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. Nor is there a scarcity of it. In fact, in some ways, it might be better off than before, once it’s sorted out. Jobs for critics, however, are another matter, due to the failure or retrenchment of print publications struggling to reinvent themselves, not helped by the global recession of the past several years. That might be easing although the world economic and political situation remains volatile and print still has to figure out how to reposition itself and be sustainable in a digital, instantaneous world. But as one platform for criticism has destabilized for the moment, another has become steadier, more robust, if at times still rough around the edges, its outreach infinite. Online publications, blogs, and social networks have increased exponentially offering a surge of outlets, viewpoints, and formats but many do not pay or pay a pittance and critics, always on the low end of the art world pay scale, are not monetarily benefitting from this bonanza. But I digress. Crisis might simply be, at this point, a synonym for transitions that are both embraced and resisted, the ineluctable, accelerating constant of contemporary life in our best of times, worst of times.
I consider myself an art writer more than a critic, at times verging on journalism. I’m also a curator, a freelancer contributing to a variety of publications, institutions, and galleries in a variety of capacities. As a reviewer, I like to think that I’m reactive to the art I’m looking at, situating it within a context based on a certain experience and expertise and with an objectivity that reverses to subjectivity—since objectivity is impossible. I write for an audience with some background or interest in art, not a general public, although it would be gratifying to be able to engage a wider audience the way book and film reviews do.
I’m not so interested in authority, although some critics regret its loss as the exclusive perquisite of an omniscient Greenbergian type of critic, now distributed more widely, shared with or appropriated by curators, dealers, collectors, auction houses, authority traded in for expertise and even artists, who have been too long treated like colonized natives deemed unable to articulate their own intentions. Judgment is also not the most interesting part of criticism or art writing, even if historically criticism has been about judgment since at least the 18th century and Diderot, and book and film reviews are about judgment. We might want to separate criticism from theory, at least theoretical mumble-jumble, which certainly not all theory is. Criticism should be about good writing, insight, information, and anything else it can shoehorn in that’s pertinent. It should be bracing, not boring, more heterodox, eclectic, more social, more political, more about life, less about the academy. Art critics might take up fiction as a model, like the once new journalists did, using language that is intelligible, unpretentious, jargon-free as well as precise, vivid, and creative.
As the world—and the art world with it—continues to shift at warp speed and becomes increasingly complex, “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice cried, so does the role of the contemporary critic, who should be eager to take it all on in all its motley glory.
LILLY WEI is a New York-based art critic and independent curator.