English Version | art criticism

27 Feb 2020
By Nuno Miguel Dias

“Art criticism is a form a literature that condenses, increases or emphasises, organizes or tries to harmonize, every idea that comes to mind when it is confronted by the artistic phenomenon.” Paul Valéry, 1932.

“Art criticism is a form a literature that condenses, increases or emphasises, organizes or tries to harmonize, every idea that comes to mind when it is confronted by the artistic phenomenon.” Paul Valéry, 1932.

These are not appropriate times to any type of critic. There are just too many. Are they good? That is debatable. If there is a door social media has opened it is one that, until now, worked like that door we can find in (good) horror movies. We cannot open it, or everything would turn into rivers of blood, poltergeists, wights, or even two souls saying in choir: “Come play with us, Danny”. Meanwhile, uncle Zuckerberg does not know how to stay still, and a day does not go by that we do not want to call a psychic to exorcize our feed. And I am not talking about the three hundred and fifty pictures of the Carnival costumes of our friend’s children (210 Elsas from Frozen and 140 Jokers), from the thousand and one cheesy scenes in questionable restaurants on Valentine’s Day, the 164 green bracelets they give at the hospital or, as soon as the heat comes along, the (too many) feet buried in the sand because there they spent a whole Winter saving on the pedicure. I refer to the opinions about everything and everyone, based on opinions on everything and everyone given by someone that always has something to say about everything. These are times when everyone believes to be a critic and exposes its critiques so passionately as someone who totally lacks the ability of self-critique. It is an atrocious impunity. It is as if Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, that is responsible by a consciousness change in global civilization, was a flyer handed by an old lady at the door of a store to whom we say, “Sorry, I have no time now” answering her question “Do you have a minute to listen to Our Lord’s word?” If there is no reason in criticism, which contains so much poison, so many frustrations, and a huge lack of information screaming for a little bit of culture, it becomes obvious that culture is now even more urgent that ever. In any form. But it is necessary to separate the waters. And that is why art critics persist, among a marasmus of resistance. If I was one of them, I would have already given up. Often through difficult words, the critical analysis of a work of art (i.e., art criticism) is probably as old as art itself.

Of course, we are referring to the very early phase of musical creation, when our ancestors beat hollow trees and an external element would come along and say, “You are off tone and this piece is monotonous and repetitive”, or when someone drew rock art and the next day a very influent member of the community said “The notion of scale is shameful and the cave’s illumination is a disaster”. It was necessary to become aware of artistic production as an essential element of our civilization so the art critic could become a figure whose role was fundamental on the discussion and interpretation of art and its value. Which brings us to a plausible hypothesis: art critics may have been the ones to make the several social extracts notice the importance of art. However, as we can see in Plato, Vitruvius and Saint Augustine, art criticism is quite ancient. Over the last centuries, the interpretative analysis and ascetic judgements dominated the speech used by art criticism, which may have led the artists to develop their work, and also to give it greater depth, besides allowing the spectator to understand and even interpret the pieces. We all think the art critic has a higher perception of art, a sort of privileged conscious that, beyond any doubt, has long offered us a discernment that required a different level of knowledge. Artists (at least those who can accept criticism, even if it is acid) considered critics’ opinions useful, instructive, and even encouraging to do better.

Elena Martinique, an American philosopher that writes under the alias Jelena, suggested in 2017 that art criticism was in crisis. To support this statement, she quoted Dave Hickey, an art critic who, against himself, argued: “Criticism, in its most serious form, tries to channel change. But when nothing is changing, and no one is lecturing, who needs criticism?” In the book What happened to Art Criticism (2003), the historian James Elkins drew attention to the decline of this activity: “In a global crisis, when the world is dissolving in a set of disorder with an ephemeral cultural crisis, art criticism is dying. Mass-produced, mass-ignored.” The opinion is generalized among specialists: These last two decades, art criticism become boring, amateurish and lost its meaning. Critics become PRs of artists and galleries, and the art market became an environment that embraces the mechanic of modern art, whose objective is to make money. A lot of money. On a context of cultural production for the masses, critical thinking itself is considered grim by many. The art critic may have become a caricature of all the antagonistic or counter-current thinking; a hipster, who is the “alternative type” of the 21st century. Martinique manages to perfectly describe the state of Art as we conceived it today. “The modern art market is particularly concerned with the creation of money and not with the fertility of art. Thus, the most expensive works of art exist to increase the power of money to fertilize itself, not the value of art. Money has no value itself. It is only valuable regarding something it can be exchanged for. Even so, it is the quintessence of value in capitalist society. With the commercial value of art usurping its spiritual one, ascetic, cognitive, emotional and moral values have been overcome by money. As soon as it is show and sold, the work of art becomes a product for consumption as any other mass-produced object.” Walter Benjamin also stated: “It seems like art has become a commodity to be sold and bought. As any other thing, Art was absorbed by money, and it is the market, not the critics, who decide who is the great artist of a given time”. This means that we have very strict stereotypes: those who have money to buy extremely expensive works of art know as much about art as most of us knows about making an irreproachable Beef Weelington. Or using simpler words: “life is unfair”. Oh, the people’s wisdom, that feeds us from such a young age. After many arguments of people who see the glass half-empty, maybe it is time to say that, in this matter as in most others, optimism sees an opportunity (or several) in what seems to be an intense and generalized darkness. If Baudelaire said, “Art criticism is born inside the womb”, who are we to disagree?

If, more than providing context to the public, the role of the art critic is to activate his critical speech about a work of art, there will always be the need of more perspectives in this relationship. And thus, the world will always need art critics – and increasingly so. With the growth of industries ruled by creativity, the work of art is considered a creative phenomenon, not the starting point for a critical dialogue. It is the beginning and the end. We live in times where there is almost an obsession regarding art. Museums visits are increasing. Music festivals celebrate music everywhere. Film cycles run throughout our cities, and street artis a prevailing hashtag. Due to all this, the role of the art critic is, today and more than ever, to separate the wheat from the shaft. If the old art critic served as some sort of quality control, the current one must educate the public, encouraging it to enter the world of artistic production, whether good or bad, so that people may think by themselves.

The ideal would be to be able to cure that optimism in Her Majesty’s land, where newspapers play such an important role that they do not even allow critics to be ignored. Every year, with the Anthony Burgess for Arts and Criticism, The Observer recognizes the new generation critics with a newspaper column on the most diverse types. But since this Brexit thing tends to work both ways, let’s instead remember a time when Saturday mornings in Portugal implied a visit to the newsstand so we could figure out what was “being said” about the artistic events of the following weeks. There was Se7e, Blitz, DNa, and so many valerian pills to calm a generation eager for culture, that did not have the facilities of the Internet. The survivors of those time when we ran to the record stores, and were forced to ask our friends who went to England to brings us a Nick Cave record or that immigrant family that lived in France to bring us something by Boris Vian in August. Rui Tendinha and Miguel Somsen took their first steps in this together. Both in this and in art criticism, of course. At Blitz, the newspaper. With the giants Nuno Galopim and Álvaro Romão. Photographies were always captured by Cameraman Metálico and Carlos Didelet. Rui Tendinha had already worked at Minho Semanário. He then went to O Jornal and, past more than two decades, he is the man of Cinetendinha, a revered “cinema spot” and compass for lovers of the 7th Art. Miguel Somsen began writing about small independent publishers at the weekly newspaper LP. When it closed, “Blitz bought my fish”, as he says, and he started writing about cinema. Today he is a journalist at TVI, and cinema is his motto. What made these two journalists follow the path of art criticism? Somsen says it was the need to survive in the field. “Indie music did not come to Portugal. We had to go get it at the source, talk to the producers and publishers in England and France, convince them to open us the door, and send records to Portugal. They believed in the national market, sent us records, we wrote about them, sent the texts to England and everything was fine”, he recalls. It was different regarding cinema. “It really had to do with the voracity and passion for discovering more about cinema and the movies. First through a documentation center, the so-called CINEDOC, at Oeiras, where I spent my afternoons researching about movies, directors and actors. Then, through French, English, and American magazines published in Portugal. Finally, trough the VIMECA pass which allowed us to see movies for free and before they premiered, at the so-called screenings, and was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I had free access to everything. I just lacked talent. That talent, I believe, only appeared at Independente, so it was after I got fired from Blitz due to mediocrity " (oops). Rui Tendinha confesses his cinephile compulsion as a cause to embrace this métier. “When I was a teenager, I wrote reviews for myself. I remember my movie crush began when I was a kid, recording trailersof TV commercialsin Beta videotapes, and imitating their voices. Then I also cut the posters published on the newspapers.”

Is writing about movies or music, when it is a passion, easier than writing about any other art? Rui Tendinha denies it. “Nothing is easy, but I fell music is even more subjective. I still feel that saying a movie is good or bad may be a matter of intellectual laziness. We must avoid the trend to say, ‘my taste is better than yours’, although cinema-wise we are at a stage when everything is getting in the trenches: the chapels of experimental cinema, the nostalgic who stopped in time, and people with a more eclectic receptiveness. As regards music, I think prose may be more poetic and freer in terms of content. If there are any chapels out there? Sure, but the freedom extent of the music critic is always more deliciously chaotic, especially these days, when it is easy to listen to everything.” Miguel Somsen prefers to leave each thing in its place. “I do not know. Each art has its particularities. Each critic has his ability to interpret what he sees as he can. In a way, it is easy to those who understand, it is hard for those who do not, it is impossible for those who try too hard. I do not know how a critic is born, but to me it is fundamental to really like music and cinema, and it is very important to understand the historical language in order to distinguish the copy from the real thing, the epigone of originality, and the farse of the effort. But watching lots of movies and listening to lots of music is not enough. We must add intuition to routines. Cinema and music have characteristic advantages that may work against us, like the fact of being very popular and causing different public opinions and critical analysis. This makes many people in Portugal believe that what is important on a review is saying ‘It was a success in the USA, or it won the Brit Awards.’ But what is the use of that? To better sell our products or to distort our review? Today’s challenge is more related to the difficulty of being an independent critic amid so much industry-dominated art. You must decide whether to play for them, or against them.” He also talks about the old urgency of writing about these subjects, even when not professionally. “I felt that urgency long before I got paid to do so, when I was a child and sent my first critical text about the management of Belenenses to a sports publication of the 80s (I can never remember if it was Golo or Offside, and they both closed). So, if that happened before I was a critic, I think I can say, with some confidence, that I will continue to do this after I die as a critic – which, as we know, will only happen after I die as a person. What I mean is that there is world beyond criticism, and that world is still criticized, even if, as it happens now on social media, we do not get paid do to it.” Rui Tendinha does it by guttural instinct on social media. “I do not belong to the Twitter club, but I have already felt the urge of the immediate response with Cinetendinha. At an international film festival, there is always the temptation to share with the reader what we have just watch in firsthand. At TIFF, as soon as the credits of Uncut Gems, by the Safdie brothers, appeared on the screen, I found myself writing a one-minute review, stating my love for the movie and Sandler. It was stronger than me. A review for nobody to read on Instagram.”

After so many songs and movies, don’t these boys think time has made them more demanding? Rui Tendinha does not hesitate. “I really think so. I am trying to be more synthetic at Cinetendinha. I feel a sentence has more power than a paragraph. But time has hidden qualities. I really praised Parasites at Cannes and people were suspicious. After the award season, I revisited the movie and felt a greater feedback. Some movies need to come at the right time. The person who launched the Oscars’ winner in Portugal, back in September, must by counting how much money he lost.” Miguel Somsen shares this opinion. “Yes, a lot. Because with so much accumulated culture, you can more easily understand why somethings do not work, why Parasites seems to be a Western movie, not South-Korean, and you realize where it misses; you understand the faults and the qualities of the latest Tarantino and you even insist on explaining to others why you not like that final scene everybody does. With so many things accumulated over so many years, you realize why Jojo Rabbit feels like a Wes Anderson copy paste, why Scorsese insists on making the same movie over and over again, but now twice as long. And you get to love movies that use a simple language that does not insult the viewer or tries to deceive the critics. Overall, we become more prepared for the tricks and traps, the kicks and punches.” Now I was the one who laughed.

And that trend to think that critics are elitist, is that a confirmed stereotype? Miguel Somsen runs away from that label as fast as he can. “I do not consider myself elitist at all, but I do think my path has been elitist, because I made some serious taste decisions regarding my education, and that must have influenced my taste until this date – not to mention the culture my parents gave me. My cinema education is commercial. I began by the Americans, and only later realized the propaganda vices associate to Hollywood’s movie language. Today, despite everything, despite French and Italian cinema, the new Turkish and Iranian waves, Dogma, German cinema, the Austrian Haneke, the crazy Von Trier, people who give us a plural, subjective and unique vision of the world, I still favor the school of American films from the 70s, from easy riders to raging bulls, as Peter Biskind wrote. So, since Hopper, in1969, to Raging Bull in 1981, everything that is between are the movies we watch today and that our generation consumes. (There is the wrong trend is to think we are all fruit of the 80s. I think the 80s are a moralistic attempt to correct the rottenness of the 70s, but these are just irrelevant theories.) It is different with music: during the 80s and the 90s, i.e., the MTV advent, I only listened to music that was not off the charts. This made me miss lots of cool stuff that was on the charts. Today I can recognize its value, but back then, due to the elephant-juvenile need of being against the system, I ignored it. Today, I changed my attitude towards everything that is alternative, so I try to find the things I enjoy the most, whether they are commercial or not. It may be Fleetwood Mac or War on Drugs.” Rui Tendinha further shows us that we chose the ideal people to interview on this matter. “The trick is not being elitist in front of the elite. My favorite movie critics are those who can worship a movie by Tsai Ming-Liang but understand that a Marvel blockbustersigned by Taika Waititi is auteur cinema. The way I see it, the big problem of some reviews is snobbery and prejudice. Whenever there is a Paramount logo, there is always apprehension. And that deeply annoys me.”

We all have a movie or a band we considered harmless at the time of its hype. Today, however, we see it as a classic, and maybe as a guilty pleasure. Are art critics immune to this? Rui Tendinha does not think so. “I recognize I felt some resistance against Vanda, by Pedro Costa. Today I think it is a movie that has aged well. But I do love my guilty pleasures. Canet’s diptych Les Petits Mouchoirs and Nous finirons ensemble is a good example. It is one of those movies we must say we enjoy silently, like The Lone Ranger, the fiasco that started to bury Johnny Depp’s career. I must admit I have a thing for turkeys, especially when signed by Barry Levinson.” Regarding this subject, Miguel Somsen thinks the problem is his. He is being humble. “There must be many things I neglected and then learned how to like or did not like at the right time. I am not a great fan of Apocalypse Now because of Platoon. I am not a great fan of ET because I think Close Encounters of the Third Kind is much better. I never loved Wild At Heart, by Lynch, although I recognize it belongs to its own universe. Coppola’s One From The Heart was incomprehensible, but I lacked vision; I preferred The Outsiders and Rumblefish. So, I do not go as far as saying that something is beneath my greatness. On the contrary, I am the one who has not yet grown enough to understand certain things, just like I think many people did not grow enough to distinguish the quality of many things.” If they both believe what they do and the determinant role of art criticism? Miguel Somsen is a believer. “I really believe. But I do not believe in the access platforms to that criticism. They must be renovated. Newspapers are dead. To me, there is nothing more important than hearing someone speak, or write (well or badly) about something I do not know. For instance, yesterday I went to eat a steak at a small restaurant at Rio de Mouro just because someone recommended it. I am very sensitive to criticism and to people pasts and experiences that differ from my own, and that can be seen on a review or on a finger pointing at the moon – or Rio de Mouro.” Rui Tendinha is more specific. “As a dialogue and a starting point for sharing, sure. Cinema criticism these days, when almost every week more than five movies premier, is almost a public service barometer. There are increasingly more bad movies in commercial theaters, and we need critics with some courage and good sense. Yes, good sense is now our most valuable weapon. But I also like stubborn criticism, the type that defends some bedside filmmakers to death. What would become of our world if we found out João Lopes wrote horrible things about a Steven Spielberg movie... the horror! The horror!”

What about specific cases of colleagues who changed – for better or worse – their opinion about a movie/record? “I remember Manuel Cintra Ferreira, from Expresso, stroking Million Dollar Baby. The way he always stroked the benefits of a certain classical American cinema touched me unconsciously. It awakened in me the taste for a certain classicism that I thought it was away from my heart (it was when I worshipped David Lynch). But even before that, other critics showed me, in a hidden way, that movies must be rated by our emotions and heart. But the heart must already be wide open,” reveals Rui Tendinha. Miguel Somsen prefers to mention the ability some critics had to change the perspective of art criticism itself. “I must evoke Mário Castrim’s texts on television, or the way critics like Paulo Nogueira and Fernando Caetano rewrote cinema through the newspaper O Independente. I cannot say Bénard da Costa or Prado Coelho were not influent, but they were so in different ways, and in their fields, due to the institutional power they held, and not necessarily because of the intellectual rigor they conveyed. Apart from those, only Miguel Esteves Cardoso can be considered seminal up to today, because he did everything before others, because he was at the epicenter of music at the right time, because he created his own language: elitist and serious, funny, popular and distinct. He taught many people to read and as many to write.” As you see, art critics are not the bogeyman. They are people just like us. Who even go to have dinner at Rio de Mouro. I would not be caught dead anywhere near!

This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Art issue, from March 2020. Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Arte da Vogue Portugal. 

Nuno Miguel Dias By Nuno Miguel Dias


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