Rick Poynor | Essays

Critics and Their Purpose

Pulling a 1960s art magazine from the shelf this week, I opened it at random to find a long list of thoughts about art criticism, many of which also apply to design. Lists are always fascinating and this one makes a good appendix to the two recent threads about design writing and theory.

The document was formulated in 1966 by students at the Royal College of Art, London and it was published in Studio International in May 1967 under the title “The Critic and His Purpose”. The students were asked to define the qualities they expected of a critic, the considerations that should govern critical judgements, and the role of criticism today. None of the students’ names are given, but this only adds to the list’s appeal and usefulness as a distillation of collective wisdom, rather than as the view of a single, perhaps biased, author. Similar propositions were combined into a single statement, and contradictory views were allowed to stand. As point 31 says, “Of two carefully considered but contrary opinions both may be right.”

The first part of the 62-point list deals with “Critical Method”. The other two parts, not given here, cover “Criticism and the Historical Process” and “Criticism in the Contemporary Situation”.

Critical Method

1.      The critic should be a master of words – half writer, half philosopher, preferably an artist as well.

2.      Some of the skills of the critic are intuitive, some can be learned. Judgement improves with exercise and experience.

3.      A simple “like” or “dislike” reaction is not criticism. Criticism requires knowledge.

4.      Criticism can be (a) historical: comparing movements and groups, describing styles, analysing techniques or (b) philosophical and evaluative or (c) technical self-criticism by an artist.

5.      It is the duty of the critic to be aware of the stylistic development of art up to the present.

6.      The artist’s own explanations of his work are helpful in interpreting it.

7.      The critic has responsibility (a) towards the artist and (b) towards the public.

8.      The content and level of criticism is determined by the audience addressed.

9.      The critic should not let the reputation of an artist influence his views.

10.      Criticism must distinguish between style for style’s sake and genuine style.

11.      Criticism cannot be objective, but should aim to be.

12.      Criticism should be persuasive, not dogmatic.

13.      The critic should discipline his prejudices and remember that he is subject to error.

14.      The critic should remember that all art is based on experience, however remotely.

15.      Criticism distinguishes between the conscious and the unconscious intentions of the artist.

16.      Criticism must see beyond superficial décor to spiritual purpose and order.

17.      The critic should understand the limitations of the medium and have a sense of the interplay of the medium with the subject, but he should not get lost in the discussion of techniques. Technical criticism “murders to dissect”.

18.      Criticism should proceed from direct contact with the object.

19.      The critic must react in order to evaluate. Everyone reacts, but the critic observes his reactions and expresses them.

20.      The critic must allow for the fact that his reaction will be biased by the context in which he experiences the work.

21.      Immediate reaction is dependent on nervous energy and vitality. After that sensibility must take over. Long acquaintance with a work is therefore essential. The work itself may have been long in maturing.

22.      The critic must get outside himself to criticise fully. He must abandon built-in expectations and have a sense of possibilities.

23.      Criticism has this in common with drawing or painting – that one statement leads to another and so an idea is built up.

24.      Criticism is concerned with the proportions of the constituent elements in a work of art, a study of the interrelationship of parts.

25.      Criticism begins with a description of the impact of a work of art and proceeds to consider its intentions and whether they have been realized.

26.      The act of describing will reveal the critic’s own biases. The description of phenomena plus the description of feelings equals the definition of values.

27.      The critic should consider the relation of a given work to the rest of the artist’s oeuvre.

28.      The search for influences quickly degenerates into meaningless name-dropping.

29.      An interpretation of a work can still be valid even if it does not correspond with the artist’s intentions.

30.      The critic should deduce an artist’s values from his acts of selection.

31.      Of two carefully considered but contrary opinions both may be right.

32.      His moral conscience is the only check on the critic’s freedom.

Posted in: Art, Education , Ideas, Publishing, Theory + Criticism

Comments [6]

Thanks Rick. Can't resist adding this quote, which was sent to me years ago:

"The artist is a cut above the critic, for the artist is writing something which will move the critic. The critic is writing something which will move everybody but the artist." - William Faulkner (1958).

Also, don't forget the best film ever produced on the subject of criticism:
"The Critic" by Melvin Kaminsky (aka Mel Brooks) (1963). I'm not sure how to get hold of it, but copies have been known to surface.
steve heller

Or Al Jean and Mike Reiss' The Critic: It stinks! (we should all strive for such honesty).

Seriously though, this is an enlightning list. It puts many things in perspective. Especially when a critic is dismissed for his opinion being solely his own - and a subjective one at that. Artists (or whomever is being criticized) should consider this list too before throwing a tantrum.

Thanks for putting this together for us Rick. (Was just having a related conversation with Kenneth F., so this comes timely).

This is a great resource and an interesting platform for exploring the parameters of design criticism. Most art criticism hinges on interpreting a largely esoteric activity that still operates from an "avant-garde" stance, and a lot of those assumptions seem to drive these comments.

matt f

Whoops: "The search for influences quickly degenerates into meaningless name-dropping."

I've been guilty of this. Thanks for the list Rick.

What percentage of a writers' work falls into the category of the blurb -the review in 300 words or less? There's a link at the word 'words' in the previous sentence, for those of you who may be colorblind.
Forgive me for being 'off subject' but it seems to me a critic could simply pen a few words to promote; to change the pace of their daily work. This list, for which I'm thankful, is -in my opinion, an indication of that. And that this site is 'educational'.

Neat post, thanks. I sometimes enjoy reading criticism as literature -- sometimes I'm just more in the mood for a critical essay, or even some reviews, than I am for a story, a visual or musical event. So I was tickled once when I interviewed the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I asked him the usual dumb question about how he took criticism and reviews, and he gave an interesting answer. He said (roughly), "Well, critics are writing a kind of literature, just as I am. And I sometimes enjoy what they do. The difference between what I do and what they do is that I'm putting my thing together from life, and they're putting their thing together from the art they encounter." He he said this without malice or any implicit dig. His attitude seemed to be: Hey, I'm doing what I do, they're doing what they do, and maybe some of it's interesting or useful or fun, and if so, cheers to that.
Michael Blowhard

Jobs | November 14