Artists, I’ve found, never seem to like a critique by another artist; and if that's true, does an artist like it from anyone...if unsolicited?
As a youth (I am talking about high school here) I noticed that many of my contemporaries used negative criticism in order to appear intelligent when discussing art and literature. Sometimes that criticism came across as a declaration of their own superiority. Those critics must certainly have been more intelligent than I, because I usually missed the weaknesses my peers found, and often enough continued to fail to see them even after they were pointed out.
I received a full share of unsolicited criticism myself, at home and from my less studious classmates, so it was only natural that I should develop a suspicion of the activity. In college I was a little leery when I undertook a course in the Philosophy of Aesthetics; would I founder in a sea of negative judgments that were invisible to me?
Judgment is not helpful criticism. It has, more than once, damaged my own artistic progress—my fault, I suppose, as the host of a sensitive nature. By extension I am convinced judgment is destructive to the creative functioning of many artists. And even if not—as would be the case for an artist who was finished with his career by virtue of his being, for example, dead—still, judgment posing as criticism robs the reader or viewer of insight the sophisticated critic could have provided, and of the opportunity to make up her own mind.
Two minor points to forestall confusion:
When an artist enters a competition or asks to be juried into a show or association, judgment is exactly what is called for, and the reasonable artist expects it. If the artist feels unwilling or incapable of tolerating a judgment, or has no confidence in the judge, she has the option to decline participation.
Second, both positive and negative judgment can be harmful. This is why, ever aiming to please, I chose for a while to work in seclusion while I attempted to coax out a delicate authenticity. (Ego, Id, Superego is one of the sheltered paintings.) It is too easy for praise of one or another aspect of my work to turn my head away from my purpose. And I am doing a good enough job, even now, of second guessing and judging these secret pieces.
You can see why, then, I might be reluctant to call one competent artist “better” than another; and maybe also why artists can be so negative about the work of others. In fact artists, even famous well-established ones, are often the first and most vehement assailants of new movements, when you would expect us to celebrate innovation. We should be in the best position to spotlight subtleties in an artwork, and in a way that helps viewers more fully appreciate it. So I try to do that.
All of that said, it is only fair now to disclose what I personally enjoy in a painting. I enjoy beauty: lush color relationships, graceful line, exquisite forms. I marvel at impressive paintings that show advanced technique or astounding patience. Most of all, though, I am drawn to works that excite me; (Ego, Id, Superego is a success for me in that regard) and usually I cannot tell you right away just what quality of the artwork is doing that, though I do lean toward clear and compelling design. It requires study on my part to comprehend what is turning me on. This is a classic case of “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.”
Being a visual and rather abstract person, I am not stirred by messages in paintings, narratives in paintings, politics in paintings, or expressionism in paintings. I may like such canvases, and appreciate their messages et al., but if an image electrifies me, it will be for its visual qualities. Messages, narratives, politics and the expression of feelings best reach me in verbal form.
There is a role for judgment, however. We need to decide which painting to buy, which I wish every reader of this blog will do today. (Mine or somebody’s!)
My criterion is very simple: the better painting (for you) is the one with staying power. If a canvas turns invisible on your wall or begins to annoy you, then it no longer serves its purpose and should be replaced. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. In another blogpost I will advocate a change in the significance we accord the visual arts.
What does it mean to say a painting has staying power? First of all, to buy a painting for any reason other than enjoyment is stupid—but more on that another time. You want to enjoy your purchase for as long as possible, and that means that you should see new things in it as time goes on. Your own knowledge of the image will expand, either through education or familiarity, in which case the art must be able to stand up to your more evolved scrutiny. How can you be assured that it will? Your level of study helps, but fashions change and even the experts disagree. Just be aware that the more a work stimulates your thoughtful contemplation, the more likely it will satisfy your aesthetic appetite for years to come.