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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 7. 1962.




The critic, whatever his subject, be it letters, fine arts, music, cinema or the stage influences public judgment and must feel a responsibility to his public and to his art.

One of the great evils of the commerce of journalism, is the critic's indulgence in mere descriptive criticism: a critic's mere narration of the impressions made by a work are not enough; there must be an attempt, at least, at a critical evaluation. To say as I have heard say, that one must be a painter to assess painting is nonsense; if this were so there would be no bad painters. I rather fancy a deficit of film critics if this proposition were applied to the field of cinema. Film producers are not, as a group, noted for their saturation. Before considering the application of these principles we must understand the change which has taken place in contemporary art criticism.

Up to, say, the advent of impressionism, the critic had seldom been up against a painter's lacking of a certain pre-requisite and fundamental standard; for the painter's aim was technical perfection. However, today, many of our painters are not — as their predecessors — skilful craftsmen understanding their Metier. No stringest apprenticeship to one or more masters marks out the present day artist; in fact, there is a race to hang up the artistic shingle and grull a very gullible public.

With the advent of photography and the collapse of institutions in which the artist believed, the painter, with his counterparts in music and letters, became segregated from society. No longer bound by the stringent values and conservatism crumbling beneath his feet, the painter turned to the exploration of the formal values of art: Art for the sake of Art. Solid, artistic form was eclipsed by the obsession with personal expression; no great technical competence was, or is today, required, for the explorations of the formal, abstract values, with which the contemporary artists are so pre-occupied.

Still Life — M. L. Fowling.

Still Life — M. L. Fowling.

Courtesy "Evening Post."

Form today is concentrated on for the sake of form; colour for the sake of colour; in fact creation has displaced communication; all, regardless of the conimunicability and coherence or otherwise of the work. I do not say all abstract work is therefore bad painting; I do say that when an artist with no evidence of prior training in representative work springs up out of the earth like a mushroom, demanding a critic's assessment, then one ought to be very wary indeed in delivering judgment.

The deficiencies in such work by two recent painters Andre Brooke and John Godrich, to me apparent, can be concealed by endless expedients; Godrich's for example by the ornamentally-decorative quality — the gigantic and weird impasted effect hides inadequate skill in the handling of depth and perspective. Mr Brooke's work one finds no mastery of the constituent elements, no consistent skill or quality; merely thematic consistency. It is a gross impertinence for young, immature, incompetent or merely indifferent artists to expect favourable reviewing; in fact, if they were in England, they would get no review at all. It is easier to exhibit in Wellington than anywhere else in the world; press notices are bestowed regardless of the quality, or lack of it of an artist's work with the result that first-time painters, Sunday painters, and very indifferent painters are reviewed on a par with professional painters who suffer from this false and ludicrous state of affairs. The recent James Smith Gallery fiasco is a fine example; getting, as it did, as sympathetic a public write-up as, say better work by Peter Mclntyre.

When that brilliant New Zealand painter Douglas Macdiarmld exhibited last year, critical appraisals were very similar to those awarded to other painters of lesser stature. Yet, Macdiarmid stands out like Shakespeare at a Chinese wedding! His work deserves in equity, at least twice as much space and thought given to, say, an inferior artist like Brooke. Others merit no mention at all; invariably when it is given it is resented, unless the critic prostitutes his sensibility at the foot of the (presumably) God-like artist. The sooner this N.Z. egalitarian mania is disposed of the better!

A word on the one-sided acceptance of, and reliance placed upon, formal elements like form, colour, texture, line or tonal values. All these separate elements are integral parts, going to make up good painting. Where the painting relies for its value and intrinsic worth solely on these separate elements — even though in combination — the work must contain soul, sincerity and warmth.

Far too many abstract works — both in music and art — are churned out by routine, barren and empty, satisfying only the theories giving birth to them. I personally do not believe colour alone can replace the other pictorial elements; mechanical art ought have no place.

The most amazing defect in N.Z. painters is their neglect of genre and figure painting. Topographical trifles are not enough. Contempt of schooling by our younger painters is a prime cause: the level of erudition in the part of many of our artists is deplorable. The critic today cannot, I think, give unmerited praise for work which is quickly depreciating in technical skill. A new synthesis is long overdue in our country and, no doubt, there are painters coming on at this time who could show the way. Qualitative, artistic values must take precedence over the merely subjective ones: but our whole culture is to blame. To live, the Kelliher topographers must "pot-boll" their work to sell it. Given enough commercial and private commissions, this could be overcome. I foresee, otherwise, only further alienations of the artist from society. The noxious inroads of commercial art are no less dangerous but there is little that can be done; only by public education can one hope to instil a receptivity for good painting and then, only when such painting has reappeared.

In this article Contributing Editor Gary Evans discusses the problems of Art criticism and touches on its allied question: what is good painting? The consideration arises partly out of a recent letter received in which our critic's assessment of the work of a Christchurch painter, Andre Brooke was attacked.