When people learn that I am an art critic they usually give me a look like they’ve seen a leprechaun or Bigfoot or some other mythical creature that shouldn’t exist. After they overcome their surprise, one of the first things he or she often asks is, “So who’s your favorite artist?” I think this may be some kind of game, where I give my answer and they can see if they recognize the name. They’re usually puzzled and annoyed when I give what has over the years become my standard response: “I don’t have one.”
If pressed I like to start around the beginning. The bust of Nefertiti by Thutmose is notable. I think whoever sculpted the Nike of Samothrace was pretty good. Then there was the Dark Ages. After that, there was some sort of Renaissance in Italy, right? That Botticelli guy was no slouch and neither was Giotto. I hear that Michelangelo had some talent too. Then there’s Spain, with El Greco and Velázquez, or the more recent Spaniard, Pablo Picasso (but that’s expected).
Of course I’m being facetious and with the right delivery this rundown is a nice icebreaker in conversation. But it does raise a more pertinent question, why have one favorite artist? What is the significance of having a favorite?
It seems to me that while there’s nothing wrong, at all, with having a favorite artist. But it’s more problematic for a critic to hold a favorite above others. If, as a critic, you have one artist you that is your “favorite” you risk becoming locked into that artist, their approach and style at the expense of others.
I think of the art critic Clement Greenberg who constructed an amazing armature of formalist theory around what we now call Abstract Expressionism. But he became so yoked to his preferences, and the singular artists whoe were best expressing them, that he was unable to do anything but largely reject the wave of creativity that came after Jackson Pollock et al., Pop Art.
Also for Greenberg there were only two kinds of visual art: sculpture and painting. Each had to conform to their essential formal elements, mixing the two was forbidden by Greenberg. This relates to another question I get, though less frequently: “What kind of art do you like?” Which implies just these kinds of categories, painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. Here the problem is more obvious, what good is a critic that is prejudiced from the outset to certain ways of making art? If I were to strongly prefer painting to everything else possible in art, wouldn’t that be extremely problematic? How could I even begin to approach the numerous of ways of making art today?
Installation view of "Spatial City" at the Hyde Park Art Center, 2010. Image used by permission.
So I do not have a favorite artist or a favorite kind of art. This is not a punishment; it allows one to stay to flexible and ready to see the new. The next great artist may be at the next show you’re on the way to see, and the next masterpiece should challenge you to look at the medium in a whole new way and it probably won’t look much like things that came before it. Why have a favorite when there are so many?
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago