Is this art? How criticism can create genius

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by John Ruskin

Article by Yashowanto Ghosh

 I am just over half a semester deep in a class on modern art and I am starting to suspect that, according to my class, if anyone asks whether something is art, then yes, it is a fairly safe bet that it is, in fact, art.  Apparently that is just how it works.

Consider just a couple of examples:  In Victorian England, the philosopher John Ruskin wrote a review questioning the artistic merits of James Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.  Whistler sued Ruskin over the unkind review—my textbook for the class counts the lawsuit among the origins of modern art.  

In France this seems to have been a recurring phenomenon in the second half of the 19th century.  The establishment salon rejected whatever they thought was not art, so the rejects—among them the aforementioned Whistler and Édouard Manet—had their own salon, the Salon des Refusés.  Ten years later, when another group of younger artists organized their own outsider salon, a critic sought to make fun of one of the new paintings, Impression, soleil levant, by calling the show Exposition des Impressionnistes. The new group of artists proceeded to conquer the world as Impressionists.  This cycle repeated itself, with yet another fresh art movement sprouting every few years.

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So the formula would seem clear:  The establishment settles upon a definition for art, and outsiders violate the definition; establishment questions the worth of the outsider art, and that new art becomes a movement.

But it wasn’t always that simple. A textbook only has art and artists who went on to become celebrated, but makes no mention of any rebels who never made it.  So, while we do know from art history that the critics were wrong about practically every important art movement in its early days, that does not mean the critics are always wrong.  It is almost certain that they have also rightly criticized other art movements that have subsequently slipped into oblivion.  Getting harshly criticized does not guarantee your art is good.

Still, harsh criticism helps the art it pans in one way:  It sets in motion a dialogue about the new art.  The worst thing that can happen to experimental art is not unfair criticism, it is death by silence. 

So go ahead and make some art today that breaks a few rules if you want to; but, if you do not make your own new art, then look at some new art today and ask, “Is this art?”

Categories: Opinion, The Saint