Critics are a shifting assembly. It is a recurrent gospel that the interested critic is the interesting one; one who has given or taken interest enough to pique a similar response from the audience in that which they critique. It is not irreverent therefore, to suggest that with vested interest an artful critic might happen be the artist himself – weaving new contention into his work, and duly new legacy. In an increasingly fertile terrain, contemporarily we can see rising evidences of PR spin, but historically it has been much the same, where those within secular movements created their own nepotistic endorsements, helping others to help themselves.
A neat example of this is Man Ray and his 1921 piece Cadeau. The piece itself was originally a simple flatiron, but with the perturbing addition of Ray’s fourteen sharp-end nails along the flat-press base; a nullifying edition, rendering in parallel both distrust in the iron (if used, it’s going to rip up your shirts), and at the same time a chum camaraderie and dark wit in the simple inversion of its functionality. It is no accident that Cadeau has a legend attached to it, and that the fable of it far outweighs the actual piece. You will find that you are far more intimate with Man Ray’s own horror-lit photograph of it – largely due to the unexplained disappearance of the original flatiron, and partly due to the delay of its later, almost-commemorative 1963-made replica – but there are no conspiracy theories here, just the scoop that the subsequent photograph – Man Ray’s own visual critique, lit with pronounced subjectivity and bias – overshadowed the original to such an extent that the original itself was no longer required. The weight of that critical value meant the audience would now see the photograph, not as documentation, objective observation, or record, but as another work, with its own value and functionality, and entirely in its own right. More interestingly, the strength and legend of the piece itself was further reinforced, and the likeliness it would not be forgotten further amplified.
For the work of the critic to become, as the above example, no longer distanced record or objective documentation but a separate and valued work in its own right – work consequently to be criticised in its own right also – a number of unwritten rules reoccur, the most consistent of which remains the use of bias. When a reviewer uses subjectivity and opinion, or when we recognise good research and resonant grammatical construction, or when review is horror-lit or vehement or humorous, the foundations of legend begin to actualise, and the power of suggestion shifts from artist to critic. Likewise, canny critics are not unfamiliar with ‘impression management’, and significantly the most detrimental commentary to the endurance and permanence of any work remains indifference, not slander. As an audience we become entangled in these layers – the voyeur, the participant, the critic’s critic – and each assessment then has opportunity to become more valued than the piece it assesses. As it does so, we get instances where the proposed audience will trust a review or ‘suggested impression’ better than their own experience of the work. Furthermore, in some instances they will assimilate it to such an extent that they will supplant the view of the critic for their own experience of it altogether, never experiencing the work firsthand. Here we can draw similarities back the earlier Cadeau example, noting that the piece itself need not be present for its audience not only to believe it existed, but acknowledge exactly what it felt or should feel like to encounter it.
In the majority of cases it can be said that the audience’s initial experience of a piece is immediately altered by that which the artist, curator or critic has suggested they ought to experience, especially so with masterful or lively comment. The candidness and popularity of subjective appraisal means the audience is thrown under a torrent of arguably non-retractable opinion, in addition to both their own initial encounter with the work and often a statement of intent from the curator or gallery underscoring the artist’s own design as to how the piece should be appreciated or read. Indeed, by the very nature of curation the works are immediately contextualised and the audience is given suggested comparisons to chew or eschew. The critic then should not take lightly his influence on the audience when it comes to how a piece is remembered, and in the shaping of its legend, but neither too should the audience underestimate themselves; each member is instrumental and as able to participate in the debate as they believe themselves to be.
It goes without saying that legend and critique would not exist without one another – one is reliant on the stirring of narrative, and the other on that narrative to stir. Even more so in a climate of increasingly publicly-engaged art and the vogue of blurring spectator and collaborator, the success of the artist’s work lies not only in the strength of its own conviction, but equally, and perhaps ultimately, in the willingness of the audience to participate in the formation of that critical narrative.