As viewers, we cannot possibly be fully conscious of how deeply critics affect our aesthetic values. A negative or positive comment about an artist's work becomes a veil descending in front of our eyes, clouding our judgment. Even my words here may shift readers in a direction more to my liking than theirs. And persuasion is my intent. Every writer wants to be trusted, believed. The nature of critical writing -- of all writing -- is based on an unspoken agreement that what is being written contains truth. How simple. How obvious. How false. If tastes were absolute, there would be no need for critics, and our wonderfully diverse world would stink of a hellish sameness. Criticism is opinion, informed or not, and the evidence is right down the street.
The exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s, is a gateway to exploring the complicated relationship between artist and critics, critics and national culture, and for pondering how these relationships have developed over the ensuing years. There are many reasons to tour the exhibition. With more than fifty of Homer's artworks on view, it is a generous display of an American artist's early investigations of oil and watercolor painting processes and styles. It also saunters nicely through political and socioeconomic issues of the era immediately following the American Civil War. Works depicting African-Americans are particularly engaging, as they attempt to neither glorify nor minimize the circumstances of freed slaves during the nation's difficult period of Reconstruction. But most fascinating, and what the show makes apparent, is that so little has changed: Critical assessments of art often are flawed or shortsighted, but they also can build reputations. Homer received his share of venomous attacks but was hailed as "one of the few American painters of originality and force." The disturbing discovery in the exhibition is not how insolent critics could be but the extent to which Homer may have acquiesced to their expectations.
"At different times, [Homer's] work seems to have helped the critics come to terms with certain issues; at others, he clearly adjusted his brush to accommodate critical commentary," writes Dr. Margaret C. Conrads, Samuel Sosland curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins, exhibit curator and author of the exhibition catalog. "[He] received the highest praise when his work reflected his absorption of the critics' reactions to prior work." For example, Conrads posits that Homer may have not only removed a painting from an exhibition after it received harsh reviews but also destroyed it.
The image of a gifted and often progressive artist playing eager-to-please child to his critic-parents is disillusioning, to say the least. To say the most, it smacks of selling out. Because Homer left no written testimony to his defense, I invited three Kansas City artists to help illuminate the relationship between artists and critics and to discuss how they manage to protect their work and egos from the influence of criticism.
"I get pissed when people don't understand what it is I'm doing," says Ron Slowinski, a painter and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. (His most recent work, titled God and on view at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, is his 25th solo exhibition.) Although Slowinski claims to have never been a victim of a damning review -- and in fact has been lauded in publications such as The New York Times -- he bristles at critics who are either unable or unwilling to comprehend his work. "That's what really disturbs me the most, when a critic goes so far off track and doesn't think about what the artist is trying to do. That's what really hurts."
Painter Marilyn Mahoney agrees. "It is a little frustrating when people don't get it. I'll think, 'Well, gosh, it's so obvious!' But I'm not mad at the critic, I'm just puzzled." Mahoney has exhibited for more than twenty years and feels her critics generally have been supportive. But when she received a negative review from Washington Post art critic Paul Richards, after having previously received a positive review from him, she felt forced to reevaluate her art. "It put me into a downward spiral for a while and affected my work in a negative way. All of a sudden I felt a little unseated. It caused me to reinvestigate. I didn't decide that Richards was right or wrong, or hate him, or think, 'Aha! I'm going to get you!' But after I was done with my investigation, I did decide that, yeah, my work for a while wasn't that great."
Homer must have been puzzled by misunderstandings too. In his seascape "Rocky Coast and Gulls" (1869), the loose brushstrokes influenced by early French impressionist techniques contributed to the work's "blotchy" and "unfinished appearance," according to his critics. Yet from a contemporary perspective, such brushwork may be read as an attempt to capture the animation of nature, allowing the viewer to enter and vicariously experience the place as Homer experienced it: screeching gulls fluttering their wings, shifting light upon the rocks and sand, a ship slowly moving across the horizon and the ocean spray rendered so aptly that we can almost taste the brine in the air. Yet critic Theodore Grannis condemned the white spray as "the work of a boy who has dashed a 'spitball' upon a newly papered wall."
Such was Homer's plight: simultaneously respected for taking chances and rebuked for wandering too far into uncharted territory. Innovation always risks pushing artwork beyond the critics' comprehension, for its context -- the near and distant past -- is exactly what it attempts to flee. Homer thus exemplifies the adventurous artist's dilemma: Paint what you wish and you may never be understood. Paint to be understood and you may never paint what you wish. In the endless search to define beauty, how does an artist walk that tightrope between personal judgments and those of the critics?
"We are all grown-ups, out here in the world, showing our work in galleries and hoping it gets paid attention," says Christopher Leitch, an artist and designer whose works have been shown and collected internationally since 1984. "We should exercise the strength of our convictions and take our strokes, when they come, and our lumps like good little professionals. When we want condolence, well, that's what friends, tea and sympathy are for." Leitch also writes art criticism and so can take a Janus-faced view of the artist/critic paradox. "I am unsure if it is the role of any critic to stand in as a kind of mentor to guide the development of any particular artist. It would seem to be up to the artist to ascertain what degree of influence might be allowed. Some artists are extraneously affected by the smallest observations in print; these are silly people who should be ignored." Nevertheless, even Leitch has found himself surprisingly affected by a critic's words. "A writer once pointed out, in a review, something so obvious about my work. I had never considered it and had actually fretted about the context the observation arose in response to, and I'm grateful for that. This revelation hasn't changed my work specifically -- the work grows out of the work -- but it has irritated me with a grain upon which to deposit the nacre of consideration."
Tastes change. Beauty dons a new hat. With modernism and even postmodernism behind us, it is easy to forget that subjects and styles of painting we consider antique once were shockingly new. Over time, critics grew accustomed to Homer's "sketchy" painting style until, finally, it no longer inspired debate. The revelation that Homer may have succumbed to creative expectations outside of his own serves to exemplify the artist's vulnerability to criticism. No artist is immune from critics' barbs or laurels, for it is inevitably the critics who make works known to the broader public and, therefore, define the ever-shifting parameters of the art world. But somewhere, somehow, the artist finds the interior space to shut out the voices and forge ahead, just as Homer continued forward.