In defense of the “dumb critic”

I was taught in my studio program at Concordia University, a “dumb artist” avoided all formal knowledge, academic history or current trends in art making. Their work was the supposedly unbiased and untainted from this oppressive preconceptions and something genuine and pure was created from this isolation.

Though this definition and examples of it are surprisingly hard to find via Google, it has always nonetheless been a fascination for myself as an approach and years later when I started to do my video and blog reviews of exhibits and trends, I decided I would invent the approach of the “Dumb Critic”.

Specifically, this is a deliberate method of engaging an exhibition (and /or interview with an artist) without any research or familiarity at all. The review must be conducted as soon as possible upon arrival of the Dumb Critic.

I believe this is extremely valuable as feedback to the artist or gallery, as their work has an unfettered connection through immediate impression and without defined preconceptions, such as statements of work or curatorial essays, suggesting an interpretation for the audience. It is more firmly relevant to our time in art history to operate critically within the same context as most art work is viewed by the general public – a sudden confrontation defined by a short amount of time to articulate an overall impression and then broadcasting it to the world.

This approach is tied in to my philosophy of rejecting high production standards if those standards delay or prevent contributions of art documentation / art practice to the general public, for the greater good. It is a rejection of high production standards and design as substitution for meaningful and substantive content. It is a question of the problem of the public and it’s relationship to the visual arts, and vice-versa – there is almost a fear, a intimidation, a judgment of whether the visitor to a community gallery space understands the work, and by understanding you have read the texts associated with the exhibit and previous aspects of contemporary art history. That there is a right and a wrong answer.

So arriving in a gallery and being confronted by an exhibit that is strange and bewildering in it’s unfamiliarity and presence outside any expectations is a valuable and savoury experience for me, and I believe is a way of approaching art that relates most directly with the majority. The majority does not mean it is the right or only way to engage something, but in a cultural communications approach it is a valuable insight to have.

So this concept, this rationalization of being a Dumb Critic frees me to see more exhibits and meet more artists and other arts professionals, and in turn allows me to offer this experience to my audience. I ask dumb questions fearlessly, and propose interpretations that are completely off-the-wall compared to what was clearly written in the catalog or press release. This is a resistance to bowing to the pre-conceived notions of the artist, the curator and the space and trying to see the work as it is, truly alone and without pomp, even if it is only for a little while. Most artists tend to appreciate this very much – at least the ones who are interested in research and truth and play.

Then there are the rigid, formulaic ones who are career ladder climbers and don’t like a lateral turns of thinking of how to approach things in their industry. An example is when I attended an art and technology conference recently and made sure I read nothing about most of the lectures I attended (and live-tweeted about) – including one called “laser-based collaborative space”. I was dreading this was going to be project management software or something but it was, awesomely, actually, about actual lasers and hacker collectives. When I jokingly mentioned that to another artist, he sniffed “you didn’t read anything about the lectures? that’s novel.”

I enjoy reading, listening and researching (duh), but it is just as valuable sometimes to do this afterwards. Here was an artist who is confined by his preconceptions, perhaps unaware of his insecurity to approach the strange and fantastic for the sake of it being strange and fantastic. His rigidity and his literalness, for me, define much of this industry and it’s barriers for a wider participation.

For me, the rejection of the Dumb Critic is related to the rejection of blogs or tweeting over a paper catalog or commissioned academic essay. One is to satisfy funding requirements, establish credibility among peers and create professional opportunities within a set of expectations – the other is a way to dialogue about seeing and experiencing art without worrying about all that other stuff.

I guess that is novel.

One comment

  1. Kenny Wilson · November 18, 2012

    Interesting idea and similar to what I have been doing recently just turning up at places and seeing what’s there.

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