Since writing a piece for weareoca designed to help students critique works of art – read it here: https://weareoca.com/
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