On judging art

A footnote to the above. When we read someone trash The Gates as Hilton Kramer trashes them, how can we know whether to take the trashing seriously? Or, conversely, if someone praises something, how can we assess the praise?

Here are some ideas. When someone trashes something — or, at the other end of the spectrum, praises something wildly — we need to understand whether they actually know anything about what they’re trashing or praising. We can judge that from how they praise or trash. Do they mention anything specific about the work they’re judging? Do you get a feeling for what it is, and how you might feel if you experienced it? Just about the highest praise I can give to any piece of criticism is to say, “Well, I see what this critic means, but she’s described the piece so clearly that I can form at least a tentative opinion of my own.”

Second, does the critic hate (or love) everything by this artist, or in this artist’s style — and does he or she hate (or love) it all equally? Can the critic, in other words, judge the work with any nuance? Are all Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces equally hateful to Hilton Kramer, or can he see differences between them, and hate some less than others? Once I looked up several Andrew Porter reviews of music by Elliott Carter, and Andrew — fine a critic as he is — failed this test. Each Carter piece, as he described it, emerged as an inimitable masterpiece, and that just doesn’t seem possible.

Humans being what they are, I’d expect some Carter pieces to be more successful than others, but even the possibility of such a thing didn’t emerge in Andrew’s reviews. I’d have to wonder, then, if he loves Carter so blindly that his descriptions of the music (no matter how full of fascinating insights they might be) really can be trusted. (Kramer’s piece about The Gates, of course, fails all these tests with a dull, thick thud.)

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