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Robert Ayre

A Note on Criticism

Canadian Art, Vol. VII #4, Summer 1950.
[ 2,162 words ]


'A voluble tribe of marmosets,' that is what Sickert called the critics. He really went to town on them, describing the little beasts, decked out in fancy zouave costumes, riding on the backs of a 'lumbering inarticulate and good-natured tribe of elephants going about their business or their pleasures with the deliberation we know.' Some of the impudent little creatures seemed clever and alert, others cross or indifferent, but all were voluble and all were making gestures, 'which showed that they conceive themselves to be directing the movements of the elephants, sometimes with threatening, but more often with aggrieved reproach.'

So does the painter criticize the critic, so is the biter bit. Painters don't usually like a critic unless he likes them first and many of them, stung by the jabs of the marmosets, are so resentful that they would be satisfied with nothing less than the liquidation of the whole tribe. They are not all as good at a comeback as Sickert. Those that are look a bit like marmosets themselves, and the world is the livelier for their antics.

Criticism is a discipline, like taxes. None of us welcome taxes, but we can't get along without them, much as we would prefer to have everything for nothing. Of course we would rather have praise than criticism, but until that blessed day when we are all perfect and all alike, dwelling featureless and indistinguishable in the sublime inane, we shall be kept alive and kicking by criticism.

I don't know how any man in his senses, especially the artist, who is supposed to have his senses better developed than the next fellow, can be satisfied with being an elephant, plodding along plantigrade, placid and pompous. Sickert's elephant metaphor is no more complimentary to the artist than his marmoset metaphor is to the critic.

Only men can make art, only men can make criticism — and take it.

Trunks are no doubt uplifted already in angry trumpetings at my remark that criticism is a discipline. Who is the critic to impose discipline on the artist? Who gave him the authority to be Corrector? Nobody, indeed, except society, which could not exist without criticism.

Let us forget artists and art critics for a moment and consider criticism in its broader aspect as a manifestation of that spirit and intelligence which distinguish men from the lesser animals. First of all, criticism is no more than fault-finding. We criticize Johnny for coming to the table with dirty hands, we find fault with him for sitting up late listening to the murder mystery on the radio when he should be getting his sleep, we criticize him for listening to the murder mystery at all (and we criticize the radio station for broadcasting it), we disagree with his own peculiar method of spelling and insist on his doing it our way. Criticism, then, implies standards, to which Johnny must conform. Of course Johnny doesn't like it. He would much rather please himself. That we cannot allow because without criticism education is impossible and without education civilization (such as it is) would cease to exist. It is certainly the essence of democracy. Rigid social systems, like feudalism or the modern tyrannies, whether of the right or the left, will never tolerate it, for once it gets its foot in the door the walls come tumbling down.

The paradox of criticism is that it can be both conservative and revolutionary. It insures the continuity of tradition and the stability of society by challenging deviations, but these deviations are themselves criticism. In time, if they are valid, they may replace what they rebelled against and become the normal and accepted. Then along comes the newer criticism to hold them to the line if, by the very fact of being established, they have deteriorated and departed from it, or to overthrow them if they have outlived their usefulness. Standards may change, but standards there must always be.

Criticism begins with fault-finding and as it pursues its way in human experience it widens its perspective and deepens in subtlety. From the simple action of passing unfavourable judgment it develops into the art of estimating qualities and character, of interpreting and valuing.

The woman who dislikes the cut of her neighbour's dress or the way she brings up her children is a critic; so is the man who tunes out one radio programme in favour of another and the man who snickers at a picture in an exhibition or stays away from the art gallery altogether. These good people discriminate according to their personal preferences, their individual standards. The artist — for now we have come back to the artist — dismisses as ignorant and obtuse those lay critics who reject him. He may be wrong; sometimes in his self-absorption he overestimates himself; and the despised man-in-the-street may have a better sense of values than he has.

But a good deal of the time the artist is right, and that is one reason why we have the professional critic. He may not look upon himself as a man with a mission, but one of his functions, though he comes at it from behind, so to speak, is to criticize the public, and so educate it, and so improve taste and understanding and raise the standards.

The mature artist, I think, is not so much hostile to criticism as he is to the lack of it. I am speaking now of intelligent criticism, not mere fault-finding and the expression of uninformed likes and dislikes. He goes gunning not for criticism but for certain critics who, as he feels, don't know what they are talking about, who are no better than the man-in-the-street and who, nevertheless, have the temerity to set themselves up as judges and give their strictures the authority of publication. Even the learned and sensitive critic may be ignorant and obtuse to the artist who is striking out in a new line. This is one advantage the original creator, the critic of old tradition and maker of new, has over the critic: he is a jump ahead. The history of painting, sculpture, music, literature and the drama is a museum of horrible examples: critics, often the most eminent of their day, who, holding fast to their standards, failed to recognize greatness when it appeared in a new form.

This should make the critics humble, it should inspire them to go beyond their personal prejudices and the standards of their time and seek universal values, but it is no reason why they should abdicate. They have a function in society. The great innovator arriving, as he always does, before his time, will rejoice when he finds a critic in step with him, but if most of the critics are too humanly short-sighted, the artist must have the patience to wait, knowing full well that, though a thousand critics howl him down, he will be vindicated. The best criticism, after all, is self-criticism.

If this is so and the artist — like Johnny, now a well-mannered and intelligent citizen and discriminating patron of the arts — has matured and grown beyond the discipline of his teachers to self-reliance, self-criticism and self-understanding, why should he submit to criticism by newspaper and magazine writers? Well, in the first place, unless he works entirely for himself, with no thought of communication, he invites it. Like the politician, he exposes himself.

The critic has a social function. He represents the public. Primarily, he does not write for the artist at all. He does not presume to tell Picasso, for example, how to paint. What he does is put into words the public's reaction to Picasso. What's the man getting at? How does he stand in relation to society today, in relation to the long tradition of painting? These are some of the questions the critic asks on behalf of the public that is invited to look at Picasso.

Of course the painter, since he is human, will have a reaction to the reaction. He may bristle with anger at the public's valuation of his work; he may be hurt; he may be serenely indifferent. But if he is serious he has a right to ask to be taken seriously. He has a right to intelligent criticism.

This means that though the critic is the spokesman of the public, he must be a step ahead of the public, in other words a specialist. Society must have its specialists. Beyond a certain point we cannot, individually, prescribe either for our bodies or our minds. We set some men aside as doctors, to learn about our bodies and how to keep them functioning properly; we set others aside to articulate our thoughts and feelings in poetry, music and painting. The critic speaks for us, putting into shape our half-formulated judgment of the artist and the way he is, or is not, doing our job for us. (Of course he is doing the job for us, however esoteric he may at first sight appear, unless he resigns from the human race.) 'No!' we may say, 'that is not the way we see things at all. You misrepresent us;' as we may say to the member of parliament, 'That is not why we put you in there. You have betrayed the trust we gave you.'

But the mass of people is notoriously slow. What the artist sees today the public may not see until tomorrow. The good critic, then, the specialist, not only speaks for the public but speaks to it. The poor critic is indistinguishable from the mass, repeating the popular delusions and prejudices. He is no critic at all. The real critic represents the people not at its lowest level but at its highest. He is in the vanguard, with the artist. Out of his heightened sensibility and his specialist's knowledge and experience, he discriminates, for the public, between what is worth while and what is trivial, between the real and the sham, and, far from dragging the artist down to the common level, endeavours to raise the common level toward the artist.

Anxious to make sure that he is in the vanguard, where he belongs, and remembering those horrible examples, he sometimes runs to the extreme in welcoming the new and is deluded by some passing fashion, some distortion or degradation, which has no permanent value. The critic ought to have enough ballast to keep his balance. Criticism is, however, not a science but an art. Knowledge must be in it, but it is not the professor, the historian or the museum director who makes the best critic. Nor does the critic have to be a practitioner of the art he discusses. Painters are often shrewd judges of another man's work, but they have a right to be prejudiced; and no one should expect them to be writers. There are standards of value upon which the critic bases his judgments, but they are not standards like weights and treasures. The values of the arts are intangible; personal likes and dislikes enter; there is always a large element of temperament in the appreciation of a work of art. The art critic, then, is an individual, an artist. Like the painter or the pianist, he is a bit of an exhibitionist; he may like to show off, he may enjoy hearing himself talk; like the drama critic in E. B. White's little rhyme, he may be too interested in his own reactions to see the play.

This is a risk we have to take. But while we are too busy to sample everything for ourselves and so appoint the critic to be our delegate, to sift the grain from the chaff, we are not all so foolish as to try to live through him. If we are mature, we do some thinking for ourselves and exercise our critical faculty even on the critic. We know him through his personality. We know whether he is trustworthy of whether he cheats; whether he is serious or whether he is cutting capers; if he is grinding some special axe of his own, we soon catch on to him. We place him and, having placed him, we know whether to follow his lead or look to another guide.

Good critics are few. In a country like Canada, just emerging from the raw frontier, good criticism is rare, for in nations as in individuals it comes with maturity and growing complexity. Young people and young nations do not take kindly to criticism. They resent it because it is a discipline that puts a brake on their headlong careers and at the same time wounds the self-esteem that is vital to youth. We need that drive and that glorious egotism, but it must be directed or no true growth is possible.


Canadian Art, Vol. VII #4, Summer 1950.


Text: © Robert Ayre. All rights reserved.

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