Part 2…

A former Guardian art critic, who now delivers Olympian judgments for one of the Sunday newspapers, recently moaned to me that no one took him seriously any more. The “any more” bit was a trifle deluded, in my view, as I have never taken him seriously in any way. We have lost our authority, he wailed. “What authority?” I was tempted to ask, but didn’t. One can only mistrust critics who whimper about the waning of their authority. They are, I think, more interested in power than in writing. The only sensible way to deal with one’s power, such as it is, is to not think about it.

Which is not to say that what one writes doesn’t matter. The opposite is true. The only authority a critic or an artist can claim lies in the work they do. Everything else is just wind.

I don’t know what I think, often, till I write. The act of writing shows me what I think. I never know where things are going till I get there. There is an element of fiction and invention even in criticism. Being a critic has its performative side. For the writer, the problem, as much as it might be one of interpretation, is felt first of all in the difficulty of describing what one is looking at.

Description, however plain it appears to be, is never neutral, however technical it gets, whatever its claims to objectivity. And while we’re at it, criticism is never objective, never impartial, never disinterested. It is subjective and partisan. What else would you expect?

Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art – not speaking about it, not writing about it – is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist’s intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it – which doesn’t prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all.

In the end, we are all critics. Listen to the babble of conversation as you leave the cinema or the theatre, or to the chat in the gallery. People argue about what they have experienced and about what the critics have said. This is good. But some voices might be worth attending to more than others, just as some artists, some playwrights, moviemakers, composers, choreographers are better than others. The fact that we can’t all agree on what is valuable (and why) keeps things interesting. It also keeps criticism alive.

Some things are not easy to grasp. We have to work at them. This, in part, is what criticism tries to do. It is also where a lively engagement with the art we encounter begins. And it is where we all begin to be critics.

The Guardiann