Criticism has to be based on its own inherent set of criteria, which – ideally – are coherent and make sense, at least for as long as it takes to engage in it: as a critic, you might be bit smarter (or dumber) than a year before. A year down the line, you’ll be a different person again. Your criticism needs to be based on where you are right here, right now, and this all ought to be based both on (inevitably) where you’re coming from, and on the larger history and context of whatever it is you’re subjecting to criticism.
Let’s say, you focus on photography. This medium’s history and context are specific. The history might change, might get re-written or modified, and you could (probably: should) be cognizant of that and engage in doing it yourself en passant. Much like art itself, good criticism cannot exist in a vacuum, in a state of ignorance of what already exists (a medium’s history), and of how what existed and what exists now relates to each other, given those who create(d) and those who engage (a medium’s context). “Those who engage” is not necessarily a very pretty phrase, but it seems a lot more appealing to me than, say, “consumers” (for obvious reasons) or “viewers” (which is just way too passive).
Unfortunately, context is severely marred by conventions of all kinds. What I’m somewhat loosely calling conventions is in fact a collection of happen- and circumstances, which include, but certainly are not limited to, what is generally expected of critics and artists, and how the arts are embedded in the larger culture and/or society. Even though we probably wouldn’t see it that way, the conventions also include what is expected of those who engage. More precisely: what those who engage expect from each other concerning said engagement. After all, to some extent our engagement with the arts is shaped by what we ought to do, by what we think we are expected to do. It is, after all, the age of so-called social media, which have forcefully shoehorned our engagement with pretty much anything, given, say, the next Twitter controversy is merely 140 characters away. This is where criticism can get iffy.
In an ideal world, criticism would simply ignore this aspect of art. In principle, no critic should pay attention to what is expected of either her or him, or of those who engage. As before, this mirrors the position the arts should exist in: you shouldn’t make art based on what is expected of you (however much for example your gallerist tells you that more pictures like those that sold well would be so nice).
For both artists and critics that’s a lot easier to demand than to actually do. For example, in general, it requires a lot more courage and stamina to produce pieces of art (or criticism) that brush against the grain, that do not confirm what we profess to believe in in public (what we believe in when we’re honest with ourselves might be an entirely different matter). Brushing against the grain runs the risk of challenging what we profess to believe in. If anything that’s a challenge we are becoming less and less good at dealing with. With the rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia in vast parts of the West, and with historical injustices such as sexism, racism, etc. still being such huge problems that’s exactly the kind of engagement we really need, though. Often enough, there is something at stake in the arts beyond auction prices or sales.
If anything ought to be able to bridge the kinds of gaps our body politic can’t cross, it’s the arts (I’m using the term “body politic” slightly loosely here, meaning our society as much as our culture, both of which, of course, are thoroughly infused with politics). And good criticism should be cognizant of exactly this, because it is here where often good (challenging) art is to be found. It is also here where art and criticism separate. While good criticism shares many characteristics of what it takes to be a good artist, given it is a reaction to something, criticism is much less likely to take on our larger societal or cultural conditions on its own. If it does, it will have to be based on something else: criticism is a reaction.
As that reaction, though, and this brings me back to what I started to explore in the penultimate paragraph, it ought to be a reaction to what it criticizes, and not to any of the widely accepted criteria for how to engage (however much or little they are acknowledged or possibly prescribed openly). What is expected from a critic should really only be what is required to produce good criticism, but not what produces an outcome that is in line with what we could call our general ideology. It should be a critic’s role to firmly investigate whether a piece of art does what it pretends to do, for example. That can be a nasty and tedious job, but somebody will have to do it. After all, even where it is critical in that negative sense, good criticism elevates: it might tear down some piece of art, but it helps everybody see more clearly.
One final aspect. The criteria for how to evaluate a body of work should be the critic’s and certainly not those of the artist whose work is subjected to scrutiny. I’m increasingly noticing this in cases where photographers very aggressively attempt to make sure their work is viewed in that one way they want. This puts everybody into a straight jacket. That’s not how art can – actually should – operate. It might fine for an artist to attempt to steer the discussion into some direction. But it has to be equally fine for those who engage and for critics to go into a completely different direction. Critics need to have the guts to reject narrow paths of interpretation, and they should call out bullshit where they encounter it.
Ultimately, much like it’s not an artist’s job to make us feel good about ourselves, it’s not a critic’s, either. Of course, that’s where criticism tends to get into trouble. It might point out that what a large number of people might enjoy is actually complete crap, given certain criteria. Reactions to that kind of criticism do not tend to be kind. A critic will simply have to live with being called all kinds of things – much like an artist.