The motivation to write this chapter arises from an unease-even a dissatisfaction-with much contemporary art criticism. The dissatisfaction is at its greatest when I compare much criticism with my own experience of art, whether that art is 'high quality' 'old master' paintings, or 'interesting' contemporary experimental work. The encounter with an artwork can be engaging, absorbing, fascinating, deeply satisfying, moving, life-enhancing, stimulating, humbling, frustrating, or even infuriating, and it cannot simply be put into words. These seem to be responses shared, at one time or another, by many people. Yet contemporary criticism, largely because of its intellectual(ist) preoccupations for reading artworks as texts so as to deconstruct their meanings, tends to ignore or dismiss a response which takes into account the qualitative and/or particular experience of art. The reader loses out twice: the attention to art is lost amidst intellectual interpretations and, with it, there is lost an art of critical looking.
What I want to focus on in this chapter is what I argue is a major limitation of contemporary art criticism, one might even suggest its blindness: its reluctance or inability adequately to deal with the visual particularities of individual artworks. Such a limitation reveals nothing less than a significant partiality in the hermeneutics of the visual, and a major weakness in dealing with or doing justice to visual experience. My critical response is not reactionary, because it is based on an acceptance of the expanded field that contemporary criticism has brought about in relation to art and our understanding of its more hidden or assumed values. However, it is revisionist in that, while accepting the broad scope of contemporary criticism, it seeks to redress an imbalance in what has become an 'ocularphobic' orthodoxy with its 'denigration of the visual'.
The chapter begins by assessing some of the salient characteristics of both 'old' and 'new' criticism in order to gauge changing attitudes to, and values of, the visual. It then goes on to look at the significance of the formal analyses of particular works and the ends which those analyses serve. This leads on to a discussion of the role of judgement and quality in criticism, including the move by some 'new' critics to reject the visual and prioritise the textuality of