food for thought. Never thought along these lines before. Don't know how I feel about it, or understand it. Hence the problem..right?!

Sherri Lynn Wood said...

Hi Elizabeth. I found your blog via the existential neighborhood. We were in a class together over a decade ago - was it with Teri Manget? Anyway, my recommendation is that you, and anyone else who wants serious criticism to try writing our own reviews and post them on our blogs. I just started blogging and recently tried my hand writing a review. Karrie Hovey contrasted with Liza Lou I'm curios to hear what you think. It was my first review and I was happy with it but it did take a lot of effort to write. And I don't think I got a single comment on it. Oh well. The point is we can write our own art criticism. Sure we would be amateur critics but hey there's no shame in being an amateur. I say go for it!

Helen from Hobart said...


Thanks for writing this

It needs to be said - especially the part about the Art World not to be confused with the Real World