The first principle of art criticism is to see what’s right in front of your eyes. This is harder than it sounds. What we know—or think we know—comes to dictate what we see. And you don’t have to look too hard, in the current climate, to find examples of those who will reject the clearest evidence of their senses if it contradicts their ideological construct of the world.

The wealthy white couple who pointed guns at protestors from the lawn of their Missouri mansion last week see themselves, it was reported by Artnet, as heirs to the Medici.11
Artnet News, “The Gun-Toting, Palace-Dwelling Couple Who Confronted Protesters Are Major Art Collectors. In Fact, They Fancy Themselves the New Medici,” Artnet (June 30, 2020), https://news.artnet.com/art-world/gun-wielding-mccloskeys-art-collectors-1891419.
The McCloskeys’ revealing characterization of a peaceful demonstration as “like the storming of the Bastille”—the fear that they “would be murdered within minutes” and, naturally, that their “pets would be killed”—made more sense after learning that the interior of their home resembles a Florentine palazzo in much the same way that Disneyland resembles Versailles. The obvious conclusion was that these people are so ensconced in their ragbag, neocolonial, quasi-European fantasy land as to have lost all touch with reality.

Yet the McCloskeys also dimly discerned a truth. Perhaps because they live among paintings by Paul Jamin, best known for his depiction of the sack of Rome, and Anthony van Dyck, court artist to the beheaded Charles I, they were at least able to recognize that they were on the wrong side of history when it turned up on their doorstep. That the system of which they are now symbols is incompatible with social justice; that in a more equitable future it will not be possible for personal injury lawyers to live in the style of Renaissance dynasts. But this insight was so fleeting that, when the dust had settled, they felt able to issue a statement through their legal representative “to make it really clear that they believe the Black Lives Matter message is important.” Which kind of wording has come to sound familiar.

The escapist way to salve a conscience is reflexively to agree with those who are protesting the inequalities from which you profit. To dismiss the revelation that their worldviews are incompatible with yours as a momentary misunderstanding, and to presume that this is an insurgency in which you are invited to participate, expresses what used to be called bad faith. To elevate the issue into what Hannah Arendt called the “higher and less tangible realms” of abstract conflict is to obfuscate it; it is a self-deception that reasserts how you prefer to imagine the world, and downplays the conditions underpinning the power differential across which you feel entitled to speak. To distort the evidence of your senses in order to make-believe that you are not part of the problem is, to continue with the dated but again useful language of anti-totalitarianism, to act inauthentically.

A second principle of art criticism, at least as formulated here, is that what you see should change how you think. “The relation between what we see and what we know,” as John Berger put it, “is never settled.” We can use art to construct our own reality or we can use art to unsettle it. The expressions of other people serve as a reminder that the world never perfectly aligns with what you know of it; that my reality is not the same as yours, and neither is complete. It is Berger’s faith—and the editors’—that close and critical attention to objects and images might allow us to recognize this plurality. Not in order to assimilate varied perspectives into a single unified field, but to find the intersections at which they meet. The crossroads, to return to the etymology of crises and criticism, at which people might come together.

The value of looking at art is predicated on the possibility that it might change what you know. The McCloskeys, it seems, do not allow anything into their home—whether paintings or people—that might challenge their own fragile self-image. An art magazine stages these types of unsettling encounters, which generate criticism. The form differs from theory in that it privileges particulars—the characteristics of an object encountered in a specific time and place—over abstractions. Ideas are not independent of the material conditions that prompted them, and so critics must accept, following Aimé Césaire, that every work of art is like every person shaped by “a situation in the world that can’t be confused with any other […] problems that cannot be reduced to any other problems.” Criticism listens before it speaks, is political rather than ideological, is inherently anti-totalitarian.

The editors have talked about what might constitute the measure of having constructively processed the expressions of pain and anger that have marked the past month. Different positions were expressed, but the point at which they met was that any meaningful action must take place within the sphere of our own competence. To stage varied encounters between critics and works of art and to give a platform to the ideas that emerge from those combinations. Recognizing that the process is shaped by the reality of the critic as well as that of the work, to attend more closely to the positions represented, in terms of who is doing the looking and what is being looked at, and who is commissioning those meetings. These are modest but achievable aims. That doesn’t mean that either their scope or implementation is immune to challenge. Among the pieces we’ll publish this month is one proposing that those with a voice in the art world should make themselves vulnerable to criticism and open to dialogue. In that spirit, the author will here put aside the editorial “we” behind which it is easier for him to hide. You can write to me at [email protected]