Railing Opinion: A Call to Art Critics

Portrait of Irving Sandler. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

This call is written from a deep feeling of frustration with things as they are in the art world, a feeling shared by many art critics today. Consequently, I believe that we as art critics begin to deal with a series of questions.

Is there justification in the widespread feeling among us that art criticism is irrelevant, eclipsed by the activities of dealers, collectors, and curators, and consequently that there is a crisis in art criticism? If so, how can art criticism be made more relevant?

More specifically: How does the current structure of the art world and the roles of dealers, collectors, and curators usurp the functions of art critics and threaten the integrity and impact of criticism, if indeed they do? How do “spin” mechanisms engaged by art institutions affect art criticism? How can they be dealt with? Are we too timid in dealing with the power structures in the art world? If so, how can we overcome our timidity? Do we dare name names? Above all: Is what Jerry Salz described as the “art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust, and market hype” influencing what we write and more important, what artists create in their studios and in our graduate programs? Must we not analyze the art world and its practices? If we don’t, who will?

What ethical lapses or compromises have we found that we have to tolerate? What is cronyism in the art world and what can we do about it?

Has criticism been upstaged by lavish gallery catalogues? There is nothing corrupt in this. The galleries choose critics they know admire the work of artists they show and the critics honestly reveal their admiration. But how does this affect art criticism? Does not a lavish catalogue upstage anything that will appear in art magazines?

Is it the primary function of criticism to tell good from bad? If so, what are our criteria for quality? What art-world mechanisms affect our perception of quality, e.g., what dealers sell and collectors buy, what museums show and art magazines publish?

How should we be dealing with the impact of politics and social issues on contemporary art and our criticism?

Does meta-art criticism, or the criticism of criticism, require more consideration than we have been giving it?

As for the question that most interests me: Is contemporary art in a pluralist situation? If everything goes, what counts? Is there a need for art critics to specify what is relevant or significant in art and what is not?

If things in our art world are wrong, how can they be remedied? How can we create our own agendas?

We must speak up. We have nothing to lose but our irrelevance. And we must be specific and avoid blowing off steam, grandstanding, or using glittering generalities, what Thomas Hess labeled “glidge.” Opinions must be backed up by fact.

The Brooklyn Rail welcomes responses to this call.

Railing Opinion is an open space for dialogue on the current art world. We invite critics, art historians, artists, and viewers to participate.

Submissions can be sent to: brooklynrailart@yahoo.com

Contributor

Irving Sandler

Irving Sandler is an art critic based in New York.

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