I first came across Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New while I was in college. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Here I was, a budding English major, surrounded by all kinds of academic theories and approaches for analyzing and deconstructing texts, some of which made sense, and quite a few of which didn’t. At the time, I was giving serious thought to becoming an English professor, but started to feel as though some of what was passing for “criticism” was, itself, critically flawed, doing more to obscure or confuse the meaning of something than to illuminate it.
Hughes’ work pointed to an alternative, to criticism that could be lucid — cutting, even — without being empty or pedantic. Where some critics have a tendency to try to wring meaning from work that’s pretty much empty at its core, Hughes called it as he saw it, which also, mercifully, extended to calling bullshit when he felt it necessary. He could be, to use the title of one of his works, nothing if not critical, but across all his work — including his appraisals of Goya and of American art, histories of Rome, Barcelona and Australia, and his unique takes on everything from the culture of his adopted homeland to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe — the uniting thread was a quest to understand, and then to communicate that understanding.
Unlike Robert Hughes, you wouldn’t normally think of the photographer Dorothea Lange as a critic. Her work was, however, simultaneously an eyewitness to, and stinging rebuke of, the shortcomings of 1930’s and ’40’s America. While she was best known for Migrant Mother (the photo at left), her other photos — many taken under the aegis of the FSA (Farm Service Administration) and the OWI (Office of War Information) — played no small part in informing people in America and the world over of what was happening before her lens, and influencing generations of documentary photographers who would come after.* Like Hughes, Lange looked deeply at what was in front of her camera, in order that others might also understand it; not content to be a passive observer, she became simultaneously a participant in, and advocate for, the lives of those she encountered.
Criticism means different things to different people. To some, it’s a popular sport of sorts, assigning a few hastily-scrawled lines (or a handful of gold stars) to a piece of cultural ephemera; to others, it’s an academic pursuit, drawing on tradition, theory, and close reading (not to mention, hopefully, a closer understanding) of the artifacts of our culture. In other instances, artists themselves — and in this category I’d place Lange, Heartfield, Haring, and dozens of others — are producing works that are themselves a critique, not by assigning three-and-a-half stars to something, but by engaging something and creating in response to it.
The space between these things, as embodied by these two individuals, isn’t a fine line, nor need it be a chasm; it’s simply a healthy middle ground. The role of criticism — whether your critique is of an artist’s work, as in Hughes’ case, or of society itself, as in Lange’s — should be, I would argue, one of subtraction rather than addition. That is to say that at its best, criticism should exist not as faint praise or half-assed damnation of something, but to hold it up for scrutiny in order to peel away all of the layers of stuff that’s accrued to something over time, be it dogma, politics, or mystique; it ought not to exist to pile yet more of those things on.
It goes without saying (or it should, anyway) that part of the artist’s role is by nature that of critic. To be a discerning viewer, not just reviewer, of things. We create in the context of a larger society, and also in the context of the different artists and styles that have influenced us; in either instance, we have a responsibility to approach those things, and our own work, with a clear and honest eye, and if we’re going to critique — whether our own work or someone else’s, or using our work to speak to some larger point — our goal, and end result, should be to create understanding rather than obfuscating it.
*At least when they weren’t censored, as happened with her photos of Japanese-Americans interned by the United States government during World War II.
ON THE WEB (Updated 8.8.12):
Robert Hughes passed away after a long illness on August 6, 2012. There’s a New York Times obituary here, and you can also find out more about him via Wikipedia, on Amazon, and a sitdown with Charlie Rose.
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