Criticism, Personal Preference, and Enjoying Art

I think we all want to generalize our personal preferences into critical judgments.  When we mean, “I don’t like that,” we say, “That’s bad.”  For instance,mMy own personal feeling is that I don’t like heavy metal music.  So, naturally, I say that heavy metal music is bad music.  But the truth is, I don’t know enough about heavy metal music to make sound critical judgments about it.  I don’t know how to differentiate between good heavy metal music and bad heavy metal music.  Likewise, when we like something, we want to generalize our feelings into critical judgments.  When we really like something, we say, “That’s great!”  When I was young, I loved the music of Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and I still do.  So I claimed that those bands were great.  And I had the supporting argument that the music was technically sophisticated–in fact, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer played classical music in a rock idiom.  But to other people, their music was too analytical and intellectual.

I am a big fan of Andrew Wyeth’s art.  But during Wyeth’s life, critics didn’t know whether he was “great.”  When the elite in the art world were painting abstractions and pouring paint across canvasses–to great critical acclaim–Wyeth was painting amazingly realistic works of art.  I see abstraction contained in Wyeth’s realism, and Wyeth stated that he was uniting abstraction with realism.  But critics were suspicious of paintings that looked real in a world of abstraction.

The question comes down to what criteria a person uses in their critical judgments.  If a person begins with the assumption that all great art must be abstract, then they will not value realism.  But why would abstraction be the only measure of greatness?  Such critics would be able to distinguish between abstract works, and make judgments among greater or lesser abstractions.  But by their own criteria, they would not be in a place to make sound judgments between realistic artworks and abstract artworks.

I am a fan of jazz and blues music.  And I believe myself capable of making reasonably sound judgments regarding solos.  That is, I believe myself capable of identifying a good solo from a bad solo.  There is a current ideology that if one doesn’t like a work of art one doesn’t understand it.  One often hears art and literature students say, “I don’t understand it,” when they are confronted with a work of art that they don’t like.  This ideology promotes “appreciation” and considers judgment about art quality antiquated.  But there are qualitative differences among artworks.  And one can make judgments about better or lesser creations–provided one understands one’s own personal likes and dislikes.

But all this talk about critical judgment overlooks one important approach to art: do we enjoy it?  There are times when we let go of our critical minds, and decide to enjoy art rather than judge it.  These are times when we get authentic and say, “I like this;” or “I don’t like this.”  And we don’t generalize our feelings.  We simply enter into relationship with art and leave our experience as enjoyable or unpleasant.

I am not commending one or the other way to approach art.  We grow and learn when we stretch our likes and dislikes into new material.  We grow when we try to understand material we don’t like.  We may well decide that we still don’t like it despite our best efforts to understand.  But we will know more from the effort.  And we live a fulfilling life when enjoy and withhold judgment.  However we encounter art, art is an invaluable contribution to the human experience, and something I treasure, pursue, work at, and enjoy, and commend to others.

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