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What The Critic Saw

Why do we think that we can know with confidence when something is or is not an "art" work? What is the unifying idea underlying our belief? And what if we see something that we decide is not art -- what other meaningful experience do we expect from the way it presents visual stimulation?

Those questions lead me to one special question above all: how does a photograph, my primary medium, design its content such that its content designs the experience of seeing it?


I've been making, critiquing, teaching and using photographs for over 45 years, and during that time there are in my memory only two or three occasions where explaining photography's distinction has significantly shifted the prior breadth or direction of understanding.

As a very good example: one time was when technology allowed photograph makers to work with colors as a before-the-fact material, as a default, as (by analogy to writing or music) the actual vocabulary or notes not just available to be used but suggesting how to even think about things, what to imagine -- in the case of pictures, literally what to look for when seeing.

The opportunity to cross-reference decades of material discussing images and art set up a task that ironically might get done in just a few days with todays artificial intelligence and machine learning computers. But here, it has been done old-school style: exhaustive personal examination of my notes to distill common and recurring concepts from the many ways they have been brought up. The task was to identify the smallest vocabulary necessary to model what is going on while an artist is developing a "work" (product) of art (production).

To stage this, first we have a definition of art that applies. Art is an intentional effort to discover and convey how the arranging of materials can generate the perception of meaning.

The artist carries out the activity; the critic studies the activity to see how its actual effects become probable, in particular effects that have high priority to observers. Critics are essentially analysts. (In contrast, "Reviewers" have only the responsibility to measure whether the priorities of given observers are more or less satisfied by the work and and to notify observers of that.)

Art critics most often presuppose that they will be able to detect three things: something that the artist was trying to accomplish (an effect); some way that the artist tried to get that done (a cause); and what relationship was established in fact between the intent of the effort and what actually happened (what effects were actually caused versus hopefully caused).

In the course of criticism, some particular aspect of that relationship is usually highlighted as a special reason for whether the work is "successful", "important", "flawed", or otherwise qualified with some expertly subjective designation.

Some of those evaluations are more about how the work compares with other works, with preceding trends, or with prior efforts. Those references to things other than the present work usually reflect a sense that the critic knows as much about how to meet the artist's intent as does the artist. So of course it reflects the idea that there is a model of what is required to be deemed effective, which presumably is already known by the critic if not by any critic who could be considered "qualified" themselves.

But of course it is the very nature of art work that the effort can produce something that doesn't exactly match any work that already exists. The norm is that any additional new work produced will be at least a variant on a predecessor, or at most an outright innovation that perhaps "breaks the mold" or entirely replaces it. The critic is responsible for identifying what difference in particular is supposed to be the origin of the meaning attributed to the work.

The analysis and distillation of my experience as an observer (of effects) and student (of causes) of art product boils down the semantics of a vast range of ways of talking about art, into a logical "architecture" of art production.

As a hypothesis, this architecture argues that no critical discussion of an art work ever gets beyond the concepts and relationships shown here, but instead winds its way through the items. The discussion omits some of them and selects others; dwells on examples of those selections; and emphasizes the specifics of those examples in terms of history, uniqueness, culture, preferences, resources, psychology, or other contexts that say how the critic thinks something has importance.

The central single subject being described in the critical discussion is "Create". It is about deliberate activity to produce something. This "critical" model describes what the activity involves in its progression from origination to outcome.

  • Inspiration or instigation to create -- We immediately think of the effort to create in terms of Why, What and How. These are considered to be the three essential dimensions of the activity, just as a solid object has 3 dimensions (length, width, height).

  • Constraints of creation -- In production, the artist develops areas of concern that have boundaries; these concerns ( shown here as expectations, rules, and intentions) are each in effect a translation of a dimension into a particular condition that predetermines the particular work.

  • Evolution of creation -- During the development of the work, the artist allows their concerns to vary as much as is felt to be interesting, relevant or necessary. You can see that the variations --turned actual versus imagined -- are accountable in terms of key influencers.

  • Development of creation -- Each dimension associates exclusively to one aspect of development that the artist "works with" -- How refers to Means, What refers to Ideas, and Why refers to Motive.

  • Category of the created -- The result of creation is an item of a certain type. The distinguishing essential dimensions of the type are Form, Function, and Class. We can see that each dimension of creation (why, what, how) contributes to how we can account for the distinctions of the created. Each dimension of creation (what, why, how) relates to each other, and each of those relations accounts for one of the dimensions of type. For example, together, Why and How together account for the Function of what is created.

  • Elements of the created -- Each separate dimension of type (form, function, class) is entirely distinct from the others, but it includes particular influencers on creation such as concept, technique, and object. What we see in the critical model is that Form involves the influencers "objects" and "concepts", but in a specific way that differs from how objects are considered by Class and how concepts are considered by Function. The influencers are logically associated with the dimensions of creation, and the strength of a type of influencer is strongest where it most directly serves one of those related dimensions.

Overall, the diagram's map of connections between the above factors provides a model for managing the consistency of how discussions about the work identify and communicate meaningful observations. Since it is a model, it also can be used at least experimentally as a prescriptive guide to creating a discussion. That in turn offers a common frame of reference to the artist and the critic. Most importantly, the artist and the critic are not necessarily separate individuals; instead, they are distinctive roles and perspectives that in fact can be in constant cooperation or dialogue during creation, about such matters as priorities, values, and options in creation.

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