PRINT June 1962

On Criticism

“A few quite simple lessons:
That statements on art make the same sense that we expect to find in statements about any other subject.
That critics be knowledgeable, sensitive, honest, literate and artistic.
That critics know what they are talking about, and talk only about what they know. This is not to say that there are no problems, difficulties, even mysteries in the realm of art. There are many. But it is one thing to admit their existence, and another to write as if they did not exist.
That it be possible in reading criticism, to distinguish between statements of facts and other kinds of statements.
The artists not be silent when their works are wrongly described or when their intentions are misrepresented.”
Sidney Geist in SCRAP #4, February 16, 1961


DEAR JOHN IRWIN; My associate and I are glad to have you quote SCRAP in your first issue. And I wish to thank you for inviting me to continue on the motifs sketched out in your quotation. Art and criticism are the fields “par excellence” concerning which the last word is never said.

There is no danger of saying too much. There is always the risk of saying the wrong thing; the danger is only of saying nothing. If we omit from consideration the romantic reasons for silence (“art has nothing to do with words”), there still remain others, more interesting and closer to our problems. For example, it sometimes appears that there is nothing or nothing more, to say about a work of art either because we are in the presence of a bafflement, a mystery, or because the work is not sufficiently stirring to elicit comment, or because it “leaves us speechless.” The last predicament is usually temporary, but the mere statement of one or another of these conditions is already in the realm of criticism. Criticism will appear to be absent, too, when “we” are deficient in feeling, knowledge or intelligence when faced with the work of art; that is a criticism of “us.” Another situation exists, more complicated than these, in which nothing meaningful is said in spite of the fact that words are being used; this puts us in the realm of the criticism, where we examine the value and logic of statements about art.

What is art criticism? What is it supposed to do? Does it matter? Whose criticism?

I think that any statement about art is in the field of criticism. Certainly a statement like, “I like it” (or “I don’t like it”), suffers from opacity; its repetition is boring and betrays a mind that is inelastic, shall we say. But when we are aware of the values of the speaker, even this simple statement takes on meaning. At any rate, examination would lay bare a system of values—good or bad, high or low—behind the most primitive expression of opinion.

Within the limitations of a short critique, tact, the nature of the work and a “feel” for the moment will determine the focus of the critic, and, of course, a longer piece will give the opportunity for wider scope or deeper probing. But in either case the task of criticism remains ambiguous by its largeness and multiplicity. There is the descriptive task, that of telling what the work looks like—a most difficult exercise in objectivity. There is the historical task, that of situating the work in respect to both past and contemporary works and to movement or tendency. There is the analytical task, that of elucidating the structure of the work. There is the hortatory task, that of transmitting enthusiasm, of praise and condemnation, of prophecy and encouragement and of the heralding of the new or the redressing of neglect. There is the ultimate responsibility of judgment, of saying good or bad, and how and why. This is the open end of criticism, and it is not to be avoided because “time will tell.” The future will make its own decisions; till it does, we must make ours. On this score, we have all seen the term, “reviewer,” used by a writer to “escape” critical responsibility, just as it is used by others to “divest” him of critical function; but I see no difference in kind between a long and a short critique, or between one in a journal and another in a book.

It is not clear what effect criticism has beyond the educative. It is easy to say that the work of art comes first and that criticism follows. But even artists read criticism (that “even” is meant as a joke—they are its most avid readers), and if we do not know that any single critique ever brought forth a painting or caused an artist to change something in his work, a body of opinion certainly does arise which influences art. This may often happen in studios and not appear immediately on a printed page, but again I see no difference in kind between what artists say to each other and what critics write or might write. To think otherwise is to deny intelligence, will and purpose, and to put the work of art on the plane of natural products like clouds and trees. There is a constant interplay between art and ideas, and if the relation is not clear, one thing is, and that is that criticism, in a large sense, is as human a need as art, and that we do in fact indulge in it all the time. In all the difficulties that beset the thinking and talking about art I am sustained by a phrase of Matthew Arnold’s, to the effect that criticism is forever necessary and forever impossible.

While anyone might have something to say about art—that “something” being always, as I claim, criticism—the things some people say acquire more authority than others. The reasons are various, ranging from literary skill to special insight to moral persuasiveness. An authoritative critic is as rare and valuable a social asset as a great artist, embodying, as he does, a set of values which become symbolic. And let us remember, when we are critical of criticism, that just as it takes a lot of art and artists to produce greatness in art, it takes an equally intense critical activity to produce great criticism. If current criticism often appears unrewarding, the impression is induced by the fact that in a period of great artistic and critical activity there must necessarily be much that is not of interest. And surely if artists may paint bad pictures, critics may write bad criticism. Current criticism is, I believe, the most difficult form of journalism now practiced, and all our familiar disappointment with it should be accompanied with sympathy for the critic.

In fact, I often have the impression that critics are more serious about art than many artists. Too many artists claim to be “just” artists, yet an artist in our culture is supposed to be knowledgeable; there is no such thing as an innocent modern artist. Too many artists take refuge in their genius, maintaining a haughty silence but hoping all the while that someone (else) will say the right word. In a time of great confusion and misunderstanding concerning artistic matters, artists have been less than frank about their intentions. It does nothing for our contemporary situation to say that El Greco didn’t write about his pictures (though Van Gogh did write about his), the fact remains that artists could do much to dispel the misapprehensions that exist concerning modern art.

I hope the artists of the West Coast will take the opportunity to speak out your magazine affords. At the same time I know well how fearful artists are of the finality of the printed word. But let us say there is no finality—not in art and not in words. If it’s possible to change your paintings, it’s possible to change your ideas. We are in the realm of perpetual discourse.

While I am grateful for this chance to speak my mind, may I say that I hope your magazine will give especial encouragement to writers and artists of the West Coast. I think there is an amazing vitality in your region, and it may well be that it will take a western critic or a new style of criticism to make clear its quality and contribution—and to initiate that discourse between art and ideas on your own terrain. Anyway, the possibility is worth exploring. The West Coast is large enough, vital enough and characteristic enough to be designated as a culture, and I, for one, will be glad to know what is going on out there.

Sincerely yours,
Sidney Geist.