The Artist as Critic

“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, … but nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am 86, so that by 90 I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130, 140, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”

— Katsushika Hokusai, also known as Gakyō Rōjin Manji (The Old Man Mad About Art)

It is often said that art reveals truth. This is not to say that art is a form of truth or that there is one truth to be discovered. Rather, that art is a path to truth, and, in the words of Oscar Wilde “what is true about Art is true about Life.” 

What Wilde meant was that we, as spectators, are to be receptive to the work of art. We should not try to dominate the work of art, instead, the work of art should dominate us. At its roots, art is about questioning and critical thinking; art may transform us and the artist becomes the critic that guides us along that path.

Toni Morrison said that the individual artist was, by nature, a questioner and a critic; “that’s what she does. Her questions and criticisms are her work, and she is frequently in conflict with the status quo. But the artist can’t help that; if she’s to have any integrity at all in her art, she can’t help it.” 

This is, in part, why art is not mere entertainment or distraction but can help us become better humans. Yet we often hear people say they don’t have time to read, or to stop and think properly. It’s as if critical thinking has become a sort of luxury reserved for those who have the privilege of time. 

This makes the artist essential to democracy, in the words of Wole Soyinka: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” Artists are a threat to authoritarian regimes, but also to dominant narratives within a democracy. This is why art or artists are often the first groups to be defunded, silenced, exiled or even killed. 

In a eulogy to American poet Robert Frost, John F. Kennedy celebrated the role of the artist in society, reminding us that the artist is often critical of our societies but that it is because of their “sensitivity and their concern for justice.” And that questioning power, as the artist does, is just as important as creating power, because art, he insisted, was not a form of propaganda but a form of truth. 

This means that when we speak about the artist or art as a form of criticism, it is not just about whether the finished product represents a critique of some societal issue or other. It means that the process by which the work is made leads to truth, and importantly, is a path we can also take. 

“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement,” Kennedy said.

In this way, we understand critical thinking as artful thinking: thinking creatively, philosophically, ethically. It means we don’t just accept things at face value, we learn to see from different perspectives, with curiosity and openness. 

Martial Artist Bruce Lee said that art was never decoration or embellishment, rather that it was “a constant process of maturing.” Just like life, or work, which we should see as a constant process of questioning, deconstructing, amending, re-thinking, refining, creating; a process of growth. 

And this, Lee suggests, leads us to personal liberty: liberty from self-doubt, from busyness, coercion, from doing what’s expected of us, from staying in line, because “Art lives where absolute freedom is.” 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

For references and further resources, visit our inspiration page.

Meet the Artists

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist of the Edo period, active as a painter and printmaker.  He is best known for the woodblock print series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes the iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai was instrumental in developing ukiyo-e from a style of portraiture largely focused on courtesans and actors into a much broader style of art that focused on landscapes, plants, and animals. 

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) was an Irish poet and playwright. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversational skill, Wilde became one of the best-known personalities of his day. At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporated themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into what would be his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). In 1895, he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour for homosexual acts (for which he was posthumously pardoned in 2017). On his release, he left immediately for France, and never returned to Ireland or Britain. 

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019) was an American novelist and social critic. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Morrison became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in the late 1960s. She developed her own reputation as an author in the 1970s and ’80s. Morrison’s works are praised for addressing the harsh consequences of racism in the United States and the Black American experience.

Wole Soyinka (born in 1934), is a Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist and political activist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first sub-Saharan African to be honoured in that category. He sometimes wrote of modern West Africa in a satirical style, but his serious intent and his belief in the evils inherent in the exercise of power were usually evident in his work as well. Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian (and African at large) governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies. See more here

Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973) was a Hong Kong martial artist and actor. Lee is considered by critics, media, and other martial artists to be the most influential martial artist of all time and a pop culture icon of the 20th century, who bridged the gap between East and West. Aside from martial arts, Lee studied Western and Eastern philosophy. Lee also wrote poetry, most of which is categorised as anti-poetry. His martial arts and philosophy contribute a great part to his poetry. The free verse form of Lee’s poetry reflects his famous quote “Be formless … shapeless, like water.”

[sources: Artists’ own sites, Britannica, Wikipedia]