I was reading in the latest Claremont Review of Books a piece on a posthumously-published collection of writings by art critic Robert Hughes and found a quote selected by the review’s author to be striking enough to inspire a few comments of my own. Hughes described himself thus:
I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails…. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones…. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights…. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate.
I knew nothing of Hughes prior to reading this review, but his self-awareness and clear public acknowledgement of his view is admirable. For those who are regular readers or have been sufficiently motivated to read the About page on this very site, you will note that there are some similarities between Mr. Hughes and Your Humble Filmosaur in our relative disdain for the mediocre, though his were expressed far more eloquently than mine.
While I wholeheartedly share Hughes’ notion and embrace of cultural elitism, particularly when it comes to photography, this should not be mistakenly understood as placing myself within the ranks of the elite. On the contrary, by looking at the work of other photographers and clearly distinguishing between that which is truly great and that vast assemblage that is not, I have developed a very clear sense of my own work, and I know that in almost every case it falls squarely in the latter category. This is not a cause for despair, but a motivation to continue improving all the aspects of my photography.
The point in all this being, if one fails to differentiate between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how can any meaningful personal development take place? To borrow a line from Henry Kissinger, “if you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.”
Rather than succumb to the overly congratulatory and reflexively non-confrontational practices of today’s society, be critical. Not antagonistic, not rude, but objectively critical. To do this, you need evidence. When you look at art – photography or otherwise – figure out why it provokes the reaction it does. Why do you hate that painting so much? What is it you like about that sculpture? Why are you so ambivalent about that photograph? Once you’ve started to identify the reasons for your reaction you can start applying the lessons to your own work and better understanding the work of others.
Some (most?) artists are somewhat defensive about their work and do not always handle criticism well; many of these are unabashed purveyors of some truly bad art. Nonetheless, this tendency toward touchiness is often exacerbated by virtually useless subjective criticism from viewers who have put little if any thought into their reasons for being critical, or who are simply doing it because they think that’s what you do with art. Criticism without thought or adulation without cause are two sides of the same ugly coin.
If you don’t like my photos, do yourself a favor and think about why you don’t. Then help me to understand how you as a viewer sees them and what you don’t like (the same holds true for positive reactions, though these are often more forthcoming). Art is best as an interactive medium, but that interaction must be considered and purposeful for it to have positive value. If this is to be achieved, being a cultural elitist is not just an option, but a necessity.