The following is a piece which accompanied an exhibition of work by lecturers at Plymouth College of Art, in which each artist exhibited a current piece, and a piece produced either when a student, or early in their creative career.
We must all be critics as we stand before the work, for to encounter is to interpret and to judge. Greenberg stated that ‘it is the first responsibility of the critic to make judgments of value’, and Lawrence Alloway expanded on this, claiming that the task of the critic is the ‘interpretation and evaluation of new, or at least recent, art’.
In describing Diderot’s reviews of the Salons, Alloway states ‘it is clear that his working method was to… react to the works with a mind well stocked with prior ideas, some of them habitual, some of them fresh’. This was the early model for criticism, but should also be our model for experiencing and thinking about our experiences of art.
In a sense, Diderot was describing his personal response to art, but it was a response informed by an absolute affinity to art’s past. Subsequently, the Modernist critics followed in his wake – Greenberg, Rosenberg, Fuller et al. Although they would claim an absence of any subjectivity from their interpretations and judgments.
In his 1991 lecture, ‘Homage to the Half-Truth’, Stuart Morgan argues the case for a model for criticism which returns to Diderot’s ‘walking-thinking-writing’. The work, he suggests, reveals only part of the story – the task of the critic is to tell the rest. But wherein does the story reside? In the work, or in the fallacic intention of the artist? Perhaps we need only look into the space between the artist, the work and ourselves.
The subjective response remains, and this time in relation to the critic’s own story, as well as to his understanding of the histories and traditions within which the artist is located and/or locates him/herself. This model suggests the opposite of Bell’s entreaty to “leave all knowledge of the outside world” at the doors of the gallery. Morgan’s repost seems to be that the only answer is to bring everything of ourselves to the work.
The works in the current exhibition seem to speak of Morgan’s more creative model, as we are presented with the artists’ earliest and most recent works – the “once upon a time…” and the “…happily ever after”. Between these poles lay the mystery of meaning. As critic, surely my role is to fill you in, provide the rest of the story, and to make it a good one.
I know these artists, and their work, and I have spoken to them at length about their practices, their motivations and their lives, so I would seem to be in a privileged position with regards to meaning, if we were to apply the older models. The stories their work reveals, then, lie somewhere between the private (theirs and mine) and the public (yours). The stories speak of lives spent making, but also, of a life spent looking.
(c) 2009 James A. Brown