Art critics need to speak up without political correctness

Feathers may get ruffled but that's the price to pay if artists are caught playing a manipulative game for their own commercial ends

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 6:05am

If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus," says the CIA chief to the agent played by Ben Affleck in the Hollywood movie Argo, meaning people like them should take professional pride in being unsung heroes.

By the same token, if you want to be a crowd-pleaser or Mr Popularity, don't try your hand at criticism.

Indeed, if you've never found a perverse pleasure in offending people, challenging conventional wisdom and questioning prevailing attitudes, you are probably not cut out for the job of criticism, especially art criticism.

This, I guess, is exactly what Oscar Wilde wanted to drive home when he shocked readers by saying: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

In the words of Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, the arts are dumb or mute; that is, presenting themselves directly without polemics or explanation. But they can also be cunning, even manipulative.

Picasso famously said that art is a lie, but a lie that tells the truth. The fact is, manipulation is persuasion. It's how the artists get our attention and get their jobs done.

Of course, there is much more to art than manipulation. Ideally, manipulation is only the means that artists employ in aid of worthwhile causes, such as examining the frailties of human nature or confronting us with reality in all its complexity. When this happens, the truth justifies the lies. But sadly, in Hong Kong arts and culture, manipulation seems more often than not an end in itself. This is perhaps inevitable.

In a one-dimensional, rapidly dumbed-down society in which the taste of the audience is increasingly conditioned by the philistinism of bad television, the vulgarities of movies and the voyeurism of a tabloid culture, and where the commercially successful is often equated with the artistically superior, artists are under tremendous pressure to play the manipulative game to survive and prosper.

That's why we need critics who are not afraid of ruffling a few feathers, and criticism which is more than just opinion-mongering - my word against yours - or politically correct - saying what people want to hear.

If critics cannot - or refuse to - conceive of art in terms of manipulation, by which I mean a conscious act by the artist to make us perceive, experience, understand and consume their work in a certain way, they run the risk of turning into cheerleaders.

Critics in Hong Kong, if they are to be relevant and, to use an irresistible critical cliché, illuminating, need to address the all-important question of whether we still recognise manipulation when we see it, and whether we still have the ability to tell the difference between the good and the bad, the truth and the hype, the derivative and the original.

That requires the critics to think hard about their subjects. Sometimes, they need to be more passionate, and certainly more critical, than the artists and the work they are examining.

Criticism can be practised in an infinite number of ways. But when it works, it should empower the audience who can then say to the manipulative artist: "Stop insulting my intelligence and taking me for a fool."