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The critic's role: to encourage talent, never to dictate to it

Nothing annoys me more than the still widely held assumption that art is an either-or situation, that all paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, or whatever, can and should be classified as either good or bad. And that it is the art critic's primary responsibility to do just that.

The critic simply cannot be that final - any more than he can view artists as though they were runners in a race or boxers in a match, and judge them as though they had only two alternatives: to win or to lose.

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He can, of course, advise and recommend. He can and should alert his readers to new talent, introduce them to new trends or ideas, and point out exceptionally brilliant or tawdry painterly performances. He can suggest that greater attention be paid to certain artists and that others with overblown reputations be given short shrift. And he can see to it that his readers get a reasonably accurate overview of a particular art season or of a particular movement or fashion.

Beyond that, however, there isn't much he can do - unless, of course, he forgets himself and acts as though he were as much a part of the creative process as the artist himself. In that case he will tell those who create in what style they should work and what formal ideals they should hold; he will set himself up as the exclusive judge of what is good and bad; and he will do all he can to shape the art of his time according to his own ideas and prejudices.

What such a ''critic'' fails to understand is that his function begins after, and not before, the sculptor, painter, etcher, or whatever has finished his work. And that, while he may encourage and advise talent, he cannot dictate to it without ending up a fool.

Every individual manifestation of talent, creativity, the life force - call it what you will - has an identity and a destiny of its own that cannot be fully perceived or anticipated by even the most astute outsider. The artist himself has only the vaguest inkling of where his creativity is leading him and is at times as surprised as anyone else by what he has produced.

At best, the critic can help release creative energy. He cannot, however, engender or control it. Faced with a flawed work of art or an artist blocked from working at full strength, he can only point out inconsistencies, ambiguities, or unresolved contradictions, or indicate where he feels an impediment to full creativity lies. He can say, ''This works, and that doesn't, '' or ''What you've done here is a dramatic step forward.'' He may ask why the artist limits himself to safe compositional devices or unimaginative color, creates clumsy pastiches of other artists' works, repeats himself endlessly, or depends too heavily on brilliant technique. But whatever he says or asks, his focus should always be on the release of creative energy, on growth, and not on conformity to a particular style or on final judgment.

It can be argued, of course, that such advice and encouragement is the responsibility of the teacher, not of the critic. That the latter's only obligation is to alert his readers to the good and the bad in today's art and to recommend which exhibitions are worth seeing and which aren't.

I disagree - but only to the extent that that is the critic's only obligation , or that his readers should be his only concern. A critic's function is subtle and complex and includes many activities that have little direct bearing on judgments between the good and the bad. Of these, the most important are attempts to broaden existing perceptions of art's significance and range, and to promote dialogue and confrontation between himself and younger artists designed to speed the latter on their uniquely individual ways.

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The critic plays a crucial role in dissolving prejudice. If he doesn't attempt to break down existing barriers between artistic attitudes and dogmas, who will? Just as important, the critic, by virtue of his deep involvement with the art of his day and his familiarity with the great art of the past, is in an ideal position to perceive the nature and quality of a young artist's work and to aid him at crucial moments by helping him clarify his intentions or by lending support when everything seems bleak.

There are those who insist that such intimate interactions between artist and critic do no good, that they only destroy the latter's critical objectivity. If art dealt only in absolutes, and if art criticism were an exact science with precise rules and regulations, I might agree. As it is, however, I do not. Art, especially when it is new, is dramatically open and volatile and cannot be approached as though it were a purely objective and definable thing. Creating art, after all, is a life-inducing activity that bears little resemblance to the manufacture of products on an assembly line. To know what it's about, the critic must be aware of the entire process of creativity, not merely its end products. And to do that, he must be as willing to talk with and listen to both beginning and established artists as he is to look at their work.

What we don't want is a critic with dainty sensibilities and a prejudice against anything new or imperfectly formed, with a belief that all but a few famous and ''civilized'' artists are irresponsible, overgrown children best kept at a distance from all right-thinking, distinguished individuals such as himself.

Such feelings of superiority might be tolerable if they didn't contaminate critical writing and drive an even deeper wedge than already exists between creator and critic. I don't blame the artist for his ambivalent attitude toward critics. On the one hand, he wants good reviews; on the other, he is fully aware that he is subjecting himself to the probings of someone who probably knows and cares much less about art than he does, but whose attitude toward him is patronizing and possibly even rude.

What is needed, it seems to me, is a clearer understanding - by artist, critic, and public alike - that art is an ongoing and ever-evolving process of actualization and realization, not a series of objects whose beauty and importance can be determined as precisely as the fact that 2 + 2 EQUALS 4. And that, while the critic may occasionally play a minor - if vital - role in clarifying that process, he should by no means be seen as art's final judge and jury.

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