Everyone’s a Critic–Except When They’re Not, Part Two

My first real experience of a work of art happened in the Hamburger Kunsthalle. I had learned a little about European art history in my high school Humanities 1 & 2 classes, and adored the Impressionists but I still hated “modern art.” Walking through the Kunsthalle on a stroll through the ages, I could appreciate the work of Cranach, Rubens and Holbein, but it was the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Monet’s painting of Waterloo Bridge that really excited me. I was also quite taken with the work of Lovis Corinth and the sculptures of Lehmbruck, and was rather dismissive of the Der Blaue Reiter collection. But I was hardly prepared when I walked into the next room.

I was completely off guard as I glanced up at this rather small painting. It looked like a jumble of colored rectangles at first and I felt like turning away from it, but I stayed put and looked at it with a kind of disdain yet curiosity that I suppose only a teenager could have. As I looked at it, I felt this painting growing huge on the wall, as though it were alive. And then it was alive. I could feel the shapes coming out of the frame and walking toward me. I panicked. I had to leave. I dashed backward, into the rooms I had left and finally sat down beneath Renoir’s painting of Mme Heriot. After I left the museum, I had nightmares about that living painting for three weeks after I got back to Seattle. To this day I remember the painting being over six feet tall, even though I know it to be only 60 cm by 50 cm. The way it challenged me and threatened me–I had never felt that before. I was a chemistry student, a scientist, not some arty poseur. Before that, paintings were, you know, smudges on canvas, some more elegant than others. At best they might tell a story. It had never occured to me that one might compel me to an experience.

That painting was Paul Klee’s Revolution des Viadukts. It completely beat me down and humbled me. At the time, however, I didn’t know that I was being humbled. I was simply angry: angry at the artist for not knowing what he was doing and for making such a horrible thing. Shortly thereafter I had a similar experience with György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. I could not get that infernal sound out of my head, and I dreamt about it, too, for weeks. This also made me angry. What the hell was all this “modern” stuff and why was it so incomprehensible yet unforgettable?

I suspect I felt exactly like Olivia Menzer on her tour through challenging works at On the Boards. Eventually I came to the same conclusion I think she did: my expectations of what art was supposed to do were dissonant with what art actually does. Art is not, in the final analysis, about my expectations of it or my labels on it. It is what it is: the sharing of carefully framed thoughts, perceptions, sensations to argue a point of view and compel an audience to experience that point of view. Analysis is helpful, yes, but ultimately it is the experience that matters.

During the second half of Culturebot’s event Everyone’s a Critic, these thoughts stuck in my mind and would not go away. After the first half, which left me less than enthused, I wondered how the second half would develop. Culturebot promised the evening as “a toolkit for engaging with and talking about contemporary performance for everyone from the seasoned art patron to the youngest and newest of audience members” with the stated goal “to break down the traditional boundaries of writer, audience and artist.” Perhaps in that toolkit would be some general guidance on how to value art as an experience and not merely as a thing.

The modus operandi of this part of the evening was, roughly, to set up five tables with dominant themes, at which audience members could go engage in discussion with the others at the table, while remaining free to move fluidly back and forth between themes that interested them. At any point, someone could also start their own table based on a branching theme, by grabbing a large Post-It note and a table. The first table dealt with an “Artist” theme, particularly in making work at the crossroads, a la Matthew Richter’s presentation. A second table dealt with Audience, a third with Curator, a fourth with Critics, a fifth with Local issues as part of a national conversation.

I stopped in first to listen to discussions about local issues, which–surprise, surprise–was the table with the fewest people by far. I leave the reader to conjecture the reasons for such a phenomenon, but under no circumstances should one postulate that it was due to lack of interest. Because everybody cares about local issues, fer shure ‘n’ stuff. Homegrown is best, blah, blah, blah. I listened quietly for a bit, then decided that Holly Arsenault and Jeremy Barker were far more suited to anchor that discussion that I would ever be, so I wandered off.

The table by far most populous was the Critics table. I have absolutely no idea why. The discussion, such as it was, remarkably uninteresting and trite. I stayed long enough to listen to Paul Mullin rant about Joe Adcock and, upon noting how few people there had any memory of Mr. Adcock’s tenure at the P-I, I went instead to go find a non-alcoholic drink, which was a far more difficult adventure. Hoping things had improved after my soft drink was gone, I returned to the table just in time to listen to Brendan Kiley proudly state “I get paid to be an asshole!” to the delight of absolutely no one but himself. One brave soul suggested that, no, in fact he got paid to share works and ideas with readers, but that suggestion quickly flew away like dead leaves in the ensuing winds of blowhardiness.

critics-roundThe conversations at the Artist table interested me in a morbid way, as virtually all of the discussion revolved around money despite the nominal topic being how and why to create work across disciplines. I gently offered to the group the idea that money and careerism were largely irrelevant to the creation of art itself, and that even artists of great renown like Wallace Stevens, Charles Ives, Ornette Coleman, Phillip Glass had since the turn of the 20th Century made their “careers” out of selling insurance, operating elevators or driving taxis. Some nodded, and elaborated that as an artist it might actually be helpful to have such jobs not only because they pay the bills but also because they provide more diverse experiential material for artists to process into their creativity. Others, however, nodded because they thought I was completely from another planet, and naturally they were correct.

At the Audience table I heard some curious statements, such as “I don’t want to watch someone’s therapy!” This is a curious statement because I wondered how one would ever know such a thing. On some level, I suspect, Picasso’s Guernica was probably therapeutic. I am certain that for Anthony Burgess writing A Clockwork Orange was a kind of therapy, because he has said so explicitly. Is that what our audience member doesn’t want to see? I doubt it. I would even hazard a guess that many artists work on some of their most personal projects precisely because they are therapeutic, and most audiences would hardly be the wiser. So what is it, really, to which our audience member objects?

While the topic at the Curator table was ostensibly “Risk & Reward: Why put new work in front of audiences?” the discussions there were diverse and actually the liveliest of all. The people interested in curation felt clearly that they had a stake in all this discussion and they were eager to share their thoughts. Much of it revolved around the nominal subject of risk and reward, but also concerned the nature of institutions themselves. This broad historical perspective appealed to me much more than the bulk of discussions at other tables. Understanding the nature of artistic institutions and challenging their prejudices has always been one of my own prime concerns. It was nice to be around people who think deeply about the same problems.

In one sense, though, that topic was always going to be misleading. The answer to the question “Why put new work in front of audiences?” is simply that the work is made to be put in front of audiences and belongs there. Watching people, however, who are interested in the practice of programming for audiences come to that conclusion themselves in different ways was fascinating and hopeful. I would be even more hopeful if I could watch them move beyond the entire idea of risk and reward, which is not the language of artists but rather of venture capitalists. People in the arts have a duty to be circumspect of such language and people who use it since, while capitalism is the sea we citizens swim in, discussions about how Seattleites talk about art needs to be removed as far as possible from monetary concern until audiences, artists and critics can talk sensibly about the other primary matters at hand.


I came to Everyone’s a Critic looking that sensible discussion. I am not sure I found it. Again, Culturebot promised to help provide a toolkit to break down the traditional boundaries of writer, audience and artist. The goal is noble. Yet another problem arises. While the traditional roles and their attendant clichés have assuredly done a good deal of harm, in demolishing those barriers one must suddenly confront the fact that critics, audiences and artists alike have held tightly onto traditional prejudices both within those roles and beyond them. These prejudices are responsible for far more harm than the classist structure Culturebot seeks to redress. Breaking down the boundaries between these prejudices does not erase them but only untrammels them, creating further absurdities.

For example, the notion that critics should be working on behalf of the audience’s consumer interest has trivialized the American arts in ways far worse treating criticism as the province of the self-appointed elite. Yet the consumerist theme recurred throughout discussions at the Critics table and the Audience table as well, and many critics actually believe this is their primary function.

In fairness, the Culturebot folks have addressed this repeatedly. What they have not addressed is that audiences and artists also hold dearly onto fundamental prejudices about what critics are and what they should do that are far worse for them both than whether or not a critic is qualified to speak on their behalf. One of the guests expressed that as an audience member, he read reviews primarily to find out whether or not someone liked the work. That whether or not a critic “likes” something is largely immaterial did not occur to him. As Harold Clurman excellently put it:

What does the critic mean by the word “like”? In what way does he like it? I like pretty girls and I do not particularly “like” Samuel Beckett’s work; yet I do not rush to a show which boasts a cast of pretty girls (I can meet them elsewhere) and I hope never to miss a Beckett play.

It is not only prejudices that artists and audiences have about critics that are problematic, but also, and more importantly, the prejudices that both have of themselves and their own function. For instance, artists often foster a solipsistic notion about their own work, perhaps most boldly expressed by sculptor David Smith:

Nobody understands art but the artist.
Affection for art is the sole property of the artist. The majority approach art with hostility.
The artist deserves to be belligerent to the majority.
The artist is a product of his time, and his belligerence is a defense and not a preference.

questionsOne need not look too far in the world of the arts to see this belligerence in action–even turned toward other artists. Artists accuse other artists of the greatest absurdities, usually revolving around whether or not they are actually artists. Jackson Pollock’s work is not art. Anthony Braxton’s music is “anti-jazz.” Peter Kubelka’s work is not film. Yvonne Rainer’s is not dance. Mike Daisey’s is not theater. Behind this sort of nonsense is a childish territorialism. The artist here believes he is a High Priest in charge of the cosmic order, and that the entire world would suddenly whirl off its axis if He did not continue to fight for his own narrow definitions, categories and hierarchies–and, by implication, his own place in those hierarchies which, doubtless, is above everyone else he despises. Those who do not accord with his gospel become enemy troops to be extirpated in his Holy Crusade for the One True and Good Art. Such belligerence may be a defense, but it is primarily a defense of human ego. Yet artists cling to such silly notions as though they were essential for craft.

Similarly, American audiences often believe harmful nonsense about their own role in the artistic process. Many are raised from birth with the notion that their opinions are as good as anyone else’s–including the artists themselves–and that art does not exist without them. This takes on official dogma in forms such as reader-response theory and similar canards, but at the heart of this assumption is a disturbing nihilistic belief that nothing artists do matters except insofar as the audience is pleased. It’s all about the number of likes. One with absolutely no familiarity in music, painting, performance or literature has an emotional reaction, and since that emotional reaction is just as good as anyone else’s, it is therefore to be considered a valid judgment. Certainly it is just as important as a decade’s worth of scholarship or a thoughtful essay relating impressions to the structure of a work and so on. After all, it’s just your opinion, man. What matters to the audience, then, is to make “successful” work that “pleases”–by conforming to audience prejudices and their expectations of “entertainment.” Here we are now. Entertain us. And if you dare not entertain us, something is inherently wrong with your art and your family heritage. This dogged insistence on the pleasure principle does not send any audience on a quest to explore art and possible relationships to it. It prevents such a quest from their consideration.

Without critics, audiences and artists actually considering their own presumptions about each other and themselves, the low level of discourse about art in America cannot improve except by accident. The arts in America are regularly under fire for reasons that have little to do with traditional classifications but everything to do with traditional prejudices: that they are primarily commodities, that they are merely decorative, that they are produced by mystery, that they are insular, that they are irrelevant to modern life in a technological society. Failing to challenge these prejudices is failing to treat art seriously.

I agree with Jeremy Barker in his reply to Michael Kaiser’s initial article that started Culturebot’s discussion of “citizen criticism.” Audiences are not necessarily stupid. However, just because audiences are not stupid and may also have gone to plush liberal arts schools and attained degrees in the arts does not necessarily mean they actually have the tools to be critical thinkers because those very schools seldom teach the kind of emotional thinking necessary to engage with art. They teach largely that art is a thing to be quantified rather than an experience to be lived and lived with over time. Even a useful idea like Kant’s distinctions of the sublime and the beautiful by sensus communis rarely surfaces.

Yet that idea from Kant is precisely one of the tools missing. What critics, audiences and artists need is not so much an abolition of the divisions between them as it is an actual considered approach toward how art is created, what it does, what it can mean, how it molds experience and why it bears thoughtful discussion. Kant’s Critique of Judgment offers a bit of sage advice on how one might do so.

This is done by comparing our judgement with the possible rather than the actual judgements of others, and by putting ourselves in the place of any other man, by abstracting from the limitations which contingently attach to our own judgement. This, again, is brought about by leaving aside as much as possible the matter of our representative state, i.e. sensation, and simply having respect to the formal peculiarities of our representation or representative state.

In other words: consider thinking about art from a number of perspectives that have nothing to do with your personal taste (Kant would say prejudices). Consider that art may go beyond mere personal taste and momentary encounter, but that it may be a subject for exploration over a period of time. Paul Klee’s painting pissed me off when I was 16. That was hardly Klee’s limitation, but rather my own. I approached art expecting to be “pleased,” which is to say, mollified. It made no sense until I learned that was not the sense it was supposed to make and returned to it over time. I grew up. I learned to “abstract from the limitations” of my own judgment and to ask what it was that affected me so. It seems so simple and yet how often is this knowledge actually in practice? And while the idea is far from complete, it is a damn sight better than Goethe’s Three Questions.

It is, I think, important to break down certain boundaries between critics, artists and audiences. I have written myself that artists should practice criticism and audiences should hold critics more accountable by involving themselves more deeply in the process. Breaking these walls may, however, simply cause the prejudices of these vested groups to merge and multiply rather than disappear.

The stated goal of Culturebot’s evening was to provide a toolkit for engaging with and talking about contemporary performance. The presentations from the first half of the evening largely failed to provide that toolkit. The second half discussions proved that the tools most people have are inadequate to the task. I think there is a long way to go before anyone in the audience that evening is comfortable with the critical horizontalism Culturebot seeks to promote. Still, every journey begins with a single step. At least someone has opened up the discussion. It is up to the citizen critics now to learn how to be critics, and how to be citizens who genuinely care enough about art to contribute to its health. Because in this world where opinions are like rap careers and everybody’s got one, everyone’s a critic–except when they’re not.

Categories Culture Performing Arts

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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