Adrian Hamilton: You can't compare art shows

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It ill behoves someone working for a newspaper that indulges in the habit to say so, but I am growing increasingly frustrated by the custom of newspapers now to define their arts criticism with a star or points system. Plays, art exhibitions, concerts, films and CDs are all summarised in terms of three stars out of five, say, or a squawking carrion crow, or whatever.

You can see the point. At bottom, the ordinary reader wants some judgement as to whether a performance or product is worth his time and money, not just a critic's ramble around the subject, showing off their knowledge or their spite. My objection is that it makes art, or rather the act of attending a performance or show or listening to a CD, into a fixed object, a product that can be evaluated in terms of a set value-system. But it isn't. Going to a show or a museum is an experience, a participation in an active event. And how you take it depends as much on your mood, your expectation and what you want from it as to what it does for you.

It's the same with food criticism. Restaurant critics go on about whether such and such a place provides a meal and a service worth marks out of 10. But that is not how most of us go to a restaurant. We go out for a meal for an occasion, a family celebration, to meet up with friends or simply to fill in time before the film starts.We use different measures according to expectation.

It's not so different in the case of the arts, or not as different as some of the critics would like us to believe. Art is not some monumental rock- face to be climbed, with a rating system of how difficult and how good the view. It's an active thing, and what makes London, to my mind, the greatest arts city in the world is that it is ever flowing at different rates, in different volumes. You can pick and choose according to mood and intent.

Take some recent and, to my mind, remarkable exhibitions now finishing (or just finished) in London - the Persian exhibition and Samuel Palmer shows at the British Museum, the Degas-Sickert-Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at Tate Britain, and the André Derain exhibition at Somerset House. I mention shows that are finishing or finished because I only seem to get galvanised into going to them when they are about to close (and I don't think I'm alone in that, judging by the increased numbers in the last week). But the same applies to, say, the Chinese exhibition at the Royal Academy, Canaletto at the Queen's Gallery and Henri Rousseau at Tate Modern.

To the aesthete, no doubt, all these exhibitions can be treated in the same way and judged by a single yardstick: the quality of the objects, the handling of paint, composition, etc. But to the gallery viewer, they are different experiences. Most of the people at the Persian exhibition were there primarily to learn about a culture they probably knew very little about. Hence the numbers hiring the audio guide (a wonderfully enthusiastic and explanatory effort by the museum's director). Visitors certainly responded to the beauty of some of the objects, particularly the jewellery, but their judgement was finally one of how much they had learnt and how surprised/entranced they were by that process.

Samuel Palmer, in the same museum, was a different, more traditional effort - a review of the whole career of an artist who should be much better known but who has been all too easily dismissed as an oddball semi-mystic because of the work of one period of his life. Whether you liked it or not was dependent on your individual response to the pictures.

The Degas-Sickert-Toulouse-Lautrec show at Tate Britain is another creature again, an effort I suspect to cash in on the success of the recent Turner-Whistler-Monet show at the same place. It was there formally to make some points, especially about the influence of Degas on Sickert, but was neither comprehensive enough nor original enough in its placing to prove revelatory. But then, it gave the opportunity to see once again the works of these three artists - a joy to any visitor but most especially to those who already know the artists, as many of the paintings came from smaller museums.

For simple, unalloyed joy, however, Derain at Somerset House (finishing this weekend, so hasten) is something else again - instructive, compact, and an explosion of colour that would gladden the heart of even the most doleful soul.

How do you compare? You can't. Good criticism will give you the texture and "feel" of a show in a way that lets you make up your own mind as to what you will find. Art is a continuous dialogue, and no star system can help you to it.