Critics and Their Purpose
Pulling a 1960s art magazine from the shelf this week, I opened it at random to find a long list of thoughts about art criticism, many of which also apply to design. Lists are always fascinating and this one makes a good appendix to the two recent threads about design writing and theory.
The document was formulated in 1966 by students at the Royal College of Art, London and it was published in Studio International in May 1967 under the title “The Critic and His Purpose”. The students were asked to define the qualities they expected of a critic, the considerations that should govern critical judgements, and the role of criticism today. None of the students’ names are given, but this only adds to the list’s appeal and usefulness as a distillation of collective wisdom, rather than as the view of a single, perhaps biased, author. Similar propositions were combined into a single statement, and contradictory views were allowed to stand. As point 31 says, “Of two carefully considered but contrary opinions both may be right.”
The first part of the 62-point list deals with “Critical Method”. The other two parts, not given here, cover “Criticism and the Historical Process” and “Criticism in the Contemporary Situation”.
1. The critic should be a master of words – half writer, half philosopher, preferably an artist as well.
2. Some of the skills of the critic are intuitive, some can be learned. Judgement improves with exercise and experience.
3. A simple “like” or “dislike” reaction is not criticism. Criticism requires knowledge.
4. Criticism can be (a) historical: comparing movements and groups, describing styles, analysing techniques or (b) philosophical and evaluative or (c) technical self-criticism by an artist.
5. It is the duty of the critic to be aware of the stylistic development of art up to the present.
6. The artist’s own explanations of his work are helpful in interpreting it.
7. The critic has responsibility (a) towards the artist and (b) towards the public.
8. The content and level of criticism is determined by the audience addressed.
9. The critic should not let the reputation of an artist influence his views.
10. Criticism must distinguish between style for style’s sake and genuine style.
11. Criticism cannot be objective, but should aim to be.
12. Criticism should be persuasive, not dogmatic.
13. The critic should discipline his prejudices and remember that he is subject to error.
14. The critic should remember that all art is based on experience, however remotely.
15. Criticism distinguishes between the conscious and the unconscious intentions of the artist.
16. Criticism must see beyond superficial décor to spiritual purpose and order.
17. The critic should understand the limitations of the medium and have a sense of the interplay of the medium with the subject, but he should not get lost in the discussion of techniques. Technical criticism “murders to dissect”.
18. Criticism should proceed from direct contact with the object.
19. The critic must react in order to evaluate. Everyone reacts, but the critic observes his reactions and expresses them.
20. The critic must allow for the fact that his reaction will be biased by the context in which he experiences the work.
21. Immediate reaction is dependent on nervous energy and vitality. After that sensibility must take over. Long acquaintance with a work is therefore essential. The work itself may have been long in maturing.
22. The critic must get outside himself to criticise fully. He must abandon built-in expectations and have a sense of possibilities.
23. Criticism has this in common with drawing or painting – that one statement leads to another and so an idea is built up.
24. Criticism is concerned with the proportions of the constituent elements in a work of art, a study of the interrelationship of parts.
25. Criticism begins with a description of the impact of a work of art and proceeds to consider its intentions and whether they have been realized.
26. The act of describing will reveal the critic’s own biases. The description of phenomena plus the description of feelings equals the definition of values.
27. The critic should consider the relation of a given work to the rest of the artist’s oeuvre.
28. The search for influences quickly degenerates into meaningless name-dropping.
29. An interpretation of a work can still be valid even if it does not correspond with the artist’s intentions.
30. The critic should deduce an artist’s values from his acts of selection.
31. Of two carefully considered but contrary opinions both may be right.
32. His moral conscience is the only check on the critic’s freedom.