Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Art Criticism, So Easy a Bird Can Do It

Art criticism is a pretty simple process when it comes down to it. Some would say it's as simple as this: If you have an eye for detail and can look at the technical aspects of a piece of art (Are the colors vibrant or muted? Is its texture smooth or rough? Is the composition balanced or askew?), then look at the subject for a mood, tone or story (based on content, lighting, etc.), then combine these elements to state what the art makes you feel or why you think the artist chose to create it, you've pretty much just completed a criticism.

And yet the concept of professional art criticism has always fascinated me, while at the same time eluded explanation. Who are these people and what gives their voices more credentials than the rest of us?

Now, it seems that some irreverent Japanese psychologist named Watanabe has made the same statement by training pigeons to become art critics (or rather, to distinguish "good" art from "bad").

This is a really interesting article to me, not as much for what it says but because I think this is something that digs deep into the human experience, somehow. Several paragraphs into it, even Professor Watanabe seemingly negates his own work, calling the pigeons' assessment "mechanical" and asking, where's the joy in it?

Your thoughts?


  1. I think the author had a valid point with his comment ["A critic," he wrote, "is basically an arrogant bastard who says 'this is good, this is bad' without necessarily being able to explain why."]

    If you recall, I sent you the pick of the old nude man sitting in a child's chair in the kitchen that was claimed to be one of the best photos of the year. I send you the story and said, I DON'T GET IT. I then read the story behind the painting and was otherwise enlightened.

    I think being able to look at something without judgment, let your mind explore the possibilities it can present and then make a judgment. Keep in mind that is only one persons judgment. Even if they are a critic, it does not mean they are right in there assessment. It just means that for whatever reason they are listened to, or not.

    Almost anything can be viewed as art, but it is when it is viewed and then considered something you must have... then the criticism is for nothing becasue you found the person to whom the image spoke. Your message and vision is conveyed and appreciated.

    Thank you for your vision.

  2. What we like and dislike is so often simply a construct of what we've been taught that the idea of 'good' and 'bad' art is pretty ridiculous to me. The fact that a large group of people agree upon the merit of some thing does not, in reality, define objectively the worth of that thing. It is all relative. Not unlike those birds, we've been trained.

    When I offer an opinion on art I try to throw in a few reasons for my pick mostly because of your past blogs about people who say they like things without being able to tell you why. I decided it was good feedback. However, a lot of it is still about my filters. If you show me a picture of a gorgeous guy, nude, in a karate school who is exhibiting poor form, no matter how perfect the lighting, composition, technical details of every other ilk, I will hate it because all I will see is poor form. Someone without a background in martial arts will see something different.

    For me, the true import of art is the feeling it invokes and that, I believe, the pigeons and many prominant art critics probably miss equally because they both simply push the button that will get them fed.

  3. I just like purdy pictures!

  4. Your question makes my head hurt. Why do you ask? Would the response change what you do in your art?

    Art is not like furniture making. Say you built a chair. You can ask specific questions -

    Is it comfortable?
    Can I sit on it.

    Is it ergonomic?

    The questions with art are different.

    What if Bob loves you art and Joe hates it? Does that make it good or bad? If Bob and Kim love it and just Joe hates it, does majority rule?

    Is the majority always right?

    Like I said, you made my head hurt.

  5. I seem to remember a story about someone spontaneously bursting into tears before a Mark Rothko canvas. When a pigeon—and most art critics—can experience art at that level, then come ask me about the validity of art criticism.

  6. Being able to see what is widely considered technically competent really has no relevance for me when it comes to art. If a work of art makes me feel something, then I have decided for myself.

    What I really want to know is do the pigeons poop on the art they deem "bad?"

  7. I wonder also if there is a difference between appreciation and criticism?

    When I think of art critics, it evokes thoughts of technique, colour, predecessors, movements, etc. It seems to me more of a dissection of a piece.

    I definitely don't fall into that category.

    I wouldn't hesitate, however, to put myself in the ranks of someone who appreciates art. I love some, like some, hate some, couldn't care about some of it - but always appreciate that I live in this world surrounded by art in all its forms.

  8. Hmm...Birds are largely dirty and shitty and taste like chicken.
    I'm honestly at a loss for words here.

  9. Okay, I've been avoiding answering this, but since I'm commenting on your blog like a stalker, I may as well.

    I don't know, but to me personally art is most meaningful when something rings true, and this may happen even if I don't "like" it, but most often only happens when I do like it, because when I feel that ring of truth, I feel comforted or excited by that feeling and so I begin to like the piece more.

    There are so many ways to look at art: one way is just "do I like it or not," then there's looking at it in the scope of art history, or philosophically, conceptionally, aesthetically, and hundreds of other ways.

    I guess I think if someone wants to call themselves a professional art critic they should be someone that knows art history backwards and forwards, and then what they are really asking is: Where or how does this work of art fit into the history of Art and what Art is today? Or what IS Art today?

    This is a very headache-y question so I'm glad Jay could be funny about it, because the more I keep talking the more I think I don't know what I'm talking about and now I need to go to the grocery store!!!!!!!!!!!