Confusion and Hostility

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“Today,” Sean Tatol writes, “the mere suggestion that some things are better than others, particularly in the arts, is met with confusion and hostility.” Tatol’s is a long piece that — almost inevitably — mixes real insight with what you might find questionable. Where in particular these two separate out — again almost inevitably — might differ from reader to reader. If anything, for me that’s the beauty of engaging with art: where else are you going to clash with someone else’s subjectivity in such an elaborate fashion?

For a critic, writing about criticism of course involves a large amount of naval gazing. This is inevitable. However, if you engage with it to confront your own contradictions, which I believe is Tatol’s goal, then there is insight to be gained not just for your readers but also, and this is the most important part, for yourself. After all, as a critic you periodically want to evaluate what you do and how you do that: Criticism can always only be imperfect, and it’s from that imperfection that its true value is to be gained.

I like reading about criticism, and I like thinking about how I approach my own. It’s not that I need to do it every day or every week or even every month. I just need to do it somewhat regularly. It’s finding pieces like Tatol’s that usually has me engage with it again.

What drives me doing this — meaning this site — is the goal that I will be growing both as a writer/critic but also as a photographer and a person. The hope is that some of that growth might be shared in some fashion with readers, however indirect that might be.

Rarely, if ever, do I go back to my old writing. It’s not that I dislike it. I think many writers cringe reading their old work, realizing that this or that aspect could or maybe should have been better. There’s that. But there also is the fact that the person who wrote some piece five years ago is not the same any longer as the one who reads it now.

Furthermore, I am frequently baffled by people telling me about something I wrote in the past, especially if that past is removed quite a few  years. I might hear that (this is just some random example) six years ago, I made a comment about a photographer in the context of talking about another photographer. But now, in a recent piece about the first photographer, I somehow did not address that comment. How come? Well, to begin with, I actually do not remember everything I’ve ever written or said. That aside, though, in those six years I’ve changed. There is no simple connection between past and present words even as there is the temptation to believe otherwise.

“The value of the arts,” Tatol writes further into his piece, “is the capacity to teach intelligence by learning to perceive intelligence, which is itself the content of art; the expression of perceptivity in whatever form.” I think that’s a really good way to express part of what makes art art. Obviously, there is more to intelligence that the intellectual kind. As long as you also accept emotional intelligence, you might find yourself in agreement with Tatol.

A number of ideas expressed in the piece come down to differences in taste, education/biography, or simply in style. As I said, I disagree with quite a bit; but none of that matters much for the larger point.

My main problem with Tatol’s piece is his treatment of what he calls bad art. “The disappointment of bad art is its inability to be anything more than what was expected,” he says. While that is true for some bad art (public art is maybe the best example), there is a lot of art that I think is bad for very different reasons.

Possibly my biggest disagreement focuses on the following: “Most contemporary art writing uses interpretation as a way of sidestepping the problem of quality, but interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad.” I’m going to ignore the aspect of quality that Tatol insists on throughout his piece. It is the latter — “interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad” — that I object to most strongly. I’d argue the complete opposite: interpretations are most interesting and important if the art itself is bad.

As a critic, you have to work so much harder if the art you want to write about is bad. Or rather if you think it is bad, because on its own a piece of art is simply a piece of art. The hard work involves writing a piece that a lot of people don’t want to read (especially not the artist in question and certainly not her or his publisher and/or gallery).

It also involves writing a piece that many other people want to read because a bad review is so rare; the spectacle that can (and usually will) be created from it plus snide social-media comments will almost inevitably mar the impact the piece could have if people didn’t freak out so much.

The hard work involves making yourself write about something that you don’t necessarily want to write about. Who wants to deal with bad art? The hardest part of that hard work is to somehow arrive at a piece that makes its case in an intelligent fashion. Often, you’ll find that your judgment is based on misguided ideas. At other times, it takes a lot of research and thinking to figure out why the art really is bad. It’s usually a lot of hard work. But it’s very rewarding.

In a two-part essay, Ben Davis uses a different approach to respond to Sean Tatol’s essay. There’s much in those pieces as well. I’ll just pick out one that especially resonated with me: “To Tatol’s three horsemen of the Critical Apocalypse—greed, indifference, and literal-minded sloganeering—I would add a fourth, slightly less voluntaristic: “degeneration of the media environment.””

If you look at the photography ecosystem, you might find yourself in agreement with Davis: “In some ways, more culture writing circulates than ever before, but with fewer resources invested in any individual piece of writing. What you get is a great sense of redundancy and thinness.” (I would like to think that you don’t find the latter on this site, but as always your mileage might vary.)

I still believe that this site should exist, and I still believe that there is value to it. It’s reading about and responding to pieces that center on criticism that re-ignite part of the passion that inevitably gets depleted when I’m writing into what often feels like a vacuum.

That said, if the ecosystem in which real criticism exists continues to get depleted even further, instead of talking about criticism we might as well be asking whether the descent of vast parts of photography into providing a feel-good adornment for glorified shopping/life-style centers for the well-off isn’t what we really need to be discussing.