Unreal Nature

February 20, 2018

The Committed Critic’s Only Audience

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… he will open doors only for those who want them opened enough to push a little.

This is from ‘Prefatory Notes’ found in Changing: essays in art criticism by Lucy R. Lippard (1971):

Reading over the essays included here I have wondered if any of them need see the light again. In less than five years of writing I have frequently changed my mind — not often about the stature of specific artists, but about the place of their work in the network of ideas and objects that constitutes current art.

… Not very far beneath the surface of these essays is an almost daily frustration and doubt about the role of criticism itself. On the one hand, the core of the matter, the core at which the artist is working, usually evades elucidation; on the other, attempts at elucidation are clearly necessary, providing the art audience, the artist, and the would-be artist with an arena in which to disagree and to clarify the issues. Recently I have seen vital, growing art scenes in other cities, bereft of good criticism and the artists themselves are the first to complain, since they have the most to lose.

[line break added] I can bemoan the rapid pace forced upon a freelance critic who does not want to teach, or write for the mass media. But the serious working critic (as opposed to the serious but less regularly writing curator or scholar) is subjected to the same pressures, insights, and quick changes as the artist, and as the art world in general; the resulting flexibility has a value not merely sociological, and a character not merely sensational or superficial. It can provoke an acute openness, an irregular but penetrating manner of seeing and writing about what is seen.

… I have no critical system, which should be patently obvious from the contents of this book. At times I wish I did, but then I think of the distortions that occur when a critic has a system and must cram all the art he likes into those close quarters. Criticism, like history, is a form of fiction. Moreover, so-called objective criteria always boil down to indefinable subjective prejudices, which are the plagues of writing about the immediate present.

[line break added] When cornered, I describe my own criteria as clarity, directness, honesty, lack of pretense and prettiness, even a kind of awkwardness (for which I have been chastised, since that is supposed to be the worst kind of romantic Americanism). But then, no one will admit that the work he likes is muddy, indirect, dishonest, pretentious, or pretty, so such word lists mean very little.

The following is from the first essay in the book, ‘Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds’ (1967):

… The artist’s published material, out of the horse’s mouth or not, must be rigorously dealt with by the professional writer, who must beware of taking all of an artist’s assertions of purpose or influence at face value. It is, after all, forgivable for an artist not to know or care about his historical debts, but it is unforgivable for a critic not to recognize the exhausted or undeveloped form, the degrees of influence and originality.

… Criticism has little to do with consistency; for consistency has to do with logical systems, whereas criticism is or should be dialectical and thrive on contradiction and change.

Thus the contemporary critic’s real task is not simply a superficial combination of the historian’s and the aesthetician’s. Categorization, placement, attribution, and the stabilization of universal criteria are secondary to constant adjustment, immediate recognition of the change within the art itself.

… One need not like the new. The well-informed, “well-seen” reader need only disagree intelligently. Yet far more common is the armchair amateur who comes to new art and its commentary bowed under preconceptions of unchanging definitions of Art and Beauty. He does not understand, and he will rant about how the cult of the new is being put over on him, forgetting that only the ignorant are easily “put on.”

… The responsibility of even the most casual art observer and reader of criticism to think, to look thoughtfully, is practically unacknowledged. The burden is left on the critic’s shoulders, and if the critic shrugs it off in order to settle down to serious work, he cannot be blamed. If he is to face issues directly and honestly rather than through a simplified veil of explanation to others, he will open doors only for those who want them opened enough to push a little. Difficult art generates ideas and issues difficult to articulate. If criticism really comes to grips with these ideas, it is not likely to be particularly entertaining. A committed, and even professional audience is ultimately the committed critic’s only audience.




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