Art Criticism – Cutting Through the Sales Pitch

“The so-called art in Hong Kong is a cultural product, and a cultural product has to be sold. It is manufactured. It is being sold to the public as a product.”

Perry Lam, Editorial Director of Muse Magazine, Hong Kong’s leading publication about arts and culture, opened last night’s talk Against Manipulation – How the Critic Empowers the Audience, with this comment. The talk was run jointly by Muse Magazine and the JMSC.

Perry Lam, Christian Caryl and Tang Shu-Wing discuss criticism of art

Perry Lam, Christian Caryl and Tang Shu-Wing discuss criticism of art

“We are living in a society which is increasingly sophisticated in its selling techniques. That means the audience has to build up a certain kind of defence against this kind of manipulation. We have the Consumer Council which is supposed to be on the side of the consumer, but we don’t have anything in art and culture that is equivalent to a Consumer Council and it is left to the critic to take that sort of role.”

A packed house at the Fringe Club Studio heard three luminaries discuss the role of the Art critic: Perry Lam; Muse Magazine Critic-in-Residence, Christian Caryl; and Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts Dean of Drama, Tang Shu-Wing.

Manipulation of the audience, and how to cut through it, was one of the main themes.

“Art is a lie, but a lie that tells the truth,” said Lam. “It is the job of the critic to cry foul and call a spade a spade. Unless what we want to do is opinion mongering, we need to ask the all important question of whether we will recognise manipulation when we see it. And whether we still have the ability to tell the truth from the hype, the derivative from the original. That require us as critics to think hard about our subject and we need to know exactly what we are doing … and always and unfailingly we need to take the side of the audience.”

Muse Magazine Critic-in-Residence, Christian Caryl, who is a critic himself, added to the definition of a good critic, listing expertise in the subject as essential, the possession of passion a must, and an ability to add value to a work of art, in other words, to make the audience see something they wouldn’t otherwise see. On top of this, a critic should empower us to question the assumptions of an ever growing entertainment industry. He quoted Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker‘s architecture critic:

“One hopes that criticism is pedagogy of the best sort, not teaching facts but teaching the reader to find his own facts, not seeing for the reader but teaching the reader to see for himself. The critic’s comments should not be judgements handed down from Olympus, they should be words that make connections in the reader’s mind that had not been there before.”

Caryl clearly loves art, citing many examples of literature, visual art and music that he has consumed. He admitted to being seduced by art: “The good work of art is out to seduce us; a good critic shows us when we’re being seduced but doesn’t ruin it.”

Tang Shu-Wing, Dean of Drama at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, is also a director, actor and writer. As a practitioner, he responded to the allegations that artists manipulate their audiences, saying that while it can happen, not all artists seek to control their audience in that way. For him, an attempt to manipulate an audience crushes imagination.

However, he said that the motivation of the artist is the main factor in whether there is a conscious attempt to manipulate the audience or not. He gave three reasons why an artist might be open to such behaviour: i)  commercial — wanting to reap big money, ii) professional — for existence/subsistence, iii) for a social purpose — using art as a tool of communication. Of those three, he was the most condemning of artists wishing to promote commercial products for monetary gain.

So, what advice for budding journalists who are interested in this profession?

Christian Caryl commented that a critic should be a good journalist; a good art critic should have the same ability and pragmatism as a political writer. Most of all, a good critic should not shred a work of art for the sake of it, to sell papers, or further his own career.

“Everybody loves a bad review, a vicious review, it’s always lots of fun, but it’s very important for critics to have respect for the act of creation. It’s a very slippery, mysterious, complicated thing, and it is true that being a critic is a very easy thing to do, in the sense that we sit up there in the audience, but it’s the artist who is putting it out there, putting himself, herself, out there. I really think the best critics are the people who keep that in mind, who don’t just enjoy the security of that perch but really attempt to respect what the artist is up to.”