Bird Brain


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I’ve always been suspicious of the birds. Maybe it’s because they are always spying on us from above. The ancients understood that the birds were in cahoots with powerful forces. They poked about in bird entrails trying to find messages from the heavens, omens from hell. They wondered whom the birds were working for. Poor Prometheus was punished for the simple and humane act of giving fire to mankind. It is no accident that he was punished with the torture of an eagle eternally feasting on his liver. The birds will always sell us out for a pittance.

Our latest humiliation at the hands of our feathery friends comes in the unexpected realm of art criticism. The birds, it seems, enter any arena if there is the chance of making us look like fools.

Here’s what happened. Shigeru Watanabe (a psychologist at Keio University in Tokyo and possibly a man in league with the birds) set up a nefarious experiment. Watanabe showed children’s paintings to pigeons; a panel of adults had deemed each work either good or bad. He trained the pigeons to distinguish between them with a system of tasty rewards. When the pigeons pecked correctly, he gave them some seed. Later, he presented 10 paintings to the birds they had never seen. Five of these paintings had been deemed good by humans, five bad. The pigeons recognized the good paintings as “good” twice as often as they recognized the “bad” paintings. In short, they came off as pretty good critics. There are those (names withheld) writing for major publications who might do markedly less well. Given these results, Watanabe claims, “pigeons are capable of learning the concept of a stimulus class that humans name ‘good’ pictures.”

As if criticism weren’t in enough trouble already. Everyday, less people pay attention to what the critics have to say about anything. In response, the critics spend ever more time trying to justify their craft. And then the pigeons come along, peck once, and have done with it. The situation is particularly dire for those who continue to insist that criticism is essentially about separating good art from bad art, about upholding the judgments of good taste. The art critic at The Guardian, Jonathan Jones, recently summed up this position rather nicely. “A critic,” he wrote, “is basically an arrogant bastard who says ‘this is good, this is bad’ without necessarily being able to explain why.”

That giant of 20th-century art criticism, Clement Greenberg, would have agreed. Jones and Greenberg assert that some people simply have a special skill for judging. They argue that some people have better taste than others and that art is best served when such people make definitive judgments based on that taste. When good critics do the job of judging art, they also provide a greater service to humanity, pushing the rest of us a little further along in the development of our taste.

A critic in this tradition is at his most essential when simply pointing and proclaiming: “Good. Bad.” But humans always complicate the process. They end up saying too much. Thus, pigeons have a natural advantage. They are happy simply to peck and go. Let us therefore offer these pigeons positions at all the top newspapers and magazines around the world. I envision a future in which an army of pigeon critics peck their way through the history of art, rendering their final opinions at a yearly conference of the birds. We’ll finally know whether Titian was better than Caravaggio. We’ll know so many things. A rating system of this or that many pecks can be adopted at all the galleries and museums. Each peck will fetch so many thousands of dollars at the auction houses. A new objectivity will be enjoyed by all. Human critics will no longer have to wring their hands and puff themselves up in the act of judgment.

Jonathan Jones, for instance, writes, “When I say Hirst is a great artist and that Ron Mueck, Marc Quinn, and Banksy are cheap, I do think my opinion is true — and that anyone who thinks otherwise is lacking in acuity.” Luckily for him, he will soon be relieved of the need for such bluster. He won’t have to defend himself at all. He’ll simply refer to the peck rating and know for sure whether Hirst really is better than Mueck. Enjoy Mueck’s art all you like, you won’t be able to deny that he is, say, a three-peck artist while Hirst is a solid eight.

Jones says, “It really is time to stand up for what is good against what is meretricious. And it really is possible to find examples of excellence as well as stupidity. In other words, this is a great time to be a critic – to try to show people what really matters.” In this he is correct. Truly it is a great time to be a critic. For the birds. It is time for the birds to finally show people what truly matters.

But what, you ask, will all the human critics do after they’ve given up criticism to the birds? What task will be left to us? Thankfully, there is an answer. Professor Watanabe made the following observation: “The experiments demonstrated the ability of discrimination, not the ability to enjoy painting.” Aye, there’s the rub. The silly birds thought that they could knock us down a peg by showing off their skills of discrimination. But it is all so mechanical with those birds. A little pecking here, a little pecking there and the task is done. Where’s the joy in it?

That’s one thing we humans have got. We’re pretty good at joy. We also do rather well with misery. In short, we’re a dramatic and emotional species. It is something that the flighted creatures, with their airy perspective and bird’s eye view, have trouble understanding. Once the final pecks of judgment have been delivered, humans will still have the ability, and certainly the need, to talk about art. We’ll still have to develop our own relationship with the work that’s been pecked over.

Even Jonathan Jones may still have a job. Despite his Greenbergian posturing, the vast majority of Jones’ columns for The Guardian ignore comparative questions of good and bad altogether and discuss, rather, the why. He gets wrapped up in a work and he wants to get you excited about it, too. He doesn’t stand outside art, making proclamations about value or its lack. He gets messy with the art. He writes things like, “You’d have to have a heart of stone if you weren’t moved, just a little bit, by the prospect of an elderly painter standing in a wide open east Yorkshire landscape, touching clouds and sky and trees into a second existence on a canvas that is blowing in the wind.” In his actual practice as a critic, Jones is a participant, not a judge. His work suggests that criticism is simply part of what makes art, art.

It turns out that there have been critics less interested in judging and more interested in experiencing and discussing all along. A natural enemy of the birds, Friedrich Schlegel wrote the following nearly 200 years ago: “Criticism is not to judge works by a general ideal, but is to search out the individual ideal of every work.” That’s a man who already saw the birds on the distant horizon. He built a criticism that was based on enjoyment, participation, talking.

Recently, Jonathan Jones made a very Schlegelian point. “Reviewing,” he said, “is part of what makes art.” In other words, searching out the individual ideal of every work. This is what people do best. We might as well leave judging to the birds. • 26 August 2009