“Everyone’s a critic”

16 August 2013
7:57 AM


Your comment about the audience and artist reminded me of an essay from The New Inquiry. It’s a really wonderful read about art, audience, appropriation, authorship and more. I know I am taking the following parts out of context for a bit, but it seems apt to quote, in relation to your experience:

“Last August, in the midst of controversy over populist exhibitions at MOCA in Los Angeles, museum director Jeffrey Deitch described a new sort of art audience: ‘They’re not the people who make a living as artists, art critics or professional art collectors … These are people who hear about a great new film they want to go to. They hear that there’s a terrific new fashion store that’s very cool — they want to go there. They don’t differentiate between these cultural forms.’ It follows that the blockbuster-exhibit-obsessed art world — like its not-so-distant cousin, Hollywood — must now compete with the onslaught of other entertainment forms and devices for the limited attention of such viewers.

…These audiences share images and videos initially conceived as artworks without any concern for authorship, context, or property — without any particular awareness that they are engaging with “art” at all. That is, they are art audiences by accident.

What becomes of art when the majority of those interacting with it don’t recognize it as such? What happens ‘after art’?”

– from The Accidental Audience by Brad Troemel

You wrote, “…she couldn’t see us for what we are. She could only see us for what she wanted us to be. Is that the inherent problem of audience and artist?”

I’m interested in whether you had any expectations as to how people would perceive your performance. What was the best and worst thing you thought somebody could say about the show? What was actually the best and worst thing, in your opinion, both as a performer and as an audience? Who was your ideal audience? If this person who left a one-star review is not part of that, does it make the criticism better or worse matter?

I read this somewhere before, and it has stayed with me ever since: should the artist be held responsible for the actions of his or her audience?

Years ago I was visiting a few galleries with someone. It was during a time when I was obsessed with sculptures. We stopped before a big window where several big framed canvases of abstract art were displayed. We stood there for a few minutes. She looked perfectly calm and contemplative, while I was very fidgety. Finally I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I sighed. I said, I don’t get it. I just don’t fucking get all this abstract shit. I mean–look at this. It looks so…easy. Anyone can do it. Why is this here? What is art? Is this art? This sells for how much? So I could just buy a canvas myself and throw blobs of paint on it and I can be rich as hell! And on and on I went. When I was finished, she turned to me and said, My uncle is an abstract artist. And all I could say was, oh. And then: Oh, because it just dawned on me who her uncle was.

There’s nothing uglier than an ignorant jerk, if you ask me, and I was exactly that that afternoon. (I mean, everything I said–that’s rich, isn’t it, coming from someone who was there to view geometric sculptures that don’t resemble anything familiar or known.) We ended up talking about Jackson Pollock, who remains to be one of my favourite artists today. I think she was determined to school my uncultured ass. But you know what, before that conversation, I was already exposed to and liked the works of Miro, Klee, de Kooning, Mondrian, Rothko, and more. So I really do not understand myself and the things that come out of my mouth sometimes. I now know though that it won’t do me any good if I was dismissive of things that don’t make sense to me. It’s a disservice not only to the work, but to myself, too. Also, being an ignorant jerk will only make people want to punch me in the face.

What am I saying, what I mean is–I’m sorry if you got a review from someone who might be a version of me as described above. I have no reason and context for why she said what she said, and whether she made an informed review or not, but I could sympathise with how hurtful it must have felt to be on the receiving end of it. As I continue to develop and grow into someone who appreciates art and also as someone who makes it, I realise that the claim, “I know what I like, and that’s all that matters,” is not enough, at least, not for me, not anymore. I have to challenge my assumptions; I have to always ask myself why I like what I like.

I was completely off guard as I glanced up at this rather small painting. It looked like a jumble of colored rectangles at first and I felt like turning away from it, but I stayed put and looked at it with a kind of disdain yet curiosity that I suppose only a teenager could have. As I looked at it, I felt this painting growing huge on the wall, as though it were alive. And then it was alive. I could feel the shapes coming out of the frame and walking toward me. I panicked. I had to leave. I dashed backward, into the rooms I had left and finally sat down beneath Renoir’s painting of Mme Heriot. After I left the museum, I had nightmares about that living painting for three weeks after I got back to Seattle. To this day I remember the painting being over six feet tall, even though I know it to be only 60 cm by 50 cm. The way it challenged me and threatened me–I had never felt that before. I was a chemistry student, a scientist, not some arty poseur. Before that, paintings were, you know, smudges on canvas, some more elegant than others. At best they might tell a story. It had never occured to me that one might compel me to an experience.

That painting was Paul Klee’s Revolution des Viadukts. It completely beat me down and humbled me. At the time, however, I didn’t know that I was being humbled. I was simply angry: angry at the artist for not knowing what he was doing and for making such a horrible thing. Shortly thereafter I had a similar experience with György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. I could not get that infernal sound out of my head, and I dreamt about it, too, for weeks. This also made me angry. What the hell was all this “modern” stuff and why was it so incomprehensible yet unforgettable?

– from Everyone’s a Critic–Except When They’re Not, Part Two by Omar Willey

There are two conflicting parts of me as an artist: the one who can separate myself from the work (this is who I am, but not entirely all of me; this is what I did, but not nearly everything of what I can do [and dream I can do]), and the one who feels that all works are births (this is my child, this has my imprint, I named it, I have given it life).

The former believes that the work belongs to the world (the audience). Once I have written it, once I have created it, once it is on the page, once it is read (seen, heard, touched, etc.), it is no longer mine, in the sense that I cannot not allow someone his or her own interpretation or opinions. There is no right or wrong when it comes to what it means, and to be asked what it meant is something I despise most of all. (“If you have to ask, you’ll never know,” said Louis Armstrong, when asked about what jazz is.) Sometimes I have reasons of why I did what I did, but most of the time I have no idea–I was just driven to make it, as if half-mad, as if it was the most necessary thing to do at the time, that if I did something else it would have been a mistake.

The latter believes that I am doing this for myself. If I have shown it to you, I am giving you a glimpse of who I am, how I feel, how I think, how I see. And I feel others’ reactions vehemently–any criticism or casual comment, anything at all that is directed at and said of the work. It is not that it is personal but that it is part of me, borne out of my (sub)conscious. When someone loves it, it gives me joy. When someone hates it, I wonder why, and I am coaxed into a discussion that becomes more navel-gazing than objective, sometimes. The worst is when someone doesn’t feel anything about it, couldn’t be bothered to form an opinion of it. That hurts deeply, and I wonder about my inability to touch someone. When asked about the process or the premise, the fear is that I wouldn’t know what to say, but that I’ll never stop.

(I was wrong, there is a third part, the one that says that this is all bullshit. Ha.)

Related, and might be a relevant read:

“…theatre artists are all too reluctant to offer thoughts on art unless it is absolutely positive (and when it’s not, the silence can be deafening).

But the questions we need to ask are: a world where “everyone’s a critic” where do we find the support platforms for people who want to be more than the tweeters, or more than the volunteers writing consumer guides? In what ways can we expand the role of the “serious” arts writer or critic? How do we make robust critical discussion a vital part of the culture and community?

So in this world where everyone’s a critic, can we invite the critic in? Can we invite them into work, into conversations, into festivals, into support systems? Is there some way we can find an environment where critical dialogue surrounding art is seen as so crucial that it needs to be supported just as art is?

99% of the time writing about theatre is an act of failure. It’s never good enough. There is no way I can capture everything on – or behind – a stage. There is always more to be said. I think “embedding” myself further into the culture can only possibly be for the better.”

– from Critical dialogue about critical voices. by Jane Howard

Ah, but this is all long and meandering, I know. I had written, “artist that creates vs artist as a conduit” at the bottom of this letter while writing, and I don’t know what I meant by that now. I might have lost that thread at the moment. Also I am not sure what the point of all this is. I do admit I got a bit overexcited. Forgive me. It’s just that this is one of those topics that interest me, and want to talk to you about.

I hope you are feeling better. I am offering you a cup of tea and inviting you to sit at my table, so we can rally against the world, and laugh away the hurt afterwards.

Good morning.



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