What is Art Criticism?by Clay Matlin
I was part of the first class to graduate from SVA’s Art Criticism and Writing program. I started a Ph.D. program two years later, a move that split me between the world of criticism and the academy. My research makes me something of an anachronism in art criticism. I study United States intellectual history, specifically the years surrounding World War II. The ideas I find vital are that period’s arguments about painting and thought in the face of a war-scarred world. As such, the critics I connect with are people like Rosenfeld, Ellison, Trilling, McCarthy, Greenberg—those who believed the act of writing criticism was a means of speaking to the world. This has influenced my own criticism and I strive to position works of art within a context of the history of ideas, treating art not as an object, but as an idea that attempts to form a connection to the world.
Criticism is tricky. The goal should neither be to sit in judgment, nor to fawn. Rather, one ought to, as the historian Herbert Butterfield wrote, think about and be sympathetic towards the limits within which people struggle to live and produce. Judging things for their perceived value is easy—it requires merely a yes or a no. Criticism should have an opinion, but not have that opinion poison or limit how one tries to understand the reality of an artwork. The most compelling criticism is written around the object, which is to say that while it touches on its subject, the writer also seeks to engage with the broader intellectual and societal context. The major publications—Art in America, Artforum, the New York Times, October—are strong in formalist assessments, yet often fail, in my opinion, to offer a criticism that is not just culturally engaged, but also ethically alive. Occasionally Roberta Smith will take a stand. That’s exciting. Most of the time she won’t. Benjamin Buchloh will bemoan painting until he’s asked to write a catalogue for Richter. Jerry Saltz, the art world’s critic-cum-whipping boy, remains an exercise in brand management rather than a conscientious intellect.
Criticism is an insular endeavor that appeals to fewer people than it should. And art criticism is an especially niche form of intellectual life. This is probably because art never speaks to enough people, and writing about art speaks to an even smaller audience. Neither reaches as far as it ought to. This is not to say, however, that criticism and art don’t matter. Both are invaluable, but those who write criticism or make art need to be cognizant of the limits within which their cultural production matters. We are a culture that values neither art nor criticism, because we are a culture that no longer takes pride in intellectual engagement. Societies that are open to criticism, whether literary, art, or cultural, are societies that are open to intellectual discourse. This is not America. Maybe it can be someday. It was once.
CLAY MATLIN is a graduate of SVA’s first Art Criticism and Writing class. Currently, he is a Sproull Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Rochester. His dissertation, A God Abandoned World: Terror, Tragedy, and Sublime Presence in Postwar America, 1945 – 1951, examines what he sees as the reemergence of sublime experience among American intellectuals, especially the young and Jewish, in the aftermath of World War II. Clay lives, writes, and teaches in New York City with his wife, two kids, and dog.