“Art criticism” covers an amorphous range of writing from intellectually ambitious essays—academic and otherwise—on 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.
My requisite for choosing to write on a body of work is that I find it of compelling interest, think I have or may have something significant to say beyond what has already been said, and want to call attention to it. (I don’t necessarily know what I have to say before beginning to write, which is one reason for doing it.) I try, beyond describing the work, to account for its vitality. A description that does not, in some way, communicate the work, convey an experience rather than giving a factual account that has no life. I am personally interested in articulating what is there and how it comes to be there. “What is there” can mean anything that is in the work: formally, expressively, inferentially, etc. Much postmodern and contemporary work is focused on social issues and therefore requires contextualization even in a short review. Other art calls for attention to its visual character and the sort of perceptual experience it affords.
A choice of art to be reviewed implicitly asserts its importance and contemporary relevance. By relevance I don’t mean the work’s being on the cusp of the moment, the latest phase within a historical construct. “Relevance” here could apply to work quite outside the general contemporary consensus.
I want my writing to be clear and comprehensible for any educated reader but am particularly aware of the artist as a reader, trying as I do to get inside the work at its formative level. Being a painter myself, I’m particularly sensitive to the optical experience, process and predicament of artworks. I think of my writing as in part a sort of conversation with the work and with the artist, a conversation that may include criticism but not criticism as a measure of rave-pass-fail. I don’t consider my function to be primarily an evaluator or corrector of the work.
(As a studio teacher I have asked students to write in the voice of the painting or series they are working on. That is, not their conscious ideas but the thoughts within the work itself. Not the kind of critical evaluation from outside made by teachers or peers, but the expressive voice of the painting. The result of an attempt to go inside the work is, or might be, part of a larger discussion that follows. As a writer I would not presume to interpret another’s work psychoanalytically, as though privy to his or her unconscious, an empathic response, as distinct from a purely objective one, can provide significant insights.)
The grace and effectiveness of the writing itself is crucial. Much writing, especially when it is theory driven, reads like school assignments, as though written by nobody. Ultimately the test of one’s writing may be the level of discourse that it exemplifies. If the writing has no character, why would anyone bother to read it?
The success of a review or an essay might be measured by how it motivates the reader to look again at the art.
ROBERT BERLIND is an art writer and professor emeritus at SUNY Purchase.