A re-posting of an essay from 2012. The role of criticism.


The Vital Role of Critics and The Ongoing Sabotage of Art.

It's okay to say that a photograph sucks. If you put work in a gallery you are inviting the world to experience it and react to it.  You get your shot.  The critic gets his shot. And if you've spent money on framing and printing and boxes of mediocre red wine and baskets of chips and bowl of hot sauce and printed invitations,  it can sting when a critic calls your work into question.  But that's the nature of the beast and part of the function of having exhibitions.  You get to hear or read an evaluation of your work that your mother would never give you.  Either because she loves you too much or is indifferent enough to want to avoid having yet another difficult conversation.  Your role, as an artist is expression.  Not necessarily self-expression but expression that moves the dialog of social reflection forward by taking apart the cultural DNA in a new way.  But there's a limited bandwidth of gallery space, attention and oxygen in the world of fine art and the critic is like the big bouncer at the velvet rope who helps keep out people who are just taking up space.  And I am, of course, ignoring "decorative art" which functions more like furniture.  Which is a wing of the decorative arts....

The web is the same as gallery space.  Every entry either unconsciously dilutes the whole forward momentum of enlightened culture or adds another highly concentrated drop of "go juice" to the mix.  The middle ground is just a waste of ones and zeros. Art should have something to say.  It shouldn't just lounge around. But somehow, when we make the very public gesture of posting work in publicly accessible forums we have the expectation that everyone will play nicey-nice and say uplifting and positive things.  Like the art teacher in primary school who is deathly afraid that any criticism will damage someone's self-esteem.  Given the all but anonymous nature of the web (for so many years my readers have come to believe that I am a middle aged, professional photographer who struggles with issues of access and finance when, in fact, I am really a precocious 25 year old billionaire ex-pat living in my own building in Dubai surrounded by dozen and dozens of super-model wives while playing with hand made digital cameras from NASA while finger-painting over the tops of my collection of Picasso's and Renoir's. Go figure...) the minute anyone receives even a good natured critique that calls any facet of the work into question the original poster flies into a rage and goes into a defense mode akin to a dictator facing insurrection.  He is protected by the wall of his own anonymity.

But critics serve a few valuable purposes.  They point us toward really worthwhile work.  They coalesce and put into words our subliminal understanding that some work is just unmitigated crap, and they help us to understand what works and what doesn't work in a piece of art. Our biggest problems as an "art" culture are twofold:  1.  While there has been an exponential explosion in the number of people making and showing their "art", and a parallel explosion in the sheer quantity of "art" they are now creating, the number of critics has remained static or has declined.  The number of critics with a grounding in both the history of Photography and general Art History has remained the same or declined.  And as the sheer dilution by numbers and hollow mimicry of worthwhile work continues to move photograph en masse from art-to-craft-to-mindless automatic recording the talented critics remained leery of sticking a foot into this tar baby manifestation of declining culture and have chosen to work the more fertile and invested fields of painting, sculpture, performance art and the "photographic classics."

Our second problem as a culture, where critics are concerned, is that we don't want to believe that they have value.  Just as a garden must be perpetually weeded to prevent its total overrun by predatory and unwanted tangles of hardy and invasive weeds, critics really do serve a valuable purpose.  They metaphorically weed the gardens.  When we dismiss their intrinsic value we are basically saying that photographic art is just about feeling good and that everyone should get a trophy.  Especially now, in the age of the privileged amateur who wants all the benefits conveyed by the hard work of his predecessors with none of the heavy lifting.  We, as a culture, have chosen to ignore our own art history so that the re-awakening (like zombies) of so many past styles and subject matters is embraced as stunningly new and innovative.  We give more value to the retread than to the original because we have no understanding and no cognizance of what went before.  And how current art stands on the shoulders of its predecessors.

Of course we'll believe that every thing we come up with is gold if we've never actually taken time to see and understand real gold.  We don't value the good critics because we don't understand what they're talking about and we don't understand what they're talking about because we think our hobbies are shortcuts to relevant statements of art.  Without knowing or understanding that what we're mechanically re-imaging has already been invented, shown, harvested and appropriated.  And been done better.

We went to school to become engineers or doctors or lawyers and we disparaged learning about our own culture at our own peril ("why would anyone want to pursue the liberal arts? What will they do with that degree?").  By doing so, in the pursuit of commerce, we throw away the important messages attached to the past.

Maybe what modern photography needs is more, and more educated, critics.  I've often stated my opinion that if work had to be shown in a physical gallery to be taken seriously people would put a lot more thought and care into what they showed.  We'd raise the level of art and the level of discourse by several orders of magnitude because people would have real "skin in the game."  And they'd have to confront a public and intimate encounter with their audiences.  As it is now we hide behind the screens and can be as prickly and abusive to critique as our fragile egos demand us to be.  If we were giving a gallery talk, in person, the discourse in both directions might be more disciplined and collegial.

I post photos here that, in retrospect, have no real value.  I never get called on it because this is the web. I could pull a better construct out of an old camera bag.  I think we all have a duty as artists to do several things.  First, we need to understand the history of the field in which we want to do work.  We need to read books like Beaumont Newhall's, The History of Photography.  And we need to read the print versions so we can see the plates well reproduced.  We all need to go to many, many gallery shows of both old masters and new, rising stars, so we can see what prints (the gold standard) really look like.  They are the standard that we really work towards.  We need to understand that the web is just a transitional tool that shows us a representation of what the final, physical art might look like.   Once we understand where we've been, just how good work can look "in person" and what the manifestos around art creation and photography are all about we can then speak to new work in a language that has real meaning.  It goes beyond, "great capture. All the kitty whiskers are sharp!" to a more adult dialog of understanding a work's resonance and messaging in the context of a complex culture, separate from reality TV and Facebook.

I see the world of photography on the web as so much adolescence.  Not that the practitioners are teenagers but that the level of discourse is so course and simple and fractured.  It's not an "us versus them" scenario with me being on one side of a technological divide and everyone else being a futuristic expert.  I've been pounding away in the world of computers for decades, and bought digital cameras before the great majority of the Bell Curve had even heard of their existence.  What I'm arguing for is the idea that, before inflicting on our shared culture, another meaningless rectangle of bouncy color and vacuous content that we all have a responsibility to understand what it is we want to say, why we want to say it and how well we can talk.  Then art moves forward.

I would welcome more and more critics.  We need people who can say, "You Suck." in a way that makes sense, moves the discussion to a level of higher quality and helps to weed our gardens so that visitors can more clearly see the beautiful flowers that bloom there.

Before you rush to respond and accuse me of being an elitist and an ego-maniac let me say that I felt compelled to write this because someone who likes my work, on a forum, posted a link to my website galleries and suggested that people go and look.  One person responded that he didn't see anything special in my work and questioned the purpose of the link.  The critic was attacked again and again for not seeing the value.  But he made a valid point.  The work I have on the web is series of tiny representations of images that are meant to be seen really large and in print.  Reduced and denatured by the contraints of the web they lose the majority of whatever power they might have had.  As does all work on the web.  The naysayer was, in fact, assuming a responsible role as critic and showing that in spite of my rhetorical skills, which help to create fictive value to the work I've posted, the work itself didn't resonate as it would have in it's primary and physical iteration.  He was right to force the question.  And my defenders wrong for not pursuing the conversation based on the primary aesthetics of presentation and the value of an image reduced from 30 by 30 inches of selenium toned, fiber based print to an sRGB version at 1000 by 1000  pixels.

If I could wield supreme power over the internet there are a lot of things I would change.  Like eliminating all advertising... But one of the first things I'd do is erase all the images from every website and gallery, stock file and sharing facility and let people and culture start all over again.  But the TOS on every site would include, in all caps, "Please imagine that the work you are about to post could change lives, change minds, enliven culture and move our society forward in its understanding and compassion.  Don't post random crap just to post it."

The hell with photographic workshops and seminars and tutorials and all the other mindless dreck.  We have more than enough technically accomplished technicians.  Now we need to concentrate on history and taste and aesthetics.  We need workshops that take people out of their quantum jobs and immerse them in the "what and why" of our art instead of the "how to."  And we need to cultivate workshops all over the map that teach people how and why to have critical exchanges about art that don't end in gunplay.

edit: an interesting, related article by Alain Briot: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/artistic_license.shtml

edit:  This is a brilliant take on photo criticism: http://www.photowings.org/pages/index.php?pgA196

William Gatesman wrote this wonderful piece: http://wmgphotoblog.com/2012/02/21/a-cubist-critique-of-photographic-art/

Unsure about critiques?  Here's a good place to start: http://www.pixiq.com/article/doing-a-photo-critique

And here's my favorite intro book to criticism for photography: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240516524/ref=oh_o02_s00_i00_details

read first, disagree second. If at all.


Mark Davidson said...


I started in the 70's with Time Life's series of books on photography. At the time the pantheon of photographic artists was thinly populated and my friends and I could pretty much list them all while half way through our third six-pack.

Today it seems like my dog and I are the only ones in the Northern Hemisphere who are not referenced as a photographic artists.

My wife and I wrote art criticism for a while and it was an exciting and challenging task to sort the wheat from the chaff. All the while feeling the responsibility of writing from a position of (quasi) authority.

The huge advantage in having this experience was that it caused me to marshall all my conflicting thoughts and formulate (hopefully) the fairest possible viewpoint of the work in question.

amolitor said...

Well said. I've said a lot of stuff, some of which is probably diametrically opposed to this piece, but so what? You're right. Perhaps I too am right, it's a big world that can hold a few contradictions but at this moment, you're the one holding the I'm Right Stick, and well done.

More, better, critics.

I would make one tiny suggestion, which is to read Newhall's book with a skeptical eye. I have, as the kids say, Beef with Newhall and think his book is fairly shabby. That said, it is still the defining work, at least in America, and you've simply got to know what he says.

More critics!

Thomas Rink said...

Yes, but: Who is going to criticize the critics? I mean, who keeps critics from becoming gatekeepers which ensure that "real" art is done in a way approved by academia (or art establishment)? For example, the impressionist movement started out as a rebellion against academia. Time proved them to be "right".

That being said, I highly appreciate the democratic nature of the web which allows everybody to show their work. Of course, you are absolutely right that this tends to enforce unoriginal work "just for the likes" - but an art establishment can have the same effect.

Best, Thomas