I will be considering the work of various critics in a bid to pin down what makes for successful criticism.
In order to dissect and compare these various articles, I am going to match their content against Gilda Williams’ suggested critical format  of:
- What is it? What does the artwork [or exhibition] look like?
- What might this work mean?
- Why does this matter to the world at large?
Jonathan Jones, Guardian
I have selected three of Jones’ articles spanning the gamut of his approval — a one-star review, a three-star, and a five-star.
‘Rembrandt’s Light review – glorious art needs no gimmicks’, three stars
What really strikes me upon first reading of this article  is how consistently Jones manages to link the artist, now dead for three centuries, into the present-day pop culture, using the curatorial angle (whereby the gallery is comparing the artist’s light effects to a modern-day cinematographer) as a handy lynchpin to anchor the artist into the world at large (i.e. Williams’ criterion 1). He criticises the crassness of such curation, whilst also using it for comic effect:
“At least Dulwich didn’t take a lead from that flat cap to compare Rembrandt with Peaky Blinders.”
And he also utilises this same tack to demonstrate Rembrandt’s accessibility and universality; copying exactly what the gallery was trying to do with the exhibition, despite his disapproval:
“When the Game of Thrones makers dared to light a nocturnal battle scene as it might look in a world without electric light, many viewers expressed outrage. I liked it, not least because it was reminiscent of Rembrandt – you won’t find a more mysterious night than the one that engulfs the people hunched around a campfire in his wonderful Landscape With the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.”
Jones deftly combines all three of Williams’ focal points above within single sentences, which are, in addition, rich with well-chosen vocabulary. Here he describes an artwork (criterion 1), interprets it (criterion 2), and links it to the wider world (criterion 3) through the medium of YOU, the present-day viewer, while also throwing about such intense words as ‘orbs’ and ‘compassion’:
“Then your gaze is grabbed by his lucid, all-seeing orbs which measure you up with that commanding mixture of judgment and compassion and you feel the full sense of inexplicable awe.”
Overall this article criticises the gallery’s curation (i.e. the gallery’s approach to criterion 3) whilst lauding the feats of the exhibited artist.
‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst review – ‘ripples of trauma hit you like a bomb”, five stars
I actually read this article  for the first time at the start of summer and off the back of it’s persuasive enthusiasm, I decided to visit the exhibition.
Jones’ rich descriptions of the works (criterion 1) fill this article. He describes no less than ten of the exhibited prints and paintings in substantial visual detail, each time including an interpretative response (criterion 2):
“The power of Munch’s art lies in the unparalleled way it pierces exterior appearances to reveal the reality of the mind.”
He links Munch in to the wider world (criterion 3) by citing the various creatives of the artist’s own time to which he had links (naming variously, Ibsen, Bram Stoker, Gauguin and Odilon Redon), as well as anchoring the artist in the zeitgeist of the present day by referencing the PR hype of the exhibition itself as proof of its relevance:
“I was suspicious of the hype for The Scream visiting London in this show. It’s on huge posters for the exhibition and has been in the media for months.”
This successful combination of description, interpretation and explanation of relevance enabled me, as a novice to Munch’s work, to feel immediately better informed and eager to visit the exhibition myself. Jones’ dramatic and sensual descriptions are beautiful poetry in their own right:
“The Scream hits you like a bomb in black and white. The sky is a wobble of warped wood grain. Folds of black map the shore like ripples of trauma, crystallising in a lonely church tower. It’s like looking at a heart monitor.”
I visited the show in order to feel what he was feeling. (i.e. criterion 2 as a result of criterion 1)
‘Grayson Perry: Super Rich Interior Decoration review – a super stupid anti-rich binge’, one star
This article  centres around criterion 3, the connection of the artist to the wider world; specifically the living artist’s direct relationship with wealthy collectors, which the writer criticises as unashamedly repetetive and cynically capitalistic:
“Yes, that’s right – Perry is showing satires on the wealthy at a commercial show in the heart of Mayfair, its streets fragrant with expensive perfume and even more expensive cigar smoke, specifically to sell to the very elite he mocks.”
Criteria 1 and 2 are more sparse in supply, perhaps due to the artist’s work being so well known already, and amounts to a few words here and there, combinedly describing and harshly judging a couple of the pots on display:
“Thin Woman With Vase is as crass as its title, in its observation that rich women are thin. Oh, and lonely – she has only her Henry Moores and her pet dog for company. The dog is much more sympathetically portrayed than she is.”
In using criterion 3 as the focus for this article, the writer draws our attention to interesting questions about how consciously artists should strive for that connection, at the expense of emotional depth in their work, “There is nothing heartfelt here“. The article leaves us in no doubt as to the artist’s current ties to the wider world, “He’s the mirror of the age“, but warns that these ties may be temporary, “In 20 years, it won’t mean anything“.
In dissecting and simplifying some of Jones’ articles with reference to Williams’ critical format, I was able to pin-point his chosen critical focus in each case. Although each article necessarily contains a mixture of all three criteria, there is always one angle championned in each case. It will be interesting to see if I can also plan in advance what my critical focus should be — although I fear that my limited knowledge of art history and the contemporary art industry will prevent me from focusing with too much success on criterion 3 — this particular magic is no doubt reserved for such experts as Jones.
I am a great fan of his lyrical wordsmithing and will continue to read his work as a way to enrich my own contextual understanding, as well as my critical ability.
- Williams, Gilda, How to write about Contemporary Art (Thames and Hudson, 2014), p. 51
- Jones, Jonathan (2019), ‘Rembrandt’s Light review – glorious art needs no gimmicks’, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/oct/01/rembrandt-light-game-of-thrones-dulwich-picture-gallery
- Jones, Jonathan (2019), ‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst review – ‘ripples of trauma hit you like a bomb”, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/apr/09/scream-edvard-munch-love-and-angst-review-british-museum
- Jones, Jonathan (2019), ‘Grayson Perry: Super Rich Interior Decoration review – a super stupid anti-rich binge’, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/sep/27/grayson-perry-super-rich-interior-decoration-review-a-super-trite-anti-rich-binge-victoria-miro