The Job of an Art Critic

Nov 26, 12 The Job of an Art Critic








I am an art historian and people ask me over and over again what does an art historian exactly do?

I used to explain in great detail what the term art historian may contain or at least I tried to do so. But because I don’t know myself in an exhaustive way what it is I used to digress each time so far, till the questioner looked at me confused and asked: “So you are also artists?”

I stuttered uncertain: “Oh well, no, we are not artists. We simply look at the works of art.”

This answer confused the questioner all the more. How can “looking at the works of art” be a profession? I was also dissatisfied with this answer, because it is not true. The art historians don’t simply look at the works of art. They do far more than that.

But what exactly?

To make it easier I’ll give an example of an art-historical career – my own – and explain on this basis a job
Other art historical professions are: the owner of a gallery, employee in a museum, curator, teacher, tourist guide, art consultant (for private persons, companies, banks, etc.), restorer, researcher, and much more.
which an art historian can practise.

I studied Art History at the Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universität Zürich. The branch of study “Art History” contains seminars, lectures and workshops regarding the western art. The East Asian Art belongs to the same institute, but it is another branch of study. There is also the Medieval Archeology which belongs to the same institute. Certainly one can combine all the branches of study and in the end you accumulate knowledge in all the fields. I myself combined in a different way and studied only the western art history (with occasional excursions into other fields).

At present I use the knowledge which I acquired during the study to feed this blog, among other things. Thus I am here an art journalist or an art critic.

What does an art critic do?

An art critic is in my opinion an interpreter. He speaks two languages: colloquial language and art. Since art is composed of a lot of languages I should probably say, in order to be precise: He speaks types of art. At all events each one speaks only a part of the art and not the whole art which exists.

You cannot learn how to be an art critic. What you acquire during the study are the tools, which help you in the process of becoming an art critic. During the study one should make as many mistakes as possible. It’s only the pointing out of the error that helps you to develop a feeling of what could be right. I say here deliberately could be and not is, because there is never an absolute certainty. It is very possible that somebody, who has a lot of knowledge about art and also a lot of “hits”, gets on the wrong track in case of a new problem. That is permissible and it is part of being an art critic. On many occasions a possible correct answer is revealed by trial and error. However the study of art drills the comprehension of what is for sure wrong. I would say that this is the most important thing: you learn how to detect what it is wrong. What it is right you have to find out by yourself. Apart from the case, of course, when someone else already found the right answer. Then you may lean back, enjoy and admire the work of the other. But this is simply pleasure and no work at all.

Well then what is the job of an art critic? An art critic should explain art as extensive as it is possible. But he hasn’t to do it exclusively with words. And certainly not with words which signify precisely what the letters they are made of suggest. Frequently a hint is better. A gentle guidance of the art lover towards the work of art is much more appropriate, than the presentation of an assertion, which might be in itself conclusive, but at a closer inspection proves to be rigid and therefore doesn’t open the eye of the art lover, but it does exactly the opposite. An art critic should place the art lover in front of the work of art and help him to see the work of art and consequently to understand it. The work of art should be seen with all the senses not only with the eyes. Finally you open your heart to a work of art in order to get the right access to it. Thus the sequence is as follows: work of art – senses – heart – understanding. Understanding is not to be confused with reasoning. You should not understand a work of art with your thoughts. Frequently this is not at all possible. You have simply to develop an understanding for it. An understanding and not the understanding. The understanding does not exist.

The job of an art critic is to help the art lover to get to this understanding. He makes it easier for the art lover to find the access by showing him the beginning of the way. After that he lets the art lover grope his own way, being however nearby all the time in order to support him if he gets uncertain. The task of the art lover is to be willing to follow this path. The critic is neither omniscient nor infallible. Each critic was initially himself an art observer and he will always be for each work of art unknown to him in the future. If the art lover has no interest to follow the path that brings him to the understanding of the work of art, he doesn’t need to claim the support of an art critic.

I’ve just said that the art lover should not be fed with stiff assertions. A lot of art critics try to avoid this and use non-committal words, so that under no circumstances these words would affect and overload the work of art. The basic idea is good. But unfortunately it may happen that the critic writes a text which has nothing more to do with the actual work of art. His text becomes itself a work of art. A lot of art critical texts are beautiful written, even poetic. Such texts tend to entail the risk of an over interpretation. The work of art is adorned with glittering, breath-taking attributes, which don’t belong to it. The real attributes of the work of art are overlooked, because they mostly seem to be less interesting than the impressive ones, which the critic tends to see in the work. But simply because he would like to see them in the work of art, doesn’t mean that they are by any means there. Besides it is a pity that the real attributes are not brought to light. They would be at least as shining as the attributes given by the critic, if they had the opportunity to appear.

Well then, this is the job of an art critic: he has to wake up the interest in art and support the art lover to understand each work of art. Since the first part – to wake up the interest in art – is the foundation of all the art-related professions, I would say, that the most important task of an art critic is therefore to accompany everyone on his way towards understanding a work of art.

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