W(h)ither Art Criticism?

Power of Words

I’ve been thinking about the parlous state of art criticism. It’s been in this state a long time, along with art journalism and (this is more debatable) art itself. Relevance is the key; with print media abandoning arts coverage as their revenues shrink, and the proliferation of amateur work on the internet, there is little incentive to take on art criticism as a career. Even the professionals are amateurs.

In a recent essay on Temporary Art Review, writer Steven Nottingham presents an interesting idea: if art criticism has lost value in the capitalist sense, perhaps the artistic sense should be emphasized. In other words, shouldn’t art criticism be more like art itself, though Cottingham chooses to look to poetry as a model to emulate. It’s an interesting idea, and one that I wouldn’t mind seeing applied somewhat more widely – but it’s that “somewhat” that led me to writing today.

Cottingham, paraphrasing Kenneth Goldsmith, MoMA’s recent poet-in-residence, wrote,
“Art criticism is akin to the position that conceptual art once held: radical in its production, distribution, and democratization. As such, it is obliged to take chances, to be as experimental as it can be. Since it’s got nothing to lose, it stirs up passions and emotions that, say, visual art hasn’t in half a century. There is still a fight in art criticism. I can’t imagine a more thrilling place to be.”

Let’s look at that call to arms in several contexts. First, I am always nervous when people start making broad pronouncements. To quote Orson Welles, from Lunches with Orson, “I believe that there is no law, and should be no law under the heavens that tells an artist what he ought to be.” Once Cottingham says criticism is obliged, my hackles are raised. Writers write for different reasons: regardless of what genre or category they write in, some are poets, some are teachers, some are exorcists, or prophets. A critic whose interest is in teaching readers what makes good art could muddy the waters badly by trying to be a poet. Others should toss away the teacher’s hat and embrace their creative side – there is a grey area between criticism and writing-as-art, and some people are at their best in the grey.

And then there’s “Since it’s got nothing to lose, it stirs up passions and emotions that, say, visual art hasn’t in half a century.” It doesn’t signify that having nothing to lose stirs up passions. It’s possible, but not certain. And, of course, there is a lot to lose, at least to the writer who values communicating to others.

I wish I could mount a spirited defense of the latter half of the sentence, but I can’t. Though the art world has been vibrant and rich, it has been in the shadows so far as public interest goes – a decidedly unwelcome grey area. Even the assumptions built-into art criticism show this attitude. I’ve been glancing back at art review in The New Yorker going back decades: the somewhat parochial attitude of the early years gives way to an assumption of knowledge on the reader’s part, and then a step backward. Harold Rosenberg’s essays can be a slog, but there aren’t many mainstream magazines that would start from such assumptions; today Peter Schjeldahl writes half-journalism, half-criticism, assuming that he must summarize the artist and/or topic of an exhibition before going on to tell why it works or not. Strange that in an age when people have more information than ever at their fingertips, the assumption is that people know less than they used.

Despite Cottingham’s occasional slips, I agree with him in principle. Art criticism should be a spectrum from heaven-high art to feet-on-the-ground plainspoken language. And it is – if you have an interest in searching, there is tremendously erudite writing going on, some of it impenetrable and beautiful, others simple as a Shaker chair. My heartiest agreement comes with his (and Goldsmith’s) final sentiment: I can’t imagine a more thrilling place to be.


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