An open letter to critics: let artists soar

Constant reading in the major art journals prompts me to ask why so much of today's writing on art is self-defeating, so eager to insist that the ambiguities of our society be imposed upon the naturally affirmative and life-enhancing nature of the creative act.

I'd also like to know why so many art critics seem to delight in spinning verbal webs that obfuscate rather than clarify, and in creating the impression that the issues of art are so profound and complex that no mere artist can possibly understand them.

Aren't they aware that their attitude undermines the creative process? That by attempting to enhance their own importance, and by intimidating the artist into adapting his or her own expansive, life-generating instincts to suit the critic's more analytical way of doing things, they force art to become increasingly theoretical and earthbound?

Most, I suspect, are not aware of how negative their influence is. But how sad! And how appalling - especially if one considers how many artists fall under their spell and actually clip their creative wings because a few fast-talking individuals who cannot ''fly'' insist that soaring in the air is impossible in today's world.

Let us spell it out right here. The artist creates, the critic follows along a little behind and to one side and comments on what the artist does. Whatever else happens - no matter how helpful, destructive, regressive, or far-reaching - is secondary to the fundamental relationship between artist and critic.

It's really quite simple. Let the artist paint, sculpt, draw, or whatever, and let the critic pay close attention to what results and what it signifies. Let there be a partnership of sorts, with the critic fully aware that without the artist he or she would be without a job, and with the artist willing to admit that an occasional word of advice from a critic with good insights might be a good thing.

Beyond that, let them go their separate ways. The artist's primary impulse, after all, is to say ''Yes,'' the critic's to say ''Maybe,'' ''I don't think so, '' or even a firm ''No!'' The creator is impelled to overcome all obstacles and arguments, to leap over or to slip around objections; and to join with Alexander the Great in severing all Gordian knots with one sure blow. The writer on art is more cautious and tries to see every side of an issue (or to invent some that don't exist) and is more likely to tie knots than to untie or sever them.

Even so, both do function at times as opposing sides of a dialectical process designed to articulate and give credence to cultural ideals and values. At those times, what one presents, the other confronts and examines - and then returns to the other for further clarification or elaboration. The result, as often as not, is art more truly representative of the full range and depth of a culture's attitudes and ideals than would be the case had it been a strictly individual effort.

This process, this dialogue between artist and critic, can be of considerable value in lifting art above the merely idiosyncratic and self-expressive, and in challenging it to achieve importance, even true greatness.

To accomplish this, however, both sides must be fully aware of the nature and limitations of their particular contributions - and of what greatness entails.

The latter presents something of a problem. We know what was great in the past but often fail to understand what that word means in contemporary terms. We generally use it to identify whatever is biggest, fastest, most expensive, or most applauded. We equate it with power, volume, and glory, with maximum effectiveness, and forget it is also a matter of quality, discretion, ethics, and morality.

Art often falls victim to this misperception - witness the large number of paintings and sculptures straining to achieve greatness through sheer size, impact, or sensationalism. These works are intended to stun and to overwhelm and exist as the outward manifestations of human will demanding power and control.

Effective as such works may be as attention-getters, however, they rarely rate as art, and they most assuredly are not great. How could they be, when all their energies were directed toward monumentalizing the egos and dramatizing the power-urges of those who produced them?

No, greatness in art cannot be forced or bought, it can only be earned - and then only through its ability to move, challenge, or inspire the viewer to see and to experience more clearly and holistically than he or she could before.

All this the critic may know as well as the artist - or know even better. But knowledge and insight do not by themselves produce art. For that, something else is required - a quality that, for lack of a better term, we call genius or talent.

There can be no art without one or the other - only doodles, dead renderings, or meaningless splashes of paint. Without genius, the most brilliant theories fall flat - as Kandinsky so often proved. On the other hand, genius by itself doesn't guarantee greatness, any more than does imagination, intelligence, courage, or persistence. They are merely the raw materials of greatness - essential, but incapable by themselves of affecting us as truly great art can.

Even so, genius and talent are crucial, for they are the ''spark plugs'' that generate art and give it life. Regardless of their range or depth, these expansive life-impulses must be present if there is to be art.

The ability to transmit his own sense of life through such things as color, form, and line is the most precious thing an artist has. It is what establishes his creative identity. Everything else about art can be learned, but not that. For a critic to tamper with it, to attempt to intimidate the artist into curbing or diverting it for purely theoretic or non-art purposes, is very close to unforgivable.

I can just imagine what Michelangelo or El Greco would have said had anyone told them that their art didn't address itself to the essential problems of their day, or how Rembrandt would have reacted had a critic suggested he modify his humanism to accommodate some new ideas from France. They would have roared their displeasure and acted drastically toward their critics - which is exactly what any artist should do the moment a critic or any other art professional tries to usurp his or her artistic birthright.

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