Artist and Critic

by cjdown

Fairfield Porter, Forsythia and Pear in Bloom, 1968

I have recently been reading Art in its Own Terms: selected criticism 1936 – 1975, by Fairfield Porter. It is refreshing to read criticism which derives from a practitioner’s perspective. The bulk of the book takes the form of reviews and short essays written for various periodicals and is edited and introduced by painter, Rackstraw Downes.

What I have found most interesting is the way that ideas are elaborated over the course of several pieces, so that the sense of his pressing concerns comes through without being imposed on his subjects arbitrarily. Notable entries are a letter to the Partisan Review, on Clement Greenberg’s essay “‘American-type’ Painting” as well as a letter to the Kenyon Review lambasting Wyndham Lewis’ essay on Picasso. In both of these letters he takes issue with the way that art is treated through the language of the critic and also with the implicit assumption that the critic is somehow in a position to tell artists what they ought to be concerned with. An example:

Greenberg seems to think that the artist today must give up the figure: the figure has been done and nothing new remains. It was also done by the Greeks, but the success of the ancients was imitated, not shunned, during the Renaissance. American painters have not been supreme in figure painting; perhaps from shyness they have felt more at ease in landscape. There is now figure painting being done by Americans, but Greenberg doubts its validity, telling them in effect to stick to their old provincialism; and this misunderstanding of value is also provincial … as a war is not won by brilliant retreats, so creativeness is not advanced by imposed limitations.  (p. 235-6)

and on Wyndham Lewis:

Your article on Picasso by Wyndham Lewis was very bad. I think that like many literary people you have an indirect understanding of the visual arts, and that since Lewis is both a painter and a writer you thought he must be an art critic.

The criticism shows about Lewis, first, that he looks at paintings through the spectacles of words, and without these spectacles would be blind. He does not know the difference between the pictures and his talk about them, and his talk is about many things that are quite true and relate to the pictures, but are non-essential … Second, the article shows that Lewis paints from a written program, concocted in advance. He is a manifesto painter. In the end of his article he compares Picasso with his manifesto, and finds Picasso lacking. Picasso is not a manifesto painter, and the end of the article shows that what is at issue is the manifesto by Lewis, nothing else. It serves as an advertisement for the work Lewis is planning to do. (p. 239)

Although I don’t necessarily agree with Porter’s evaluations of the work he reviews,  what I admire most is his commitment to an independent point of view, as well as his terse impatience for the critical platitudes of his time. Part of his impatience comes from a desire to encounter art, as the title states, in its own terms, as artistic experience, not through an extrinsic theoretical platform:

Art can be known best in its own terms, artistically. The experience of art is inhibited if it is considered something to be “understood”, something, like juvenile delinquency, that resists social control, but whose prevalence requires a sympathetic and tolerant attitude in order that society or individuals may manipulate it for social benefit or private ends. (p. 146)

His opposition to Greenberg is distinct from postmodern critique. It doesn’t seek to replace the work that Greenberg champions with a more theoretically correct version. Instead it seeks to give the work at hand a closer and more sensitive hearing, trying to determine what it proposes about the world rather than how it might fit into a conceptual schema. There is no attempt to generalize into an idealized theory of history, just attentiveness to his own experience.

Downes sums up this position in his introduction:

In the critical disputes of his time his was one of the sharp minds, and this is where independence became an issue. It was not that Porter liked contention: he loved art, and felt it was deeply important that critics, who mediate between art and its public, should represent it truthfully. Mainly he was at odds with a criticism which, ignoring the evidence that actually surrounded it, purported to deduce art’s future from its immediate past; and so control it, as Porter put it, by imitating ‘the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.’ (p. 19-20)

A useful and timely model for artists and critics alike.