The difficulty an art critic has addressing the full complexity of his or her present moment is manifested in part by the fact that, historically at least, the best art criticism has most often had to do with the art of a critic’s recent past, rather than of his or her immediate present.
In the fall of 1999, I showed up at the opening of an art exhibit curated by the painter and owner of Sideshow Gallery Richard Timperio at Planet Thai, then at its original location at 7th Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.
Lately, I have been involved in an ongoing discussion about a crisis in contemporary criticism, and perhaps properly so, after assuming in 2011 the position of President of AICA International, an art critics association with a membership of over 4,500 in 63 national sections worldwide.
No should about it. There are only the people who behave with this term art criticism peculiarly in mind. Do as you like, say what you will, and gimme a break.
Art criticism covers an amorphous range of writing from intellectually ambitious essaysacademic and otherwiseon aesthetic, cultural, and historical matters to hackwork for the popular press. It may be partisan, judgmental, interpretive, politically tendentious, or simply an instance of belles lettres.
For some time I have been consumed by the notion of dualism. In particular, Im increasingly aware of the constant effort required of me to maintain my own sensitivity to the hairs breadth that separates artworks that result from inner ambition from ones that are merely the outcome of a temporary desire for fleeting relevance.
The question of making or talking about art is really one of how to engage with the world, to deal with everything from watching sunlight move across a lawn to having sex on the kitchen floor. Given this expansive definition I find it is most useful to understand art as a form of playing: a special kind of social behavior.
Critical theory took a serious beating during the culture wars of the 1980s and the 1990s, and the 2000s were only worse. Under Bush the demand for affirmation was all but total, and today there is little space for critique even in the universities and the museums.
American Idol judge Randy Jackson, in a TV promo for the upcoming season, describe the show as the Picasso of its kind. Wow!
In old movies, I’ve noticed that the critic is always a snooty older white manincredibly well connected, frequently corrupt, wielding enormous power over fate of artist, and very often graced with an upper-class British accent.
So much of what matters about art is in people’s heads; we make things up and sometimes other people take it seriously. Critics think out loud about artworks with the hope that their thoughts make sense and that others will care.
In a multitudinous, barely focused art world, tempted, harassed, validated, and supported by market forces, the place of the art critic is maddeningly difficult to pin down. The profession, such as it is, is in a state of perpetual flux, with marginalization an always looming possibility.
Something quite striking has happened in the world of art. It is not, as one might expect, something that has suddenly appeared, but rather something that is no longer there.
It seems to me that there are at least three crises in contemporary art criticism: first, a perceived marginalization; second, a loss of intellectual moorings following on the disappearance of the avant-garde; third, a dawning recognition of the inadequacy of conventional taste.
Criticism is autobiography; we can only write from what we know, and are. The dancer cannot dissemble, claimed Graham. Much less the critic. Though he or she can be namby-pamby, noncommittal, or sloppy. These sins are to be avoided.
Post-religious art counts among those human activities whose practitioners are unable to explain how or why it does any good. So, probably for that reason art criticism came along, a professional form of loose talk.
If its not good writing, it cant be good criticism, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin in The Author as Producer. Thats the basic premise of my graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts.
Was it Man Ray or Marshall McLuhan who said art is anything an artist can get away with? What art criticism should be doing is providing the rationale for whatever it is that artists seem to be getting away with: contextualizing the art in terms of time and place, in terms of cultural, sociological, psychological, political, and/or historical contextsincluding the history of forms and ideas or anything else that is most relevant to the particular work.
I love to read. Some things more than others (e.g. almost any science fiction more than Emily Dickinson), but everything counts: cookbooks, maps, dictionaries, credit card statements, Duane Reade receiptseverything.
To begin with, as a critic, editor, and simple enthusiast, I find criticism to be an often delightful form of self-indulgenceone that allows me to set forth a problem for myself and then figure out how to solve it.
I see no fundamental difference between art criticism and the criticism of dance or poetry or movies or any other creative endeavor. I regard all criticism as related, more or less, and I believe that the critic, before all else, is an individual with tastes and passions and prejudices.
There are lots of kinds of art criticism. My temperament and experience leads me mostly to short form reviews and medium-length critical essays in more or less plain English, for a lay audience, or at least a non-hermetic part of the art world audience.
It is an odd, bracing time to be writing art criticism. I used to think of the job as starting with a dialogue between writer and artist, an exchange that might widen to engage other interested artists and writers (and, ideally, interested bystanders as well). It has always seemed like an enormous privilege, and also a huge stroke of luck, to participate in this kind of discussion.
From the time that Diderot first began publishing his critiques of the salon rating the paintings exhibited, the job of art criticism was presumed to be to judge the relative quality of works of art. Baudelaire broadened the definition to being passionate and partisan in the defense of new art.
For too long, perhaps, we art critics have chastised ourselves, honoring the great achievements of the past only to discount the present state of our beleaguered practice. There are many good reasons for this attitude, many high marks of understanding, prescience, influence, and revelation that we can compare to subsequent moments of diminished powers.
My relationship with artists and their work continues to be difficult, unruly, and uncertain. So often am I tepid, repulsed, seduced, lost, won-over, and forced to change my mind in reconsideration either for better or worse, that it becomes more and more difficult to stamp anything in art as certified or sealed.
A work of criticism, to paraphrase Donald Judd, need only be interesting. Thats easier said than done, needless to say, and all the more so insofar as it cannot be defined in advance what would make such a work interesting.
For me, art criticism is in dialogue with art, but also with culture. It is not merely supporting or evaluating art, but describing how it functions within and as a form of culture.
I write criticism so as to put my mind to work on things I’ve seen that have triggered new sensations and more generally altered my perceptions of the world, things that have, as a consequence, prompted me to seek new information and hatch fresh ideas.
While art criticism languishes in the doldrums, I get my information on who to watch, what to read, must see shows, and related matters from Twitter and Facebook. These two networking services, which I consult throughout the day on my iPad and my iPhone5, have become indispensable sources of information for a variety of reasons.
I’m easy. I can be lured away by beauty, incongruity, formal rigor, brilliant execution, prescient wit, the elegant solution, the titillating thrill of art. But from the start, my heart has belonged to art that asks the big human questions about what it means to live in this world and to die of it.
Crisis has been the defining mode of our culture for so long that it seems a normal state. That said, I don’t believe that criticism, a hard-wired human impulse (wasn’t the Biblical lusting for the apple of knowledge the first step toward criticality?), is in particular crisis at the moment.
I am a painter and a writer who, consequently, writes about painting a lot. I’m uncomfortable with the term “art critic” being applied to my own writing since my “criticism,” such as it is, is mostly in the form of an appreciative inquiry into what interests me.
Artists made me an art criticnot a theorist, essayist, or reviewer; blogging hadnt been invented when I started writing criticism, nor had the Internet, which probably defines my point of view, in many ways. I was working as a museum curator in Western Canada (a long story), visiting studios, responding to the work I saw, organizing shows, and writing catalogue essays.
Surely all of us recognize that “minions on the quarterdeck” feeling, composed of equal parts fatigue, fatalism, and directionlessness. We are tryingartists, critics, and audience aliketo navigate a vast slovenly souk, and the Baedekers are mumbling.
The most important thing criticism can do is to interest readers in what artists do best, which is make art. I sincerely believe arts advocacy is the first order of business for criticismart is too important an experience for mankind for it to be fenced off by class, an academy, or the market.
In the fall of 1970, I showed up at Richard Artschwagers shop on Canal Street in New York City for my first day of work. I was joining a team of artists, including John Torreano, who had been hired to complete a limited-edition object.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini wasnt always our Bernini. He was self-made (a ferocious infighter at the Vatican), and dominated baroque Rome with hard work, not simply by being the best man for every job.
For those readers not spending time around adolescent girls, the shows title, Pretty Little Liars, refers to an insanely popular book and television series about a group of high school girls who lie their way through a murder investigation.
For those of us still interested in keeping the practice of painting flourishing, the show by Devin Powers, located in the front room of the Lesley Heller Workspace, makes it clear that the art form is indeed live and well.
In this transcendent exhibition, the largest in America ever dedicated to this major late 19th-, early 20th-century Swiss painter, Hodlers canvases breathe with a sort of palpable animism saved for only the most gifted artists and shamans.
Like Derridas writing, the art object is the trace of our mark in this world. It can therefore never fully present itself, for to do so would be to undermine its potentialwhich is to transport, to transpose, to augment.
Much of what I have to tell about the current exhibition by Michal Rovner at Pace Gallery relates to the ineluctable consistency present in her work that has advanced over the years.
In his essay for the massive exhibition catalogue, the photographer Geoffrey James remarks that, though he has yet to travel to the city, when there, I know I will not find Sudeks Prague. He is right.
Picasso Black and White is the first exhibit to explore the master draftsmans use of black-and-white tones throughout his prolific career.
Sculpture Undone is a small but thorough retrospective of the work of Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). The artist, who was Jewish, never publicly discussed her experiences in the Łódź ghetto or in Auschwitz and several other concentration camps.