Art Critic Alum Praises Subjectivity in Art Writing

Whether abstract art enthralls, irritates, bores, or confuses you, its style serves as an example of how polarizing and diverse evaluations of art can be. 

Art is one of the few arenas where a variety of responses is to be expected and where debate often arises about which response is the most valid or correct. But when there are neither rulebooks for what makes artwork good or bad nor a consistent method for interpreting art, how can we even begin to talk critically about it?

Acclaimed art critic Kay Larson PO ’69 has spent her life developing a sense for how to do just that. Larson says she began reviewing art “accidentally.” Although an artist while at Pomona College, she wound up majoring in philosophy and wasn’t expecting to write criticism until she wrote a column for The Real Paper.

“I thought, well, I have a lot to say, I’m very opinionated, I’m always arguing with the art critics I read, and then I ended up writing a column for [The Real Paper],” Larson said. “They published the first thing I wrote and published everything I wrote after that.”

After that first column, Larson went on to write for New York Magazine, The New York Times, and the Village Voice, among other publications, while also serving as an associate editor for ARTnews, teaching writing at the Center of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and writing a book on the influences of the artist John Cage, titled Where The Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. Currently, she is the managing editor of Curator: The Museum Journal. She cited the challenges of approaching art criticism as what has kept her involved in the field for her entire life.

“The question is, how do you do it?” Larson said. “Do you write about simply what your eye sees, what the color is, what the form is, and so on? But then you start asking yourself, well, why am I seeing it that way?”

Larson described the internal conversation about that question as the most challenging, yet most informative, aspect of writing criticism. Essentially, it forces us to dissect how our subjective experiences change our objective experience of art, she said.

“There’s an object, literally, in most cases, that you are writing about,” Larson said. “But everything objective is also subjective, so everything we are, every emotion, every thought, every experience we’ve ever had, we bring all of that to every moment of objective witness.”

The common manner in which we not only see a work of art but also think about it shows the pervasiveness of our subjective perspective’s influence on our “objective witness” of art. Larson, however, doesn’t see this subjective contamination of our experience as a roadblock in effective artistic criticism. Rather, she called it out as the greater driving purpose of art criticism, which she said could be approached in many ways.

“Writing an art review is a process of conversation between the objective and the subjective…. So, there’s a vast range of how you can write about an artwork,” Larson said. “You can write a very simple review: I was here, this is what it looked like…. Or you can get very complicated and very philosophical.”

From Larson’s view, the most interesting—and perhaps crucial—part of writing art criticism is the thoughtful recognition of this conversation: how the unavoidable subjective experience changes one’s depiction of the objective experience. In this way, one can critically evaluate art by affirming that any evaluation of a work of art as good or bad will be subjective to a certain degree, but that having this point of view is a healthy part of our consumption, discussion, and appreciation of art, not a burden to it.

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