Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Our previous observation on art criticism provoked an interesting discussion between two frequent correspondents. Since the original article was very short, we repeat it here:

The next time you read a glowing review of some work or exhibit by a contemporary artist, train your critical eye on the critic. Ask this probing question: How much of the rhetorical skill of the critic is applied to excusing a lack of technical skill in the artist?

To this “von Hindenberg” responded with a proposed method for distinguishing art from goofing off:

My favorite set of criteria to determine whether something is ‘art’ or not is

1. Did it require technical skill or at least effort to create?

2. Does it attempt to convey a message or elicit an emotional response?

3. Is it aesthetically pleasing?

If a thing hits two out of three criteria, I’ll agree that it’s art. Whether or not it’s good art is another question entirely.

“The Shadow” replied with a question about von Hindenberg’s criteria:

I would question whether something that doesn’t even try for criterion 3 is art.

…to which von Hindenberg replied with another question:

Would you consider a performance that deliberately makes the audience uncomfortable and even unhappy in order to make them consider a subject not art? A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message can be art.

Here Dr. Boli was tempted to make a snide remark. A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message, he was about to say, is an editorial cartoon, not art.

But it seems useless to debate what is and what is not art. A definition of “art” that excluded most of what we could find in a museum of contemporary art would be uselessly contrarian; it would simply prevent us from talking about what is going on in the artsy world without inconveniencing the denizens of that world one little bit. It seems to Dr. Boli that von Hindenberg has pointed the way to the only useful distinction: “Whether or not it’s good art is another question entirely.”

This means, however, that we would have to abandon his three-point plan for identifying art, because it is clear from the most cursory glance at the art world of today that the only one of those criteria anybody cares about is the second: “Does it attempt to convey a message or elicit an emotional response?” To speak of technique at all is embarrassing. To speak of aesthetics is to imply that aesthetics can be judged. The message is everything. Take a look at any art criticism today: how many times will you see words like “issues,” “transgressive,” or “marginalized” used approvingly to describe what the artist is accomplishing? If the artist is giving voice to the marginalized, the artist is doing all that can be done in art.

These seem like lazy excuses for bad art. Dr. Boli observes that people who are actually marginalized generally seem to put a great deal of effort into the technical aspects of their art. The ones who get by on lazy excuses are mostly the spoiled middle-class kids who could afford to go to art school.

But the assumption that the message is the important thing has seeped so far into our collective mind that it is difficult for us to think of art in any other way. Even von Hindenberg tells us that “A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message can be art.” Now, much depends on what we mean by “unpleasing.” If we mean that the subject can be unpleasant, like Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes, then the point is well taken. But if we mean that the unpleasant subject can be treated without caring about how it looks, that is a different matter. Again, the idea that aesthetics should be ignored or defied for the sake of the message seems lazy to Dr. Boli.

Think of Picasso. Guernica is horrifying, but it does not ignore aesthetics. On the contrary, Picasso agonized over the aesthetic decisions. Should there be any other colors than greys and steely blues? He tried them, but they didn’t work. Guernica is certainly a painting with a message (in that way it seems unusual among Picasso’s works), but the message is conveyed through the aesthetics.

In spite of occasional great works like Guernica, Dr. Boli believes that the emphasis on message over form in art has been almost universally destructive. It has created a culture in which we no longer teach artists technique: we teach them to write grant proposals. They learn to plan a work of art by asking, “What do the stupid inferior yokels who never look at art need to be told?” That meaning is almost always implied, at least, although the question is seldom phrased that way, because if it were we could see the absurdity of it at once.

It is time, Dr. Boli believes, for a rebellion against the tyranny of the message in art. It is time for us to refuse to judge a work favorably simply because it says something we agree with. Instead, it is time to insist on technical proficiency and aesthetic judgment. Our rallying cry will be the principle of Oscar Wilde: All art is quite useless.


  1. KevinT says:

    A random thought just popped into my head: Is AOC’s “Tax the Rich” dress art due to its message? If the message satisfies only one of the three criteria, does the dress become art because of the location where it was worn or perhaps due to the visual esthetics of the wearer?

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Perhaps it would be best to say that it is art if the maker calls herself an artist. If the wearer is not the maker but still calls herself an artist, then it is performance art. If she calls herself a politician, it is advertising, which is a branch of commercial art, which in the art world is looked down upon, because it requires technical skill and is therefore not sincere.

  2. Dr. Boli says:

    We might incidentally mention that the painting at the head of this article, Gentileschi’s first version of Judith Beheading (or Slaying) Holofernes, is currently making a rare visit to the United States. Until July 10 it may be seen at the Frick in Pittsburgh.

  3. Mike says:

    They sold their birthright for a pot of message.

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