I do not read the Wall Street Journal and know nothing about Eric Gibson, the features editor of its "Leisure and Arts" section. My comments are restricted to this article (May 28) about the recent fire in a London warehouse that destroyed a large collection of contemporary art. Neither do I know anything about the specific art works for which Gibson expresses his particular scorn (the usual kind of philistine skepticism), although I will say it's an especially cheap device to pick out just two of over one hundred works and implicitly hold them to be representative of the whole.
What's really objectionable about this article is the attitude it betrays toward not just contemporary art but toward the nature of art in general, an attitude, I'm afraid, shared by all too many self-appointed arbiters of contemporary art (and literature) given all too much space in "mainstream" newspapers and magazines. (In this case I am able to say that it is an attitude most academic critics have abandoned, although in many cases an equally extreme and unthinking attitude in the other direction has been adopted instead.) This view of art is pretty much encapsulated in this statement: "It's not that I think incinerating art is a good thing. It's just that the work of these artists--as of all contemporary artists--is too new and untested to have acquired the cultural heft that makes it seem an indispensable part of one's existence. I regret the fire happened, but I can't quite see it as a body blow to civilization."
The key words here are "cultural heft" and "civilization." According to the definition of "art" apparently being used by Gibson, art is about "culture," and a work of art becomes a part of culture by acquiring "heft." It would indeed seem that a work of art doesn't necessarily reveal this heft upon initial examination since new art is too "untested" to have it. It's a weight that, presumably, subsequent critcs load onto it. (Now you know why all those "great works" of art and literature you were exposed to in school seemed so heavy on the spirit.) Related to this is the art work's relationship to "civilization." Civilization, one has to conclude, is that ponderous institution wherein all of that great mass of art can be stored, and such lightweight fare as was being kept in that flimsy warehouse burned through lack of time to bulk up.
A little later in the article Gibson also pronounces on the role of critics: "Criticism used to be about detachment, discernment and making rigorous judgments about artistic quality. Critics used to refrain from applying the word 'masterpiece" to any work less than a few hundred years old." Putting aside for now the questionable assumptions behind the description of what criticism "used to be," there seems an elemental lapse in logic here. How can criticism be about "making rigorous judgments about artisitic quality" if you have to wait around several hundred years to say anything at all?
Art is not for culture or for civilization. Art and literature are for the enjoyment and edification of people, individual people, artists, writers, viewers, and readers who live now and can't really hold off until someone three centuries from now says its okay to call it art. "Civilization" may not have suffered from the London fire, but it's quite likely that potential viewers of this art have suffered a loss, the loss of a possible experience of some worthy art that can't be replaced by going to a museum to look once again at certified "masterpieces." Not to mention the loss felt by the artists themselves, which is real enough despite the "perspective" Gibson appeals to at the end of his article.
Nor is true that criticism has always been about "detachment, discernment and making rigorous judgments about artistic quality." Detachment and discernment (the latter predicated on the former) were indeed qualities valued by certain kinds of modern critics, but they were mostly attempting to show how works of art and literature that seemed alien and unconventional (not unlike the works Mr. Gibson disparages) could be judged artistically accomplished if you regarded them in the appropriate ways. Actually very few of these critics were known for "rigorous judgments" about inferior art, as the consideration of such works added nothing to their broader goal of enlarging our understanding of what "art" could be. Only certain newpaper-based critics interpret the requirements of their job in this way.
We'd all be much better off if critics in Eric Gibson's position, able to discuss art with a relatively wide audience, would forget about culture and civilization and making rigorous judgments about quality and stick to describing and explaining the works of art they actually encounter. Consigning it all to the "bonfire of the vanities" only makes them look silly.