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One of America’s foremost art critics has launched a fierce attack on the contemporary art world, saying anyone who has “read a Batman comic” would qualify for a career in the industry.
Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.
“They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious,” he told the Observer. “Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.”
Hickey says the art world has acquired the mentality of a tourist. “If I go to London, everyone wants to talk about Damien Hirst. I’m just not interested in him. Never have been. But I’m interested in Gary Hume and written about him quite a few times.”
Edward Helmore and Paul Gallagher
If you had to name the major development in art discourse during the 2000s, it would undoubtedly be the ascent of “art news,” which has definitely replaced “art criticism” at the center of discussion. There’s been an enormous proliferation of writing about the art scene…A simple logic governs this proliferation of “art news”: Readers care a lot more about reporting on the art world than they do about reviews of art. By whatever metric you use — Web traffic, reader feedback, or just percentage of the collective brain taken up — people are more inflamed by the latest institutional scandal or art-related celebrity sighting than they are by quaint, old-fashioned discussions of what, exactly, makes an artwork good.
The shipping of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa, to New York for exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963 was, according to [Robert] Hughes, the beginning of the descent of the art world–particularly the contemporary art world–into today’s big-money morass (as Hughes sees it) of collecting for profit, naked speculation, insincere or wrongheaded or diabolical reasons behind big-time collectors saying how they just love art, undeserved celebrity for mediocre-or-worse artists, and a general vulgarity and crassness among art-world players (especially those hand-holders to the rich connoisseur wannabes, art consultants). The downward slide was supposed to have worked something like this: Showing the Mona Lisa at the Met to long lines of people who could only glimpse it from a distance for a few seconds catered to unwashed pseuds who only wanted to “get it seen”; that led to a bunch of superficial, unsophisticated people flooding into an art world that consisted theretofore of a bunch of integrity-ridden bohemian artists, several dealers more interested in determining art history than making a profit, and a few enlightened, altruistic collectors; those ambitious vulgarians, who liked the parties and the “action” as much if not more than they actually liked art, started to take over; meanwhile, the advent of Pop Art and particularly Andy Warhol and his flaunted permissiveness, propelled the takeover to warp speed and near-total control.
The art world thrives on the reactions of critics. Sensationalist work damned as “gratuitous” or “pretentious” is what makes the Turner prize so exciting. The most media-worthy pieces of the last 10 years have been the work of the YBAs: an unmade bed, a light flashing on and off, a black Mary. Opinions may differ on works such as these, but one thing remains constant: the views belong to white, middle-class (mostly) male critics. Certainly academics are seen as credible authorities, but what of those outside the artistic elite?
It seems like the Tate has realised the importance of having diverse voices to challenge and criticise the way art is seen. Over the next two Sundays, Tate Britain will be inviting urban acts, producers and poets to show the art world a new side to criticism. Each artist – including the current UK No 1 Tinie Tempah – will use the space to present individual responses to artwork by Chris Ofili (in this particular instance Tinie will be spitting 32 bars about one of Ofili’s paintings).
This year’s Booker shortlist was worthless; none of the novelists on it has any chance of being remembered in 50 years, none of these books can compare for one second with the great tradition of English literature. Set one of these minor talents alongside a Jane Austen or a Joseph Conrad, and it is clear we live in mediocre cultural times. The Booker should be abolished.”
No, I’ve never read a comment like that about a Booker prize shortlist either. I have, however, read (and written) many such critiques of Turner prize shortlists. But why does contemporary art get such a rough ride in comparison with the contemporary novel?
Critics and the public are prepared to say infinitely more dismissive things about new art than ever gets said about new literary fiction: it’s common for modern art to be mocked as “junk”, but rare for even the most outrageous or embarrassing novel to be dismissed as not worth the paper it’s written on.
Savage… the art critic Peter Fuller by Jane Bown, 1988 Photograph: Jane Bown/Observer
Do art critics have a point any more? Can they contribute anything to the development of art? For a long time I’ve ducked this question. If you’d asked me any time over the past few years, I’d have replied that criticism does not seriously influence art. It has its own justification, however, as literature. If literature seems a pompous word, let’s say entertainment. The appetite to read about art is almost as insatiable as the need to look at it; the critic provides a service that gives a chance to talk, think and tell stories about art and artists. Maybe it doesn’t have any impact on art but it does occupy a place in the culture. That’s what I would have said, until recently.
But that’s a weak defence of criticism. The truth is that critics have been in retreat for a long time. In British art, they faced a cataclysmic loss of standing just before I came on the scene. When I was a student, the art critic whose books I bought was Peter Fuller, founder of the magazine Modern Painters and a savage critic of most trends in contemporary art. I enjoyed the provocative seriousness of his essays. I also loved the writing of Robert Hughes, another critic whose eloquence was – and is – very much at the expense of current art.
Not much newspaper criticism comes near their mark, but what critics did share, in the late 1980s, was a similar scepticism about new fashions, a “seriousness” defined by suspicion. And of course, history played a joke on these critics – even on Fuller and Hughes. While high moral disdain for shallow modern art was pouring from the printing presses, a generation of British artists led by Damien Hirst were getting away with anything they wanted – again and again and again. Words were crushed by images. Critics were reduced to the status of promoters. They had no other role.
Today I think there is an opportunity for critics again – and a need. The sheer volume and range of art that we’re fed in a culture obsessed with galleries is so vast and confusing that a critic can get stuck in and make a difference. It really is time to stand up for what is good against what is meretricious. And it really is possible to find examples of excellence as well as stupidity. In other words, this is a great time to be a critic – to try to show people what really matters.
Yes, there’s a staggering volume of mediocre art being talked up by fools. But there are real talents and real ideas too. The critic’s task is to identify what is good and defend it come hell or high water – and to honestly denounce the bad. Art history can help in this task by enriching your perspective. Writing can give you a flexibility in how and when you want to engage. But engage we must. Engage we will.
Other People’s Opinion Syndrome (OPOS for short) is a common complaint among arts lovers. OPOS is the problem of letting yourself be swayed or influenced by what people are saying about a particular work of art before you go and experience it for yourself. Inevitably, our impressions of a film or piece of theatre, music, dance or exhibition can’t help but be affected by the expectations that we’ve built up in our minds based on other people’s reactions to the work of art. If we hear an artwork is absolutely unmissable, we often end up feeling disappointed; if everyone tells us to avoid experiencing a piece like the plague and we end up going along anyway, we can sometimes be pleasantly surprised.
Critics don’t generally have to deal with OPOS because they tend to experience new work when it’s fresh out of the gate. In many respects, their words become the bedrock of OPOS.
But my position is slightly different. Because I work as a theatre critic for a weekly publication so don’t have to file a review overnight, and have a great aversion to opening night performances for a variety of reasons (which you can read about here if you’re interested) I tend to experience plays and other events later in their runs than my colleagues. Even if I make a point of ignoring all reviews until I go to see a show, sometimes it’s impossible not to find out what people are saying about it before I pitch up at the theatre.
I was away from the Bay Area in Europe for two weeks before going to see War Music at the American Conservatory Theater last week and was hence able to come at the production unblemished by OPOS. But this is rare. In the case of Lloyd Suh’s new play at the Magic Theatre, American Hwangap (a still from which is pictured above) this wasn’t the case. By the time I went to the theatre to check out the show last night, no less than three local critics had shared their opinions verbally with me in passing, and I had also read a short review of the play in my own paper which had been assigned to another critic in my absence.
I find myself having to deal with OPOS all the time, so I’ve tried to develop strategies to take in the opinions I hear and read while minimizing their influence. I actually love finding out what other people think of works of art, even if I haven’t experienced them already, which is why I occasionally sneak a peak at reviews prematurely and occasionally strike up conversations with regular theatregoers and critics about their thoughts on a particular show when I still haven’t made it out to see it for myself. I just try to remember that I often disagree with what my fellow critics (and others) think which helps me to approach the theatre-going experience with, I hope, fewer preconceptions. It’s taken me years to develop this skill, however, and I can’t claim to have mastered it fully yet.
Last night’s performance of American Hwangap was particularly interesting with regards to OPOS because the opinions were so divided on the subject of Suh’s domestic drama about a Korean man’s return to the U.S. to celebrate his 60th birthday party (or “Hwangap” in Korean parlance) with his estranged ex-wife and grown-up children.
Two critics, whom I ran into at another play last weekend and a downtown restaurant respectively, had told me they loved it. A third critic critic, whom I bumped into at an art exhibition yesterday, said she hated it. The review I read by critic number four was lukewarm. It was fascinating to hear such diverse viewpoints. I came to the conclusion that anything which sparked this amount of controversy was bound to be worthwhile. I also came to the conclusion that I couldn’t come to any conclusion about the play until I had seen it for myself.
Though I didn’t detest Suh’s drama as much as my art exhibition colleague did, I didn’t like it nearly as much as the two critics who gave it the thumbs up. I probably felt even a little less engaged by the production than the review I’d read of the show in SF Weekly. The characters repeated their positions incessantly, the play had no subtext to speak of, the humor was canned, the performances seemed as one-dimensional as the writing and I didn’t personally buy any of the reconciliation scenes. The play is only 80 minutes long, but I was bored after about 20.
OPOS is an insidious thing. It seeps into and informs our view of art almost unconsciously. But it isn’t all-powerful. With a bit of practice, I believe it’s possible to hear different viewpoints on a work of art and then go and experience it for yourself without letting OPOS spoil the experience.
lies like truth
By now, with the enormous hype that has been spun around it, there probably isn’t an earthworm between John O’Groats and Land’s End that hasn’t heard about the auction of Damien Hirst’s work at Sotheby’s on Monday and Tuesday – the special character of the event being that the artist is offering the work directly for sale, not through a dealer. This, of course, is persiflage. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are now scarcely distinguishable from private dealers anyway: they in effect manage and represent living artists, and the Hirst auction is merely another step in cutting gallery dealers out of the loop.
If there is anything special about this event, it lies in the extreme disproportion between Hirst’s expected prices and his actual talent. Hirst is basically a pirate, and his skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people, from museum personnel such as Tate’s Nicholas Serota to billionaires in the New York real-estate trade, into giving credence to his originality and the importance of his “ideas”. This skill at manipulation is his real success as an artist. He has manoeuvred himself into the sweet spot where wannabe collectors, no matter how dumb (indeed, the dumber the better), feel somehow ignorable without a Hirst or two.
Actually, the presence of a Hirst in a collection is a sure sign of dullness of taste. What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs? Who can look for long at his silly sub-Bridget Riley spot paintings, or at the pointless imitations of drug bottles on pharmacy shelves? No wonder so many business big-shots go for Hirst: his work is both simple-minded and sensationalist, just the ticket for newbie collectors who are, to put it mildly, connoisseurship-challenged and resonance-free. Where you see Hirsts you will also see Jeff Koons’s balloons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stoned scribbles, Richard Prince’s feeble jokes and pin-ups of nurses and, inevitably, scads of really bad, really late Warhols. Such works of art are bound to hang out together, a uniform message from our fin-de-siècle decadence.
Hirst’s fatuous religious references don’t hurt either. “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, the sale is titled. One might as well be in Forest Lawn, contemplating a loved one – which, in effect, Hirst’s embalmed dumb friends are, bisected though they may be. Consider the Golden Calf in this auction, pickled, with a gold disc on its head and its hoofs made of real gold. For these bozos, gold is religion, Volpone-style. “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold! Open the shrine, that I may see my saint!”
His far-famed shark with its pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is “nature” for those who have no conception of nature, in whose life nature plays no real part except as a shallow emblem, a still from Jaws. It might have had a little more point if Hirst had caught it himself. But of course he didn’t and couldn’t; the job was done by a pro fisherman in Australia, and paid for by Charles Saatchi, that untiring patron of the briefly new.
The publicity over the shark created the illusion that danger had somehow been confronted by Hirst, and come swimming into the gallery, gnashing its incisors. Having caught a few large sharks myself off Sydney, Montauk and elsewhere, and seen quite a few more over a lifetime of recreational fishing, I am underwhelmed by the blither and rubbish churned out by critics, publicists and other art-world denizens about Hirst’s fish and the existential risks it allegedly symbolises.
One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods food hall. Living sharks are among the most beautiful creatures in the world, but the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12m for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination. As for the implied danger, it is worth remembering that the number of people recorded as killed by sharks worldwide in 2007 was exactly one. By comparison, a housefly is a ravening murderous beast. Maybe Hirst should pickle one, and throw in a magnifying glass or two.
Of course, $12m would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity. And there are plenty more where it came from. For future customers, Hirst has a number of smaller sharks waiting in large refrigerators, and one of them is currently on show in its tank of formalin in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inert, wretched and wrinkled, and already leaking the telltale juices of its decay, it is a dismal trophy of – what? Nothing beyond the fatuity of art-world greed. The Met should be ashamed. If this is the way America’s greatest museum brings itself into line with late modernist decadence, then heaven help it, for the god Neptune will not.
The now famous diamond-encrusted skull, lately unveiled to a gawping art world amid deluges of hype, is a letdown unless you believe the unverifiable claims about its cash value, and are mesmerised by mere bling of rather secondary quality; as a spectacle of transformation and terror, the sugar skulls sold on any Mexican street corner on the Day of the Dead are 10 times as vivid and, as a bonus, raise real issues about death and its relation to religious belief in a way that is genuinely democratic, not just a vicarious spectacle for money groupies such as Hirst and his admirers.
It certainly suggests where Hirst’s own cranium is that his latest trick with the skull is to show photos of the thing in London’s White Cube gallery, just ordinary photo reproductions made into 100cm x 75cm silkscreen prints and then sprinkled (yay, Tinkerbell, go for it!) with diamond dust, and to charge an outrageous $10,000 each for them. The edition size is 250. You do the maths. But, given the tastes of the collectoriat, he may well get away with this – in the short run. Even if his auction makes the expected tonne of money, it will bid fair to be one of the less interesting cultural events of 2008.
British artist Damien Hirst has hit back at condemnation from Australian art critic Robert Hughes by likening his business approach to that of greats Rembrandt, Velasquez and Goya.
Speaking yesterday at auction house Sotheby’s, which will offer 223 new works by the artist for sale next week, Hirst defended himself against Hughes’ criticism that he was “functioning like a commercial brand”.
“Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, I think they were all thinking about the commercial aspects of art,” Hirst said.
“I believe I’m only doing what any of these artists would be doing if they were alive.”
But Hirst also said he put art first and money was secondary.
Hughes has branded Hirst’s works – which include a diamond encrusted human skull which recently sold for £50 million ($108.4 million) – as “tacky” and “absurd” in a new TV documentary in Britain.
The Australian described Hirst’s acclaimed shark in formaldehyde is the “world’s most over-rated marine organism” despite it having sold for £8 million ($17.34 million) four years ago.
“It is a clever piece of marketing but as a piece of art it is absurd,” Hughes says in the documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, which is to be screened on Channel 4 on September 21.
But Hirst dismissed the criticism as “Luddite”.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from Robert Hughes,” Hirst said.
“He probably cried when Queen Victoria died.”
The Sotheby’s auction, which expected to raise £65 million ($140.35 million), is seen as a ground-breaking departure from the tradition of leading artists selling works through galleries and dealers.
Damien Hirst’s works are “absurd” and “tacky commodities”, according to Robert Hughes, a prominent Australian art critic.
The critic said commercial pieces with large price tags mean “art as spectacle loses its meaning” and identified the British artist’s work as a cause of that loss. Hughes says it is “a little miracle” Hirst’s 35ft statue Virgin Mother, could be worth £5 million and yet be made by someone “with so little facility.”
He calls Hirst’s formaldehyde tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a “tacky commodity”, and “the world’s most over-rated marine organism”, despite collector Charles Saatchi selling it for close to £7 million in 2004.
His criticism comes amid claims Hirst is now so rich he is a dollar billionaire, and if his empire continues at the rate it is going, he will soon be worth more than Sotheby’s, the auction house.
Hughes, 70, is famous for his 1980 BBC series The Shock of the New, which made the theories behind modernism in art accessible to a wider audience.
The latest attack was made in a Channel 4 documentary about art and money called The Mona Lisa Curse, to be shown on September 21, which details Hughes’s observations over 50 years as a New York-based art reviewer.
He says works of art now operate like film stars, starting in 1962 when Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa left The Louvre in Paris to go on display in New York, the long queues turning the masterpiece into a mere spectacle.
It is not the first time Hughes has made public his contempt for Hirst’s art. Making a speech four years ago at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual dinner, he said: “A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velazquez can be as radical as a shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames.”