A collection of other people's writing

Suppose that we agree to stay away from sincerity, the details of a person’s private life, and interpretive diagraming. What then?

To begin with, we ought to decide whether any public discussion of a particular work is appropriate. There are legitimate reasons for being hesitant to speak. Silence is after all the context for the deepest appreciation of art; the only important evaluations are finally personal, interior ones. And, even assuming that public discussion might be helpful, there are many ways to make it unhelpful; because photographs tend to be less inflected than paintings, there is, for example, the question of whether one has seen enough (Cartier-Bresson was right - anybody can take one or two good pictures, or, by extension, a lot of bad ones). To guide public taste fairly requires a great deal of preparation.

Let us suppose though that one has carefully determined that a body of work is bad, unambiguously bad. If so, is it not the critic’s duty to speak up? Isn’t there an obligation actively to clear away the second rate and the imitative? A critic’s job is to support work of merit; how can good work thrive unless the other is conscientiously separated out?

Such questions are not answered quickly. John Rewald, in talking about Seurat and his imitators, identified the center of the problem: “While it is true that those who tried to cash in on the researches of Seurat and his group were so weak that they only underlined the strength and originality of the others, it is also true that public success when it came at last, temporarily went to them, as it always goes to the vulgarizers before reaching the initial inventors.” The history of art is filled with people who did not live long enough to enjoy a sympathetic public, and their misery argues that criticism should try to speed justice.

On the other hand, there is the amply documented possibility that a critic’s judgement may be wrong. One contemporary defender of the Impressionists asserted that no newspaper had ever discovered a new figure of talent; that is a hard thesis to refute even now. There is also a tactical consideration: in cases in which there is a defensible need for making, in public, a negative judgement, usually the most damaging negation is silence. It is a truism among publishers that a bad review is better than no review at all. True, their attitude is grounded in economics, but even looked at more seriously, a negative review usually implies at least that the issues raised by the work are important. No review implies the worst - boredom.

Posted on October 1, 2008