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Some thoughts on criticality

Since writing a piece for weareoca designed to help students critique works of art – read it here: – I’ve been thinking about how to explain how works themselves might be considered ‘critical’. It’s a subject that is addressed specifically in the Level One ‘Understanding Visual Culture’ unit. What follows are some initial thoughts on ‘criticality’. It’s a huge subject and this isn’t an attempt to codify the issue in to offer a simple answer. Nor is it a checklist of qualities that can be used to somehow separate the ‘critical’ from the ‘uncritical’ work of art. Doing this is especially difficult as the criticality of works can change over time. As I’ve written before, Impressionist paintings – now considered decorative and beautiful – were once vilified for the way they were painted and the subjects they depicted. It could therefore be argued that Impressionism was a critical art movement but the works no longer serve that function. That they moved from one state to another is, perhaps, a testament to their success.

Criticality is, at heart, about not taking things for granted. Critical art works question the form within which they exist. It’s the opposite of happily going along with a format. Doing that is a kind of ‘kitsch’. A heavy metal band that displays all the trappings of the genre – leather jackets, flying V guitars, long hair, sword and sorcery imagery, and so on – isn’t critical of the genre.* To be critical, something in the work has to speak against, or at least challenge, the accepted way of doing things. Challenging a form reveals something about that form. Cubism is, I believe, still important as the questions it poses about picture-making and representation are still very much alive. In fact, it might be possible to consider all the varieties of modernist visual art as ways of tackling the gauntlet thrown down by Picasso and Braque in the period immediately preceding the first World War. Unlike Impressionism, Cubist works have retained their criticality.

None of this is to propose that criticality is a wholly negative thing. It can come from a desire to reappraise, reform, or reinvigorate something that one loves. Perhaps it always does. When Martin Luther nailed his ‘ninety-five theses’ to the church door in 1517 – arguably the definitive critical act of Western European history – he wanted to reform, not destroy, the Catholic church. Similarly the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech made by Luther’s namesake – Martin Luther King – drew explicitly on the founding documents of the society he was keen to change. This isn’t criticism from the outside, but an embedded challenge to the structure that surrounds the act. Transfer this idea of being located within a form but seeking to expose and challenge the contradictions inherent in that form and you begin to understand how criticality works.

Critical Art can be hard to understand – it’s designed to be challenging after all – but the bracing experience of having one’s expectations re-calibrated so that we can understand everything anew, or at least from a different point of view is to be encouraged.

*to make things complicated, a heavy metal band might argue that they are critical in relation to a braider idea of rock music. Criticality can be relative.

Image Credit: Ma Jolie, 1911-1912 by Pablo Picasso

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Posted by author: Bryan
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2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on criticality

  • This is hugely timely and insightful, Bryan – thank you. It helps me to understand why I made a painting of ‘collections’ a certain way – I was struggling with simply painting a collection on a flat surface. I could not relate to this. I then decided to paint the passageway – the space – where my few collections are situated and because the collections are out of view ( in recessed areas) I (stroppily) collaged them in – fragmenting the perspective… I felt compelled to challenge expectation of form???

  • Hi Brian
    Great article love it when you explain stuff properly. Went to Paris last week to see Le Cubisme, if you get chance go, it is great. Ma Jolie was not there, but I think Picasso and Braques paintings around this time are a bit like Bob Dylan songs, you know them all, but you are not sure if it is called Ma Jolie or 7th Avenue Blues.

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