How does the public acceptance or rejection of art intersect with the realm of the personal?
The public media mostly dwells on fame, notoriety, scandal, fashion trends, and celebration. Occasionally, indignation and censure will rear their ugly heads. Debate over the values of artistic/aesthetic artifacts or ideas is one of the hallmarks of Western culture, the freedom and privilege of expressing opinions about their inherent worth, or the function of art as a form of entertainment, moral influence, or instruction.
Artists and writers don't exist in a vacuum, though they may toil in relative obscurity all their lives--even very good ones, such as Emily Dickinson, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Darger. The canons of public taste exist largely to feed off of the excitement and fascination society has for the progress of aesthetic endeavor. In the forum of modern media, there is a continual struggle between competing points of view. The terms of that struggle change over time, but the underlying significance of the outcome does not. In our commoditized environment of capital exploitation and opportunistic promotion, aesthetic values and judgments are expressions of the forces of the marketplace. Fame and talent as criteria of value lead directly to realization of gain, both on a personal level, as well as in the realm of the marketable artifact.
It has often been stated or observed that artists and critics are natural enemies. Critics set up standards and measures of taste, which, applied to specific works or bodies of work, become barriers to public or private approbation. Artists strive to achieve success in their production, offering their work to its various publics. Critics, commonly regarded as guardians of the public taste, wield power over the public reception of art. Critics may praise, or critics may damn, though the "public" (that amorphous entity measurable by whatever scale one may choose) may disagree, embracing mediocrity or durable trash with unreserved enthusiasm or affection. Pop Art, aptly named, like any other category of taste, may pass swiftly from exclusion into greatness by the simple encomium of critical acceptance.
In the fast-paced world of modern public media, the reputations (and the lives) of artists and writers may pass through boom and bust cycles within a generation, or even less. Yesterday's heroes may be forgotten, and relative unknowns may be raised up out of obscurity into vindication and astonished discovery.
But how does the phenomenon of public media's affect on artistic taste affect the individual artist--his/her state of mind, well-being, ego structure, prospects for subsistence, both psychological and practical? How should individual artists respond to the vagaries of taste as they are expressed through the acceptance or non-acceptance of their work?
In the course of writing this blog, I've devoted a certain amount of space to critical reviews of individuals artists and writers. One of the reasons bloggers blog, is to express opinions about art. In my experience, though, the great majority of blogging about art is meant to promote and to praise and to provide real support to certain art and artists; in other words, it exists not as a forum for the serious discussion of the value(s) of artistic product, but simply to promote it.
Serious professional critics generally try to avoid becoming implicated in the exercise of public promotion of friends or colleagues. It's almost impossible, of course, not to associate oneself with what one likes, or, through familiarity or natural affinity, to feel a kinship with those who share one's taste. The perennial danger for any critic who wishes to be taken seriously is to be too closely associated with the interests of his/her subjects. Again, this is almost impossible to avoid in the real world. The appearance of favoritism or fellow-feeling may be worse than the fact of it. Artists are nothing if not competitive, contentious, jealous, selfish and greedy. The artistic ego thrives on praise, support and encouragement. Neglect and dismissal are the enemies of artistic endeavor--or at least that's how we usually think of it.
Since I began this blog in January 2009, I've had the occasion to do a few negative reviews of artists and writers. For the most part, my reviews and essays have been celebrations--and the rate of positive against negative posts has been at least 95%. In other words, negative criticism is something I indulge in rarely in a general sense. I'm rarely moved to condemn or persecute artists or writers, unless I feel there's ample reason or justification to do so.
Any critic who does nothing but praise isn't really performing as a critic. Criticism isn't just about promoting who or what you like, it's about defining what you think and believe--it's the application of a standard of sensibility, derived from the breadth and depth of one's experience, of reading and thinking about things. If occasionally one has a negative reaction to a work, it does not mean that one has a character flaw, or an unbalanced view of the world, or is simply being mean-spirited or cruel.
Artists and writers--the "natural enemies" of critics--may often express frustration over negative criticism. They may accuse critics of being imperious, or twisted, or old-fashioned, or naive, or too harsh. Rather than acknowledge that the criticism may have a grain of truth, they will vilify the person of the critic, rather than address the critical basis for disagreement. It's an old tactic--attack the critic, not the argument. Artists have to believe in themselves, since insecurity and uncertainty are stumbling blocks to creative work. For any artist or writer to be so susceptible to criticism that it determines their artistic well-being, is a serious risk.
Of course, for serious artists, as with serious critics, the public realm of taste is where the ultimate purpose and use of artistic production is decided. If you are going to "succeed" in the public, professional sense, you have little choice but to weather the storms of public exposure, and to take what the critics give.
In nearly every case where I've rendered a less than enthusiastic reaction to someone's work, I've received harsh and nasty feedback. In response to my recent post of the work of CA Conrad, I received sarcastic and rude private e.mails from the author. As I said in the review, "critical exception is treated as prejudice, and anything less than full entitlement is regarded as bigoted rejection." As a sexually ambiguous persona and public presence, Conrad's whole agenda is based upon an insistence on his sexual life-style, and the tortured childhood which contributed to his present dilemma. What I was acknowledging in my review, in part, was the reality of his projection; I was simply holding up a mirror to what he wanted his readership (his audience) to see and feel about him. At least in this sense, he had succeeded very well in what he seemed to want to convey.
Artists and critics tend to engage in a predictable dialogue which turns on suspicion, or hostility. Were I to have praised Conrad's work, I have no doubt that he would have regarded me with satisfaction. Artists and writers thrive on praise, and praise is what they demand--that, or silence. But it strikes me that some artists actually thrive on dispute, that the point of their even being artists or writers in the first instance, is to address their own sense of outrage or indignation at not being accepted, either in their work or in their personal lives. In Conrad's case, it occurred to me that poetry was perhaps the only role open to him, to balance the rejection and exclusion he had felt all his life as a Gay--or sexually confused--man. It seemed to me that the terms he offered to his readers depended to a crucial degree upon that sense of righteous indignation, and that his poetry was offered to the world as an avatar of his crusade to vindicate his own difference.
But for me, the critical function isn't about validating the personal, psychological condition of the artist or writer. The lives of many artists are fraught with difficulty, conflict, confusion, frustration, neglect, and rejection. But the function of the critic isn't to rehabilitate artists and writers, or to save them from their own shortcomings. Some of the best art has been produced under conditions of deprivation--poverty, persecution, illness and addiction, prejudice. But that by no means obliges anyone whose function it is to judge the relative merits of an artistic product to base a standard of taste on the plight of the creator. Even in the most extreme cases--i.e., say, in the case of Anne Frank, a young Dutch Jewish girl who was captured and died in the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, whose Diary, written when she was aged 12-14, was later published in 1947--the value and meaning of the author is a thing apart from the importance of the work.
Hundreds of thousands--indeed, millions--of Jews and other "undesirables" were imprisoned and tortured and murdered by the Nazis during the 1930's and 1940's throughout Europe. The civilized world mourns every one of them. But the literary value of Anne Frank's Diary trumps all the anonymous casualties by the fact of the truth and uniqueness of its record. The Diary of Anne Frank is judged on its merits, as the courageous and miraculous true story of a young girl with the presence of mind to record her plight, with intelligence and accuracy. The work is not fiction, but a true-life account, and the same literary standards apply to it, as to a novel of Dostoevsky, or to a canvas by Andy Warhol, or to a book of poems by CA Conrad.
Mr. Conrad, like nearly everyone who creates an artistic artifact, wants praise--he demands it. And not only that. He wants his work to be a proof and talisman of his sexual difference, of his specific personal identity. He seeks acceptance on a personal level, and in the personal content of his work. This is special pleading, and no critic worth his/her salt can be swayed by it. Either the work succeeds on its merits--whatever criteria we may apply to it--or it doesn't. One may argue with those criteria, or how they are applied--but to attempt to set aside the criticism as an irrelevant distraction is just rationalization.
In my view, even negative criticism is better than neglect. If people dislike your work, they may simply ignore it. But paying any artist or writer the compliment of addressing the work formally, seriously, respectfully, is all any artist or writer has a right to expect. The artist can dismiss criticism, or simply pretend that it never happened. The danger in presenting yourself, and your work, as your cry for acceptance (and love), to the world, is that you may be rejected for exactly who you are. If the reason you write, and publish, or display your work (or your self) is to submit to that public criteria, you had better be prepared to suffer the consequences. People may decide that you're no good. How you deal with rejection, or acceptance, is a partial measure of your stature and confidence as a person. If you giggle and squirm and flip the bird and throw crockery, that's a demonstration of your infantile rage and impotence, like the baby screaming in its crib for the nipple, or to have its diaper changed, or to be hugged and cuddled and comforted. Alas, making art isn't about sucking tit, or being cuddled--as anyone who has seriously essayed it knows.