Is art criticism so easy that a pigeon can do it?
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.”