The Artist Versus Critic / by Chris Hall

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket, c 1875

In 1877 artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler sued critic John Ruskin for libel.  In a review for Fors Clavigera, Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  The piece Ruskin was writing on, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket, c 1875.  The trial was a disaster for both Whistler and Ruskin.  Whistler wasn't helped when Nocturne in Black and Gold was accidentally presented upside down, nor was he helped when Whistler tried to explain the concept behind his work; it seemed to go above the jury’s head.  Ruskin was absent from the trial for medical reasons, making Whistler’s counter attack ineffective.  Whistler had also counted on many of his fellow artists to stand witness, but they refused, not willing to risk their own reputation.  Somehow, despite all of this, Whistler won the case.  But the damage to both Ruskin’s and Whistler’s careers was irreversible.  Whistler was awarded only a little in financial compensation, and he was soon forced to sell, pawn, and mortgage everything he had before declare bankruptcy.  The following is an extract from the court proceedings:

Holker: "What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?"
Whistler: "It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens."
Holker: "Not a view of Cremorne?"
Whistler: "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne...."
Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it..." 
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

I rather like Whistler’s response, “no, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”  How true this is.  This makes a great defense when for when people cheapen the labor of artists (which does happen often).  But there were some consequences and fallout for art as a result of the trial.

While Whistler’s victory went a long ways to champion the notion of the artist as an intellectual (not just merely a craftsman), thus making the critic redundant, it also would become a slippery slope where upon artists would later champion the idea or concept over all technical and aesthetic considerations.

The lawsuit also meant that artists were no longer accountable to critics, which again becomes a slippery slope.  Without an effective objective critical base, many bad works of art become paraded before the public, and many works that ought not to be considered art at all.  Currently this is the state of affairs in Post-modern pluralism, where critics refuse to be critical for fear of accidentally offending someone.