I spent a quarter of a century being an art critic, but try as I will, I just cannot read art criticism.
Although there are a few bright exceptions, art critics write in a prose that can clog drains. And too often, their only purpose is to fix the national borders of an art with a jargonish ”ism.” As if there were no difference between a dog and its name.
The problem, of course, is that the critics (and art historians — let’s not forget the aiders and abettors) see the art they write about as information, as knowledge to be learned. But art isn’t something you learn about, it is something you experience.
A plum tree has a scientific name — Prunus domestica — but the name tells you nothing about the blossom. It can tell the botanist a few things: how many petals there are, and how many stamens. It is useful for scientists who write scientific papers on arcane aspects of horticulture, but for the rest of us, ”Prunus” is a poor substitute for the smell, color and form of the flower.
Let me try your patience with one of my favorite examples of art palaver. It is from a very good, very well-known sculptor, whom I don’t want to embarrass by naming.
”Sculpture deals with basic forms. All basic forms exist as volumes. Volumes penetrate each other and in this way are no longer single formations. Through penetration, space is created in its entirety. Every portion of space results from it. Basic forms are positive space volumes; negative space is created through the opposition of these positive space volumes. Positive space is life-fulfilled; negative space is force-impelled. Both exist simultaneously, both conceivable with each other. It is only the simultaneous existence of positive and negative space that creates the plastic unity.”
You can stuff mattresses with prose like that.
I can begin to fathom what he is trying to say: more or less, that the subject matter of art cannot be separated from its background — a basic Design I concept. But I can only conjecture about the ”life-fulfilled, force-impelled” jargon. It is a paragraph that sounds about 23 times more important than it is.
And prose like that scares many people away from art. If they can’t understand what is written about art, how can they ever understand the art itself? To many people, the world of art might as well be populated by Martians.
Yet it is not the art that is Martian, only the prose.
One of the glories of art is that it is available to everyone willing to put in the time and effort. Specialists may know more about a piece, its provenance or historical context, but a rank beginner can experience the color and form with the same appreciation as a critic — or even greater.
That doesn’t mean that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. You have to be willing to work at experiencing a piece of art. It does not give up its depth and meaning quickly. You have to be open to seeing and feeling things you may not have felt before, and may not feel comfortable with.
Art requires not knowledge but openness. Knowledge will come of its own accord, as the deeper you experience a work, the more you want to know about it.
But would you rather read Krafft-Ebing or have sex?
Nothing can substitute for the experience.