My Harshest Critic
By Larry M. Brow
In the past year I’ve noticed a certain clamoring in the ceramics world for a higher standard of criticism. Somehow the current crop of writers on the subject have failed us by being too friendly, too poorly traveled, or too poorly educated. It makes me wonder what’s being hoped for from an ideal critic.
What do you hope for from an art critic? The easy answer, of course, is PRAISE. We want the acid-tongued curmudgeon who harshly exposes everyone’s weaknesses and failings to (nonetheless) praise our own work to the stars. We each want to think that we’re on the right track and that our craftsmanship is flawless. We want the machinery of success to come to us – galleries, collectors, publishers, and employers – without our having to waste time hustling to be noticed. We want a genius to use their words and insights to point the way to virtue and success.
Certainly we have people attempting to write relevant ceramic criticism now. Is it that they are too polite? Would art criticism of ceramics be better if it were more vicious? Should it quote French theorists more often? Should the critics be secretly traveling to more shows and studios, like disguised restaurant reviewers, so that we can find our pieces being vilified in magazines without the slightest warning?
Could a really wonderful ceramics critic help us with the broader art culture? Are we getting any respect now from the painters and sculptors and performance artists and expanded media twits? Do museum curators give a damn what we make? On the broad road to our uncertain global future how many of us are on some little side path following the Amish? Can terrific prose make us more relevant? How good would our brilliant new critic’s writing have to be to a get a potter’s picture on the cover of Time or Newsweek? I must admit, as much as I’d heard about Peter Voulkos my whole career, I was shocked at how little notice his death got in the national press. Peter Voulkos! We are an insignificant fraction of an increasingly insignificant art world.
Could a really world class ceramics critic help improve sales? Not just for the few stellar artists worthy of reluctant praise, but for the genre as a whole? I frequently worry that more and more of the people I meet know nothing about art, know less about pots, and can’t work up the slightest embarrassment about their ignorance. Many of my best customers are people I’ve had to painstakingly educate as consumers over the course of years. Do any of us have the strength and stamina to fully educate ALL of our customers for the foreseeable future? Is the alternative a microscopic (if international) subculture making objects solely for its own amusement?
Perhaps the agent of our salvation is already among us, simply building skill sets and confidence while waiting for the chance to strike. Perhaps dozens are waiting in the wings for a mandate, and an honorarium, to cut loose with their inspired analysis. If so, the onslaught won’t be pretty. A lot of egos and institutions are going to get bruised. Blood may spill. Work is going to be called crap. Teachers are going to be called incompetent. Specific university programs are going to collect labels like, disarray, shambles, safety hazard, and snake pit. “Educational malpractice” may emerge as a point of casual conversation. Longstanding hypocrisies could be exposed. Civility and cooperation will suffer. And certainly some friendships will pay the price.
And when the new, better, more incisive criticism has taken its bite out of our current comfortable lack of leadership, what then? Will we then achieve the complacent totalitarianism of a new academy, in which artists A, B, and C are reliably admirable and only styles X, Y, and Z will ever get you considered for a college teaching job or a really worthwhile solo show? Will the new certainty about what is good art create more confidence in the marketplace, leading to more sales and higher prices? Will we then truly hate the art magazines we nonetheless can not afford to miss reading? How many versions of an avant garde will we be able to sustain simultaneously? Will we advertise professorships in “Avant Garde Ceramics?” Will we all be united in our respect for, and fear of, the new, fully competent, ceramics critics? Could the words of a critic get you dropped from a gallery, blackballed from a show, fired as a teacher, shunned by polite company?
I am reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon. Two guys are sitting together on what appears to be a commuter train. The one says something like, “Listen, Bob, you can be my best friend or my harshest critic, but you can’t be both.” (My ex-wife made the same mistake.)
The new critics, whoever they turn out to be, will have to be ready to find their friendships elsewhere. Very few will love them for the truths they tell. Even the artists they praise will be too beholden to them to be actual friends. Perhaps the utter meanness of that reality is why we’ve been short of volunteers for the role. Who among us has the thick skin, clear vision, agile tongue, spotless pedigree, and complete self-confidence for a job so unlikely to lead to praise, reward, or even respect?
And if such critics find the courage to put themselves forward, do our publishers have the will and financial muscle to bring us the truth when it gets written? I doubt it. But then, who am I to criticize?
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