What is Art Criticism?

Another transplant from my former blog while I keep up with holiday season madness. Enjoy!


I’ve been writing some art criticism lately – not all of it positive. In fact, I think it divides about 50/50 or even slightly more in favor of the negative. This was not a conscious choice, but the topics came to me and I ran with them.

This got me thinking: what does an art critic do? An easy answer, one which haunts artists, is “He tells us our work is no good.” Of course this is not true, though it might be one aspect of art criticism. A critic who sets out to damn an artist out of personal animus or any reason outside the art itself is not doing the job right. A critic should begin by assuming that the artist is dead and will never see a review. Sometimes feelings might be hurt, but that should never be the point of writing.

By the same token, art criticism should not be used to boost one’s friends. Again, the work must exist in some vaccuum outside human relations. An artist can be a nice person without being a good artist; an artist can be a total bastard and yet create great art. Virtue is not always rewarded, nor evil damned. It’s distressing to see the abstract idea of Justice trumped this way, but there it is.

Lastly in our list of what criticism is or is not: art criticism is not art theory. Theory, which I frequently detest, in the abstracted concepts underneath the practice of art. Theory is often laden with jargon, and relates about as much to the way people perceive or practice art as “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” relates to a person’s belief in God. Theory is often bunk, and the good theories are often indistinguishable from the nonsense, in part because of the terrible writing involved. I’ve written too much about it already.

So what is art criticism? It is part of a larger cultural conversation about what constitutes good art. The scornful will sometimes look at a work and say “And you call that art,” or “That’s not art.” They’re wrong, of course; it might be bad art, detestable or atrocious in a hundred different ways, but it’s still art. Good art is what the critic is concerned with: how to recognize it, which involved utilizing some theory, and how to recognize its absence.

There are artists whose work I dislike intensely, yet they are successful and look to be headed for enshrinement in the official canon. I must not be so arrogant as to imagine this as a loss for myself, the culture, or society. I tender my opinions, make of them what you will. Letting go of the writing once is it done is essential, lest you end up tilting at windmills, trying to convince the world of your correctness. This is scary for the critic, as it contains the implicit suggestion that criticism is unnecessary, perhaps even a waste of time. But whatever moves the conversation along, even if only to provoke contrary opinions (though that must not be the sole purpose), is beneficial to the art world. The worst thing to do is walk by an artwork without stopping, ignoring it; a writer who feels the need to express an idea about a work he or she has seen and does not do it is walking by, removing a voice from that conversation. Popular opinion now says that famed art critic Clement Greenberg was a bully; it also acknowledges his tremendous influence on the cultural conversation, and the artists he championed (some of them) became famous, not because of his writing, but not despite it either.

Art criticism can be just as vulnerable to jargo, to ego, to all the sins that flesh is heir to. It is, at its core, human, and therefore fallible. But so are artists, and that discussion, though sometimes carried on in monologues, is often worth the work.


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