Interestingly those organising the workshop wrote that they "chose to feature examples because of the issues and questions that they raise rather than the artistic or aesthetic quality of the work of art" and "that works of art made for the church cannot be judged according to the same criteria as works of art made for the gallery."
These statements taken together seem to assume that criteria exist for determining the artistic or aesthetic quality of church art and gallery art. So much talk occurs about good and bad art that this would seem a reasonable assumption and yet I doubt that anyone would be able to articulate a set of criteria that had majority agreement in relation either to church art or gallery art.
The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones recently wrote an interesting piece on the way in which he stated that the age of the art critic as an unassailable voice of authority is long gone due to the force of digital debate and the era of readers biting back. Entitled 'how I learned to look – and listen' Jones wrote that the way he thinks about art criticism has changed: "Criticism in the age of social media has to be much more playful and giving ... Criticism today is not about delivering truths from on high, but about striking a spark that lights a debate."
In the past, he argues, he and other art critics could speak in an "aggressive, cocksure, dismissive voice, determined to prove that my opinion was worth more than my readers" but "in today's more open forum – where people answer back, and where people often know more than I do – it becomes more and more absurd to claim such august authority for one's opinions." As a result, the way he thinks about his work, and about art, "is infinitely more plural and ambiguous than it was in 2006."
Essentially, Jones is arguing that, while he can still express strong opinions, he is now much more aware that his opinions are essentially personal opinions and need to be acknowledged as such. Again, in essence, he is saying that there are no agreed criteria for assessing, evaluating and critiquing contemporary art.
Not everyone agrees. Rachel Whiteread, in a recent G2 interview, seemed to argue in favour of elitism and against the democratic developments that Jones has noted, saying that "the papers can't get enough of culture and it's just rammed down everyone's throat. And actually I think to the detriment of culture, because it belittles it. Everyone can have a say, but not everyone's an expert, not everyone's an art critic. It's become far too easy to have a pop at modern art."
Grayson Perry has been exploring the issue of taste in the Channel 4 series All In The Best Possible Taste. He thinks that "there will always be this barrier where there are people who are looking for rules. A lot of the lower middle class still need reassurance and clear rules, which they find in brands and in definite trends because they perhaps don't have the confidence to go on their own intuition and try something else out. So there's always going to be a large proportion of the population that have what they think is a very clear idea about what is good taste. But of course the good taste is just an illusion; it's just that they're obeying the rules of their tribe."
In answer to the question as to whether taste is completely subjective or whether there is such a thing as good taste and bad taste, Perry said: "I think it's very similar to the way that the art world works. It's consensus plus time. If it's agreed amongst the tribe for a fairly sustained amount of time, then it becomes good taste. Of course there are always fashions and changes within the group but they're often quite slow-moving. The art world is just another tribe in many ways and has its own system. What's interesting about the art world, of course, is that that's its business. It's almost like taste and visual culture are its business and therefore it's very, very self-aware about that, and other fields are less self-conscious than the art world."
On this basis, Transpositions would be correct in thinking that works of art made for the church cannot be judged according to the same criteria as works of art made for the gallery, because the church world and the art world are essentially different tribes with different tastes and fashions. Consensus is about the contemporary establishment, whether church or art world, while time is about the judgement of history. There are, of course, examples both of hugely popular artists in their own day being more harshly judged by history and of obscure artists in their own day being hugely valued through history.
Academia, the markets and the media all influence and affect the judgements that are made by consensus and history. Again, Perry is perceptive noting that, while the goal is to become "people who are confident enough to say, "I'll be the one to decide," it is "often when we think we're at our most individual we're most vulnerable to influence, and perhaps the hard-wiring of our upbringing comes into play; the material culture that one imbibed with one's mother's milk, that's the default setting on your taste, and often people don't even realise that's happening, when they make microscopic decisions all the time about what clothes to put on and how to decorate their houses."
Perry argues that "Part of being an artist is that you are achingly self-conscious about every aesthetic decision you make." Whiteread agrees that "anyone who makes art over a long period has to know when they are making good art and bad art" but acknowledges that "money and fame are very addictive" and can lead to people losing their "critical distinction" and making "shit work" which is "emperor's new clothes."
Artists are constantly making choices about what works and what doesn't in their own work and, each time they exhibit, also receiving feedback from others on the same issue. This is perhaps why artists develop their own personal sense of 'good' and 'bad' in art but, again, it has to be acknowledged that this primarily personal, although inevitably artists then also compare and contrast their choices with those of their peers and against the history of art.
The variety of styles and media that exist within contemporary art limit the extent to which such contrasts and comparisons can be made however. The action of Marcel Duchamp in exhibiting ready-mades and his arguing that the choice of the artist makes them art essentially opened floodgates which render rules or criteria for the creation and comparison of artworks superfluous.
In my recent review of The Christ Journey for Art & Christianity I noted that Sister Wendy Beckett, who wrote meditations on Greg Tricker's artworks, is an enthusiast who applies the instruction in Philippians 4:8, to fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise, to her writing and presenting. The kind of poring and praying over images that characterises Beckett's best writing can be a distinctively Christian contribution to the plurality of art criticism and can be cultivated through a framework that encourages a sustained contemplation of the artwork and which notes our personal responses to each facet of the work as well as their cumulative impact.
I have outlined this framework previously in relation to Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. All response to art begins with contemplation of the work itself and consideration of our initial responses. Those viewing Piss Christ without knowing anything of the work often comment on the beauty of the images, the traditional nature of the crucifix and the way in which it is lit.
Next, is to contemplate the nature of the artwork itself. In this case, a 60x40 inch Cibachrome photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in urine. Responses often include comments on its beauty and the traditional nature of the image in addition to questioning whether the work is intended satirically.
Then, the ideas and influences of the artist in creating this piece include it being one in a series of classical statuettes submerged in fluids and a comment on the commercialisation of religion. Responses often include questions about other statuettes in the series and about the artist's motivation in attacking the commercialisation of religion.
Then, in thinking about the artwork’s relationship with its historical and art historical context, we can see that the crucifix has an art historical lineage but is also a contemporary commercial religious product, so the work contributes to a debate regarding traditional and contemporary expressions of Christianity. Responses often include a sense of agreeing that the work raises issues about the nature of images in religion.
Finally, the response of viewer’s to this artwork has been twofold. There have been death threats to the artist, vandalism of the artwork and attempts to ban it from those who view it as an attack on Christianity. Alternatively, there are Christians who see it as a depiction of incarnation; of Christ coming into the detritus of life. Responses often include the acknowledgement that the work stimulates a depth of debate because it works on several different levels.
The work comes alive to us through the different layers of response we make to each facet of our consideration of the artwork and the debate this engenders. Each facet that we have considered involved an real engagement with aspects of Christianity and such sustained reflection on artworks will often lead to a recognition of the spirituality and religious engagement inherent in much modern and contemporary art and can result in distinctive approaches to art criticism from a Christian percpective among the plurality of views which is contemporary art criticism.
The Kinks - Dedicated Follower of Fashion.