There’s no such thing as “objective criticism.” It’s all unavoidably subjective, a matter of opinion, and — mercifully — there are no right answers. Of course, those of us who write about art and organize exhibitions try to approach work without preconceptions, with as open a mind as possible, but at the same time, we must draw upon our accumulated experience of other work, contradictory as that might seem. The late critic, Clement Greenberg, when questioned, as he often was, about how he formed his judgments about art, would say “There are criteria, but you can’t put them into words.” It took me a very long time to understand what he meant, yet ultimately, even if we believe in those unspoken criteria, which are involuntary but formed and informed by extended looking, nothing can be proved. We can always be wrong.
On the plus side, there is consensus over time. There have been and will continue to be swings and alterations in taste, but even the most zealous revisers of the canon would have to admit that Masaccio, Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Manet, Cézanne, Degas, and Matisse — say — are generally admired not because of a conspiracy of dead white Western males but rather, because their work has spoken and continues to speak to people emotionally, intellectually, visually, and all the rest of it, over the years. The work of these artists, for many of us, is a touchstone, so much so that we may not trust the aesthetic opinion of someone who can’t see how extraordinary any of them are, at their best. With the art of one’s own time, it’s harder, absent that reassuring agreement, over an extended period. It’s especially difficult today, when aesthetic worth and monetary worth have become interchangeable, a conflation that means that the present consensus about who is important among contemporary artists is not necessarily a reliable indicator of future merit.
Critics, obviously, are human and fallible. We miss some things and overrate others. I certainly have, over the years. When I first encountered the spray paintings of Jules Olitski, I simply didn’t get them. In part, I now realize, it was because I didn’t look hard enough or long enough to take in their nuances of surface or proportion or for their subtle color pulses to start operating. People whose eyes I trusted were enthusiastic, but the paintings seemed blank and arbitrary to me — that is, until a number of Olitskis arrived on long-term loan to the museum where I worked at the time. Seeing those pared-down abstractions every day finally revealed to me their subtleties and the pictorial intelligence behind them. Would I have discovered that without the essentially enforced daily confrontation? I don’t know. I might have just kept looking quickly and being dismissive.
For a long time, I was oblivious of Arshile Gorky (except for the amazing self-portraits with his mother, based on a photograph taken in the Ottoman Empire, before the genocide). I do, however, have a legitimate excuse for that failure. I was first introduced to Gorky’s work when I was still in my teens and I found his swirling abstractions so disturbing that I couldn’t look at them. They were indistinguishable from the delirium images of my childhood fevers and made me queasy, so I ignored Gorky for years. Fortunately, my unwilled visceral reaction subsided by the time I reached graduate school and I discovered what I had been missing: a brilliant, expressive, and original painter, whom I now revere and spend a fair amount of time looking at and thinking about.
I have never been much of a Henry Moore enthusiast. The earlier work seems dated and the large, later bronzes often seem pneumatic, pumped up, scale-less. My respect for Moore was further diminished when a sculptor who had worked for him told me that his job had been to give the big plaster reclining figures different, arbitrarily decided upon textures before they were cast. But ten years ago, stranded in London because of the volcano that had erupted in Iceland, I visited a Moore retrospective at Tate Britain, more because of available time and a sense of duty than from real appetite. A group of large, reclining figures carved in elm startled me with their vitality, vigor, and formal inventiveness. They seemed astonishingly fresh, not specific to any particular period. The elm wood sculptures made me look differently at all the reclining figures in the show. I can’t say I was converted into a whole-hearted Moore fan, but I’ve been more attentive ever since, attempting to shed my preconceptions.
Sometimes shifts go the other way. As a teenager, I discovered Egon Schiele’s drawings in the Galerie Saint Etienne and was bowled over in the way that one can be only in one’s adolescence. It may have had as much to do with the implicit naughtiness and sexiness of the images as with their formal qualities. My closest friend and I were mesmerized by the Brecht/Weill “Three Penny Opera,” for the same reasons. Schiele’s stylizations and exaggerations seemed brilliant when I was sixteen; these days, I occasionally find one of his drawings to be fierce and compelling, but I usually can’t get past the mannerisms. And I absolutely hate Schiele’s paintings. Maybe I’m missing something there, but give me Max Beckmann any day.
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