NAKED ART CRITICISM
“When works of art aren’t provide with a text—in an accompanying pamphlet, catalog, art magazine, or elsewhere—they seem to have been delivered into the world unprotected, lost and unclad. Images without text are embarrassing, like a naked person in a public space…Only the domestic intimacy of a private collection allows for the full nakedness of a work of art.” Boris Groys. “Critical Reflections,” ArtForum, 1997.
In the fifteen years since Groys published that thought the situation has gotten out of hand. If works of art were clad with text then, they now parade around in ridiculously excessive costumes. Too often artist statements and press releases get more time before the eyeballs than the artwork itself. Groys wasn’t the first to draw attention to this lamentable phenomenon. A decade earlier Arthur Danto noted in the preface to Encounters & Impressions that “the making of any artwork whatever—even if it looks absolutely traditional—demands a complex philosophical justification and a critical apparatus it is up to the artist to furnish.” Perhaps the embarrassment Groys felt encountering a work of art unjustified by philosophy and unsupported by any obvious mechanisms of criticism–bare of text, in other words– was not a consequence of these elements being missing, but that they ever became required in the first place. Who set the dress code anyway?
Naked Art Criticism (NAC) is about the experience of the art object, as purely and simply as possible. Press releases and artist statements are a hindrance to this practice because they create a wall of information between the work of art and its experiencer. Rather than encouraging a site for perception, they put the experiencer in a position fundamentally geared towards recognition. The distinction here is crucial to the types of experience one may have with a work of art. As the philosopher John Dewey expounded in a series of lectures that became the book, Art as Experience, “recognition is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely. In recognition we fall back, as upon a sterotype, or some previously formed scheme.” When we are actively perceiving a circumstance, “there is an act of reconstructive doing, and consciousness becomes fresh and alive.” By contrast, “recognition is too easy to arouse vivid consciousness. To perceive,” Dewey concludes, “the beholder must create his/her own experience.” He never says this, but he would probably agree: press releases and artist statements deny us our opportunity to be creative.
Works of art that rely on press releases or artist statements will not come off well naked, presumably, though they may in ways unexpected. Simply put, when you’re prepared to see something, you look for it. When you’re not, perhaps you don’t see it. Perhaps you see something else. What might this alternate vision be?
Dewey gave those lectures in the 30s, but there is deeper tradition to this exercise. If we go back to Marcel Proust’s brilliant essay on Chardin we’ll find my feelings reflected precisely. After a thorough discussion of the merits of Chardin’s still lives and domestic scenes, drawing from them allegories and metaphors of philosophical depth as one would water from a pump, Proust addresses the painters of his day, “painters are constantly inveighing against writers for talking nonsense about painting, and finding things in pictures which they, the painters, never meant, never wanted, to put there. But put it there they did, and that is enough for me…if Chardin had done all I described, he never intended it, and it is even highly probable that he was never aware of it.”Proust’s experience of Chardin’s painting is entirely his own, neither governed nor guided by anything outside the work itself. When critics engage works of art in this way, they run the risk of re-creating the object of their attention through a process of self-reflective meditation. There is no hand to hold, no signpost to direct. Indeed, even the artist may be surprised by the critic’s path and what discoveries are made along it.
Just as there are many types of art so there are many types of criticism, each with its own characteristics and charm, none so full or complete as to make the others irrelevant. NAC is grounded in body-to-body contact, a moment of shared physical space with the object one’s of attention. It engenders a necessarily subjective perspective, one recently championed by Tom Morgan in an essay titled Three or Four Types of Intimacy wherein he writes, “to get down and dirty with art, to feel its grain and let it feel yours, is subjective, sure, but it is also the most meaningful critical activity I can imagine.” I’m in solidarity. Any work of art will do, so long as it’s naked.