Monday, September 29, 2008

Critical Perspectives

I bought all the papers at Heathrow off the plane from Marrakesh, and happened to read three pieces on the Rothko show in the Taxi home: two reviews and Louise Jury's piece in the Evening Standard 'Rothkos reunited at Tate' (a news item, not a review). The Evening Standard piece was fine and dandy but the reviews, as is often the case when a blockbuster trundles into town, were interesting for their very different standpoints.

Rachel Campbell-Johnson's piece in The Times, 'The Doorways of Darkness', was balanced and fresh and spoke about Rothko with sensitivity. The review was not afraid to acknowledge the difficulty of the work and dealt with any potential concerns that the viewer may have that such non-representational work is a huge joke and there may be sniggers at the back of the class if you don't 'get it'. The review didn't shy away from the work's overwhelming religiosity, further reason why people find Rothko so very heavy, but crucially the piece ENCOURAGED the reader to go and see the show. It also provided an intelligent realistic framework within which to consider the work, and this, I believe, is ultimately the critic's role. A good critic can also deal common prejudices a mighty blow: I think it was Brian Sewell who once said he wrote for both the artistic connoissieur AND the man on the Clapham omnibus, which when you think about it is actually a bloody good summing-up as well as a difficult task.

By contrast, in The Independent, a now dreary paper, Tom Lubbock likened the affective powers of Rothko's visual language to the 'the hook' of a pop song, even quoting 'Lady in R-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-d' and 'I can't L-I-I-I-I-VE' to illustrate his point, encouraging the viewer to see Rothko's artistic force as being as gimmick-filled as the average 3-minute top-10 hit. He even called the paintings 'big tragic riffs'.

Contrast Lubbock's last sentence:- 'But by all means go along to the Rothko show and be moved, it's just a pity you can't buy the LP', with Rachel's:- 'And what if you feel nothing in front of his canvases? Well, that's not nothing because to feel nothing is one of the strongest feelings you can have'. I think that simple comparison speaks volumes. My overriding feeling is that where The Times provided what I would like to describe as 'a key to assist', The Independent was being glib, leaving the viewer and/or readers short changed.