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A Good Eye Posted on December 12th

Whose eyes?

At a thread over at, Catfish made some comments about Clement Greenburg that got me thinking about art, criticism and appreciation. Here’s some of what he said:

But shooting down bad art isn’t important in the long run. What works in the showdown between bad and good is writing that casts light on the good. Clem was the only one left who could do that and all he would say was that Olitski was the best living painter (end of statement), and that tidbit almost exclusively in conversation or lecture. He did make generalized contributions, but he refused to show the art public the thoughts that went with his great eye, even about just the one artist that he found to be the best. That seemed to contradict his otherwise extremely generous nature.

Well he is gone. If someone wants to help criticism save itself, what is needed is 1), a great eye, and 2), the capacity to put it to work on the good stuff.

Catfish’s comments on Greenburg imply that there are few writers today who can write about the good stuff. Critical fashion is certainly one reason for this. But beyond that, there is an inherent difficulty in writing about really good art or literature. Critics who can write directly and clearly about what makes great art great are few because it takes both an ability to be sincerely awed by art and ability to translate that awe into words. A breakdown of why its hard to write about the good stuff:

1. How something fails is far easier to describe than how something succeeds. The way art fails is both universal and easily described–its derivative, the intentions are too obvious or limited, there are problems with the craft, etc. Failure is easy to write about because so much art fails in similar ways. But when something is good, its succeeds in way that no other art has succeeded. Part of what makes great art great is how profoundly unique its aims. Unlike failed art, there is no universal language to describe good art.

2. Great art exists as an irrefutable whole. Good criticism, however, is detailed, specific, and takes a work piece by piece. Great art projects itself vividly outward, rather than offering up its inner workings. (Failed art is disemboweled, by contrast. Its inner workings hang out in the open, broadcasting their dysfunction). It takes an incredible imagination to access a great work and describe how each of its features works to create its greatness.

For all its difficulty, articulating why something is good is incredibly important for both criticism and art itself. One of the problems with great art is that while its beauty strikes us in a visceral way, the fact that its greatness is hard to articulate can make it seem less real. Great critics give substance and reality to the effects of great art. The best criticism is a philosophically revealing, passionate and eloquently written appreciation of the work it describes. It sometimes seems that appreciation is seen as less rigorous than either criticism of bad art or theoretical explorations. The contrary is true. There is nothing more rigorous than to try to give reason for the shock of sublime recognition great art evokes in us.

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One Response to “A Good Eye” :

  1. I’mnot sure failed art is so easy to explian, but certainly no one can tell us why good art is good. Not even the great Greenberg. He did cast light on it, perhaps made it a little easier to get, but he didn’t say why it was good. So yes indeed McFawn, there is nothing more rigorous than giving reason for the greatness of great art. Evidentlylh, it is rigorous beyond human capability, as far as I know.

    But then, is there someone you think has explained it all?

    In any case we agree about the ease of putting down the bad stuff.

    Commented catfish on December 15th, 2007.
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