Monday, April 18, 2016

Fight! Fight! Fight! Why artists must be rivals

Fight! Fight! Fight! Why artists must be rivals
Some might say it's philistinism to put artists in competition with each other. But it's been a fact of life since as far back as the Renaissance
Richard Wright, winner of Turner Prize 2009
Richard Wright's art was better than his competitors', according to the judges who gave him the Turner prize in 2009. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Why do critics insist on comparing one artist with another? More to the point – why do I do it so obsessively? I have just published a review of two artists showing at this year's Edinburgh festival. Although Martin Creed and Richard Wright are both showing in the same city at its most crowded cultural season, that does not make them competitors – surely? Well, that's how I see them. My article today sets up a rivalry, and seems to assume that to love Wright as I do, it is necessary to disparage Creed.
The objection is obvious: I've imported a competition where there was none intended. In fact I learned to see art in this way from the Renaissance artists and writers who founded criticism five centuries ago. Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1550) rarely praises an artist except comparatively – to be good, in his book, is to be better than someone else. Nor was this competitive mania confined to Vasari or to Florence, where they were endlessly having standoffs. In Venice, in the Library of St Mark's , you can see ceiling paintings done by rivals fighting to establish themselves. Their efforts were judged by Titian himself, who awarded a gold chain to Paolo Veronese.
But enough art history for today. There is a very modern reason to make these brutal comparisons. To put it simply, there is no other way to criticise art – unless you believe in an absolute cultural standard. If you believe there is only one "correct" way to make art, or only one true style (a timeless classicism), then of course criticism is easy. You simply praise or condemn artists according to their fidelity to the norm.
Only about one in a hundred people today believe in such a norm, and they are kidding themselves. Art is so multifarious, so ceaselessly changing. We need critical standards that are contingent and temporal, rather than timeless and absolute. The only way to find these is by comparison, to say "this is better than that". In trying to explain why, you just might discover your deepest beliefs about art – the stance you want to adopt on an unsteady log on the rapids of time.

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