Victoria read English at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and graduated in 2011 with a Double First. She lives in London, splitting her time between acting, writing, reading and teaching.
This blog will be a melting-pot for all things literary, artistic, and culturally exciting, getting you to start thinking about the connections between arts subjects and the world at large.
So next time someone asks you ‘What’s the point of an English/History/Languages/Art degree anyway?’, you’ve got plenty to say in return…
‘Why do you think the author has used these effects in the passage?’ I asked my ten-year-old tutee recently. She looked at me accusingly and responded, ‘So we could answer this question?’
Very meta – and entertainingly different from another of my students, whose latest comprehension work included the comment: ‘I think it is a very nice adjective and the author has done a very good job.’
In some ways I agree with them – it is fairly difficult, at ten years old, to see why we have to witter on about imagery and assonance and the curriculum list of ‘literary techniques’ every time we read a book. Yet the critical activity – analysing and evaluating artistic works – is at the heart of most arts degrees; and you and I, as art students, must believe, at least subconsciously, that analysing art is worthwhile, or we would not have been so drawn to our respective subjects.
A short history of the Critic
Nowadays we tend to see criticism and reviewing as second-class activities, perhaps even as parasites feeding on the work of art, and ultimately not very useful. Yet, a century ago, the critic enjoyed an exalted status as the arbitrator of culture. T.S. Eliot viewed criticism as an important judgment, deciding which works ought to be classed as Literature proper; and Leavis considered criticism to be essential to intellectual progress, its benefits eventually filtering down to the non-educated members of society, and enriching their lives as well. No longer did the artist himself or herself have the final say about the meaning or importance of his or her work: Roland Barthes declared that the author was dead, and the critics of the 20th century insisted that the true meaning of an artistic work lay in how it was received by the viewer. Criticism reigned supreme. The dominance of criticism grew to the extent that a passer-by, glancing at a statue and calling it ugly, would be deemed to have given a valid critical response.
The effects of social media
The spread of social media has meant that it is much easier for people to comment on artistic works, and therefore directly or indirectly to shape their production. Artists often have to be responsive to the deafening clamour of Facebook or Twitter comments, particularly musicians; it’s no coincidence that pop singers like Rita Ora and Rihanna, both very active on social media, are also wildly popular. Artists are paying attention to their ever-more-audible audiences.
Elsewhere, too, interpretations of art are becoming more open, less dictated. Mark Wallinger’s Diana, shown at the National Gallery in 2012, invited viewers to take turns to look through a keyhole at a woman bathing. Itself an interpretation of paintings by Titian, Wallinger’s work updates the classical story of the goddess Diana to the present day – in part because of its insistence on the individual viewer. Because the work can only be viewed by one person at a time, the critical act becomes, once again, entirely personal; the interpretation must be only yours. Similarly, the Tate announced recently that it plans to remove the small white plaques to the side of artworks which offer a few analytical comments about the work, or which place it in its historical context. No longer is the viewer told what to see in an artwork: the judgement must be entirely his or her own.
The future of criticism and the role of an arts degree
In a world so rich with new artistic creation, it’s clear why we might search for a critic’s voice to give us an authoritative voice on each artwork, to tell us beyond doubt what it ‘means’, or what it’s ‘about’; but it’s getting harder and harder to find a clear answer. That’s why now is exactly the right time to study for an arts degree. We learn to analyse and criticise – even from the age of ten – in order that we can learn how to think for ourselves about what we see. There’s no longer a ‘right’ way to interpret art; today, as the saying goes, everyone’s a critic.