L'École Marchutz

Approaches to Art Criticism

Marchutz Fellow

The following is a recent post from www.theartfulblogger.net, the personal blog of one of our Alumni Fellows. “Art is the measuring stick of art, and only by art can art be measured.” –St. Thomas Aquinas

When John Gasparach sat the Marchutz School students down for their introduction to the weekly seminar in art criticism on Friday, his explanation was right out of Conrad Fiedler’s “On Judging Works of Visual Art.”  I can’t be certain if this was a conscious decision or not, but there it was.  He opened by offering the above quote by Aquinas, and then posed the question, “what does this mean?”  I didn’t get to make an attempt at answering it, despite its obviously rhetorical intention, because John launched into an explanation far more articulate than I could have mustered at the time.   But now I have two beautiful examples of ways to explain it in John and Fiedler, so here goes. Thinking critically is, as John pointed out yesterday to the students, something that we all do.  We often cannot help but do it.  So to conceive of art as something immune to criticism would be ridiculous.  Furthermore, there are infinite perspectives from which one can criticize.  This seems obvious, but is worth stating nonetheless.  As Fiedler writes, “art is a public affair and a subject of general interest.  But this public concern is by no means exclusively concentrated on its [art’s] essential substance.”  This is a bold statement.  What is art’s “essential substance?”  Rather than trying to answer that right away, both Fielder and John leave that for later, instead talking about some other ways to look at art.  They go on to list some different ways to look at any given painting. The list of people Fiedler puts between his crosshairs is long and detailed, and I have no desire to put you through twenty pages of detailed explanations about how not to look at art, but it is worth pointing out a few. The first he draws our eyes to are people who use art as a way to get the kind of experiences they love in nature.  This is a very natural response when confronted with amazing visual representations, and is by no means a bad way to look at art – none of these are.  To approach art like this would be to approach it like the Grand Canyon.  This is tricky, however, because while it inspires great reverence towards art, that reverence is always to be rooted in a comparison to nature, with nature as the ideal.  But nature was not made by imagination, it was made according to its own rules.  If a painting is to be compared to nature’s rules, rather than to its own set of rules parallel to nature (we’ll get into this in another post) it becomes subservient to nature.  Other victims of Fiedler’s attack include people who base the value of a painting on the strength of its symbolism or allegorical representation, because, among other reasons, they are so very prone to misrepresenting the artist’s intentions, and people who judge art based solely on the historical context (political, artistic, etc.) in which the painting was made.  To this list John added people who come at art with very specific end goals in mind.  These people come to a painting with an agenda, hoping to use it to demonstrate some kind of idea (feminism, for example, or libertarianism, or any philosophical ideal) and in doing so never give the painting the chance to speak for itself. After pages and pages of argument, Fiedler returns to that little idea by Auqinas, saying, “the understanding of art can be grasped in no other way than in terms of art.”  So what does that mean for us out here in the Marchutz School?  We have just been given a lengthy list of ways not to approach a painting.  What are we supposed to actually do when confronted with something we would like to judge?  John was kind enough to answer that question for us in his description of the way we work in our seminar.  We come in to class quietly, free of distraction.  There are slides of artwork projected onto three screens.  We would obviously prefer to sit in front of the actual paintings as we do every fall in Paris, but this is impossible for obvious reasons.  We sit in silence and study the artwork by doing drawings of our own.  Through copying a painting one is able to look more carefully.  One notices the relationships and techniques for demonstrating those relationships.  One is beginning to measure art by art.  After some time doing this, we break for tea and coffee, and discuss the reading assignment.  But then, once we have given the images a chance to soak in, we turn the projectors back on and begin to talk about what we have noticed.  Discussions are about form (the way an artist has expressed his or her vision) and content (the meaningful outcome of form), not about this or that ism, or the story of the subject matter.  We try to limit ourselves only to the discussion of that which is visually perceived, that which actually exists on the canvas. In doing this we begin to see what the artists are really doing, and it becomes evident that some works are stronger than others.  Whether this strength is objective or subjective is a controversial topic, but in using art as a measuring stick of art, the aim is to arrive at as objective a truth as is possible.  It’s a process that takes a lot of practice.  Our discussions early in the semester will frequently turn to other, more subjective methods, forcing John to bring them slowly back on course.  But by May we will have a room full of insightful art critics who will be ready to go out and really measure true art as it should be.