Artists made me an art critic—not a theorist, essayist, or reviewer; blogging hadn’t 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. Several local artists approached me, saying “You’re from New York. You have connections there. Why don’t you write about us for some magazine?” The only connection I had was with the then editor of Art in America, Brian O’Doherty, who to my amazement accepted my proposal. I’ve been writing ever since, without ceasing to be a curator. All of which is a way of saying that I believe the most interesting, often most pertinent writing about art is and has always been informed by studio talk. Denis Diderot, Charles Baudelaire, Julius Meier-Graefe, Roger Fry, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, and Michael Fried, to name only a few, all frequented studios and their familiarity with how artists talk about their work is palpable in their writing. It’s also what makes the most acute artist-critics, such as Donald Judd, Fairfield Porter, William Tucker, and more recently David Humphrey and Sean Scully, worth seeking out.
Is there a crisis in criticism? Only if you believe that criticism should matter. Art gets along just fine without criticism, although artists, in my experience, almost always benefit from discussions of their work with people whose eyes they trust. The Internet and Twitter culture have made everyone’s opinion seem equally important, however ill-phrased or downright ungrammatical, essentially making the pronouncements of those of us who get paid (admittedly not very much) for having opinions in public beside the point. If this sounds elitist, so be it. While I’m fully aware the once clear separation between what used to be called “high art” and everything else has become as blurred and insignificant as the Academy’s categories, I’m old enough and stubborn enough to believe in qualitative differences. Yes, the boundaries between disciplines are permeable and yes, all work must be approached without preconceptions and with an open mind, but that’s not the same as abdicating critical judgment or refusing to draw distinctions among works, in their own terms. Unlike some of my colleagues, who agonize over the question of whether something is or is not a work of art, I’m willing to accept that just about anything can be art, if the artist says so. Then the interesting (and profoundly unfashionable) question, for me, remains “Is it any good?”
Nonetheless, I’m not certain what the function of the present day art critic is. We certainly don’t influence which shows people attend the way movie or theater critics apparently do. My friend and colleague, Peter Plagens, divides critics into cheerleaders (obvious), cartographers, who point out the lay of the land, and goalies, who will let nothing past their aesthetic standards. I suspect I am a variable combination of all three, at different times, singling out artists I find specially compelling, trying to discern commonalities or shared concerns among contemporaries, and inevitably (Immanuel Kant would say “involuntarily”) making value judgments about what I see. I have no qualms about attacking what I believe to be an over-inflated reputation, if I don’t think the work merits it. But that, I suspect, is something that I do largely for my own pleasure and to sustain a sense of probity. Adversarial critics—even vociferous ones with a gift for the well-honed, savage phrase, such as Robert Hughes—don’t have any discernable negative effect on artists’ reputations in the current art world.
Nor do I believe that cheerleaders, even the most respected and articulate, have any significant role to play in enhancing how an artist is perceived. An enthusiastic article may help to focus some attention, which, I suppose, is ultimately helpful, but whatever else critics do these days, they certainly don’t influence the art market—nor, from what I can tell, do curators. A handful of collectors and powerful galleries do that. Once, embittered artists who felt overlooked by Clement Greenberg often accused him of being a “king-maker”; now, that title would more accurately be given to Larry Gagosian, but no one seems to object to the practice any more. I suspect that collectors and dealers may even influence other things, as well, such as whose work is deemed worthy of a museum exhibition. An otherwise admirable and revealing current museum show of Mark Rothko’s work of the 1940s, for example, conspicuously downplayed Rothko’s long, close friendship and aesthetic collaboration with Adolph Gottlieb, whose stock is relatively low at the moment despite the excellence of his art. Instead, the exhibition emphasized Rothko’s relationship with Clifford Still, who is far more conspicuous than Gottlieb, these days. It’s hard to suppress uncharitable thoughts about a connection between auction prices and scholarship. Critical enthusiasm or disapproval, on the other hand, seems largely irrelevant.
Ideally, critics should illuminate the work under discussion by attempting to identify both what makes it distinctive and tease out the artist’s intentions. It’s helpful to place the work in a larger context, whether present or past. If we’re dealing with works of the past, as I often do, in writing about historical exhibitions, it’s interesting to think about how the artist was perceived in his or her own day. In my own practice, whatever else I may aim at achieving, I try to make my readers privy to my experience of the art, positive or negative, a task that involves, for me, carefully considering which words will be most evocative of that experience. I aim at arguing my case persuasively enough, pro or con, to pique the interest of my readers, so they will go see for themselves.
Karen Wilkin is an independent curator and critic. The author of monographs on Stuart Davis, David Smith, Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Giorgio Morandi, and Hans Hofmann, she has organized exhibitions of their work internationally. She is a Contributing Editor for Art for the Hudson Review and contributes regularly to the New Criterion and the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Wilkin teaches in the New York Studio School's M.F.A program.