Critiquing art is difficult. There exists, however, a set of tools for analyzing work in an intellectual way and I’ve been grappling with how to incorporate those tools into my own photography. The trick, I find, is to make work that isn’t bound by particular criteria. For example, I’d argue that art speaking to issues of feminism (Cindy Sherman) is more successful than art tackling the subject head on (Barbara Kruger).
So what about analyzing art constructively? Looking at Ansel Adams, for example, it is rather easy to critique his images. Do all of the zones register detail? Is everything sharp? Is the composition violating any rules? If all goes well, Ansel has masterfully created a Modern work of photography. But photographers tend to dislike old Ansel. The reason why is deeper than the fact he’s the only photographer most people know.
I think, and very humbly by the way, that Ansel’s work isn’t really saying anything. I don’t think the man himself would disagree either. It isn’t supposed to say anything. It is just a well-executed image and the subject matter is beautiful. But artists want more than precision craft and beauty. Artists want work to speak on a psychological level, to touch people and illicit reactions. We want Cindy Sherman, not Edward Weston…to drastically oversimplify things.
That is one theory, as to why artists and photographers tend to not care for the work of Ansel Adams, but love the photographs by Gregory Crewdson. Crewdson’s photographs are sharp, the zones register detail and, if I was critiquing his images through a modernist lens, that’s where the discussion would end. However, there is obviously a great deal more going on in his work, beyond aesthetics, and people have trouble describing what that is.
Because it’s so difficult to pinpoint the thesis of Crewdson’s images, they become all the more successful. He hasn’t bound himself by any one artistic theory, i.e. “I’m going to make art based on Cultural Marxism.” Many artists are also not aware that they are boxing themselves in. I’ve been guilty of it on countless occasions. So again, the challenge is to make work that isn’t constrained. How does one do that? I’d argue that the answer to that question separates great art from ok art.