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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why Criticism Matters

By criticism I mean here, loosely, talking about Art. Which is pretty much what the word means, but I don't want any of my two or three readers to get bogged down in connotations. Criticism is, I like to pretend, a good part of what I do here.

Criticism changes. There are new theories of criticism always roiling about, rising to the top, and then being submerged. Do we worry about the author's intentions or not? Do we worry about the reader's reaction or not? What's Art all about anyways?

This arises partially out of the academic need to invent new things, whether or not there is anything new to be said. Nobody is going to give you a PhD for pointing out that the field is pretty much wrapped up and there isn't anything left to say. But. That's not all. Art changes. Art's position in society is always shifting around. The constant seems to be humanity's need to make Art, but the way we use it, the way society perceives it, all these things change constantly.

Way Back When, Art was largely storytelling, a sort of vague version of history-keeping. It has been primarily decorative. It has been, and is once again, a way to comment on society and politics and power. Lately it does a fair bit of commenting on itself. For each change, criticism needs to keep up. Criticism's larger job, beyond keeping academics employed and out of our hair, is to help us as a society understand what Art is all about. Not that lay people read the latest thesis on The New New Old Postmodernist Criticism, but someone does, and they talk about it at a party, and someone else repeats some of those ideas, and eventually some sort of think piece appears in The New Yorker, and then the New York Times, and finally someone says something in The Keokuk Herald.

The ideas, some of them, filter out there.

Most people, I think, have at least the vague notion that Art, today, is often political, and often self-referential. They know this because of critics thinking about things and writing them down.

Photography is particularly problematic here, since it plays so many roles in our society. If we're trying to understand how photography "fits in" to society, we find ourselves endlessly stumbling across new and different ways it plugs in and fills a role. This creates, both for people taking pictures and for people looking at them, a kind of confusion. I see photographers all over the place who appear to want to make Art, but who are winding up making Decor, or recording personal pictures. Others who just want to sell $75 mini-sessions to hapless seniors are struggling with Art, what is it anyway, when this is completely irrelevant to their goals.

The various overlapping roles of photography push and pull us, as people with cameras. Without a clear goal in mind it's difficult to know what you're supposed to be doing.

By understanding how photography fits in to our society, by reading and doing a bit of criticism, we clarify our goals. I do many things with the camera, and, usually, I know which one or ones I am doing when I press the shutter button. It's been a gigantic leap forward.

You don't have to do it. Many photographers seem to find their groove by instinct and are perfectly happy with whatever they're doing.

But if you're not, well, now perhaps you have some hints as to what to do.

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