I first became aware of art critic Robert Hughes upon watching the documentary Crumb (one of my fave movies). He was interviewed and asked to comment on Robert Crumb's work. I admired Hughes' articulate and knowledgeable critique, flavored with humor.
Due to the subjective nature of music, I frequently find its written criticism to be trite and contrived. I'll read a Rolling Stone album review and cringe when the reviewer includes two lines of lyrics to support his or her view. Two isolated lines prove nothing as a song's power depends heavily on its music, and you completely remove them from their context (the substance of all art).
I argue that painting is even more subjective than music. Consumers and critics can come to a general consensus that some music sucks, but I don't believe that you find this same consensus about art (outside of people that just hate art as a whole). If you encounter a painting style in the everyday world that you hate, there's a good chance that you can find that same style housed on a museum's walls. I remember walking through the Denver Art Museum with my friend Meegan ten years ago, and she commented, "Have you ever wondered why one painting makes it into a museum and another doesn't? What makes a painting museum worthy? If you see two similar paintings, why is one included and the other disregarded?" They were poignant questions, and I try to answer them as I stroll along museum walls. Rarely can I answer them absolutely.
Painting offers a rare quality in the creative fields. Immediacy. It elicits an immediate reaction. A book takes six hours to complete, a movie two, and even a song takes a few minutes to seep in. But standing in front of a painting the image is burned instantly. Of course one acquires additional messages and impact upon absorbing the image through time and study, but it still possesses that initial reaction (or lack thereof). How do you describe it and the cause? Is the painting effective?
My long winded approach is arriving at the fact that I've never really read any art criticism. I questioned if it be worthwhile or is the subjective nature of art too prohibitive. Would I find it as pretentious and contrived as music criticism? Would it resemble the current nature of politics where a person has already taken a stance and simply warps facts to reinforce this idea, or would it consist of a dialogue that evolved into an enlightened view?
I decided to give it a shot and returned to Robert Hughes, best known as the art critic for Time magazine. I bought his book, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists. I've found it thoroughly engaging and fun. I've seen enough artwork to have developed what I believe to be informed opinions on what I like and dislike, the reasons thereof, and whether a painting is effective. It's been fun to volley my thoughts against his, and try to understand where we concur and differ and why. I've made no veiled declarations that I thoroughly despise the work of Mark Rothko. I enjoyed reading Hughes' essay on Rothko explaining his genius. He validates my reasons for dislike (Rothko can't draw, the paintings have been identical for the last twenty years of his oeuvre and meanings associated with them are dramatically overblown), but Hughes' doesn't see them as a distraction to the paintings' power. The book collects his critiques on art exhibits and books and are based per artist. His ability to articulate his thoughts is amazing, and I enjoy that he gives a context to the art we're seeing (my own creative dogma is that an artwork derives its power from context). A thoroughly engaging read. Highly recommended.
As an aside, I also bought his book, Barcelona, which gives a historical and opinionated view of the city. The city is one of my faves. I'm looking forward to reading the book.