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Railing Opinion: A response to Irving Sandler’s A Call to the Art Critics

I am not a critic. I am an artist. And I am pleased to see that critics are whining too. Curators should also be whining, or will be whining soon, and dealers too. They all will start to bawl. The art world is going through a period of adjustment and the models that we are comfortable with are no longer applicable.

In the '50s, the critic was probably the most important middleman or mediator for the arts. But that hasn’t been true for a long time. By the mid '60s and into the '70s, the museum had moved into a dominant central position. Artists made work specifically for museums. The art (earthworks, site-specific art, conceptual art) was not commercial in the ways it had been. Artists only wanted to be considered on the historical, the epic, scale. Museums became necessary and integral to that ambition, and that made the curator top dog.

In the '80s, pluralism exploded in such a way and with such force that it caught everyone by surprise. No curator, critic, or even gallery dealer could keep apace. The art magazines with their six-month lead time couldn’t keep up. The other media stepped into this void. The newsstand magazines and newspapers could cover the art scene on a daily or weekly basis. They made it feel like a scene. They made artists celebrities. Art and artists didn’t need to be thought “about.” They needed to be thought “of.”

In the '90s, the galleries caught up to the flow and figured out how to package all of the diversity. Everything geared towards hot make it feel hot. The dealer took control of the image of the artist. They co-opted the serious critical dialogue by buying it. They paid critics to write the catalogs and bought curators by getting collectors to “promise” gifts. They set the trends. They were the power broker, the taste-maker.

But now there is no middleman (unless you consider the art “consultant” as the middleman). But really, they are to art what the realtor is to the housing market—a facilitator. Galleries are so over. Museums are so over. Biennials are so over. It is the auctions and the art fairs and private museums and public works that are driving the art world. Right now we are in the midst of a perfect storm: an uneducated consumer, an image obsessed merchandiser, art writers who confuse moments with movements, and artists who know little about their own history, can’t distinguish between storytelling and metaphor, and have absolutely no ambivalence about pleasing the collectors.

The paradigm has certainly shifted. What stands squarely at the center of the art world is a collector (but not The Collector!). Everyone who is making the art machine run is tailoring it to the money, and the money is the collector. What the collector hasn’t yet grasped is that they are being sold a bill of goods. They think that because they have the money and the power, they can buy what they want. But they are only buying what is being sold to them, they are being sold what artists make. That is not the same thing as paying for something you really want. With the power the collector has now, they could have a say in what gets created for them. They could be patrons, not just consumers. They just don’t know how to figure out what they want. The problem is one of education. How do you teach someone the joys and terrors of self-definition? How do you teach someone to serve culture? To serve history? How do you teach someone to recognize the archetypes? How do you teach someone to be really interesting? How do you convince a collector to want the big stuff, the timeless stuff?

The more educated they become, the more remarkable projects they might come up with that would challenge and inspire artists to produce compelling works and inspire critics to think about them? They just might? Who knows? At least it would be better than what we have right now.


Eric Fischl

ERIC FISCHL is an American painter and sculptor.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2007

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