In old movies, I’ve noticed that the critic is always a snooty older white man—incredibly well connected, frequently corrupt, wielding enormous power over fate of artist, and very often graced with an upper-class British accent.
I actually have never met an art critic like that, but that character embodies the view from outside the art world of the critic as the consummate insider. In my 30 years as a critic I have always felt more like an outsider, and for a long time I carried that feeling as a badge of honor. Critics were the ones who kept the system honest, whose assessments and thoughtful commentaries were not driven by the exigencies of the market, and whose distance from the better remunerated sectors of the art system made for a proud independence.
However, more recently I have begun to feel like an outsider in ways that don’t feel so good.
I don’t want here to rehash the old complaints about critics’ paltry compensation or the tendency of money to trump criticism. But the ground beneath us does seem to be shifting. In part this is a function of new information technologies and the changes they are bringing to both criticism and journalism. The proliferation of new unpaid outlets make it difficult for writers to stand out at the same time as it is increasingly difficult for them to get paid for their work. Critics also seem increasingly marginalized by the growing importance of apparently critic proof institutions like the art fair, the celebrity curator, and the globe trotting collector. It’s increasingly difficult to explain the critic’s role in a scheme where discoveries, advocacy, and judgments are all rendered much more visibly by others. Last summer, the highly respected online magazine of the Artnet website was shuttered in a day because the new owner apparently couldn’t see the point of it. Another sign of the times: Dave Hickey, the only art critic to win a MacArthur “genius” award, has announced his resignation from the field.
I used to wonder whether you could have great art critics without great art. Now a more appropriate question seems to be: can you have great art without criticism?
Thirty years ago in an article about the (perennial) crisis in art criticism, John Perreault remarked, “Without independent art criticism the art system is in danger of replacing that which it grew up to support: good art.” He continued, “I have a sense that the art system—composed of dealers, collectors, investors, curators, and artists—could continue without any good art at all.” And indeed, art criticism today does feel largely irrelevant to the self sustaining echo chamber that is the contemporary art world. But if that’s the case, what are we losing when we lose art criticism and should we try to do something about it?
As someone who has devoted my life to art criticism, I am of course partial to the belief that criticism matters. For me, criticism has been a way of exploring the ways that art helps us understand the world. It’s been an exhilarating ride—casting light on everything from the ethics of bioengineering and the evolution of uniquely Asian forms of modernism to the role of religion in shaping our view of the world. Thinking about art has opened new windows for me on science, technology, philosophy, politics, literature, and other art forms.
But if critics are enriched by criticism in ways that have nothing to do with money, I think that the art world has also been enriched by criticism. When I travel and lecture around the country, I find that art students, artists, and even members of the general public have a real and sincere interest in the ideas behind contemporary art. The growing numbers of graduate programs in criticism attest to young writers’ desire to grapple with critical theory (though in the current climate, I do wonder what they will do with these degrees when they graduate). And when substantive issues come up in art magazines, as in Claire Bishop’s recent commentary on new media art in Artforum this fall, the response from readers is close to overwhelming.
So the problem is not lack of audience, lack of interest in issues, or unwillingness of writers to enter this struggling field. Rather, as with journalism, it seems to be more a problem of delivery systems. Can criticism be fostered in a way that makes it accessible to interested readers while allowing writers to make a living? Are there new models that will make criticism economically viable as a career choice? Or is it inevitable that criticism be folded into existing formats with other objectives, becoming for instance, a subset of academic discourse or another branch of art market reportage?
I admit I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I think we need to be seriously thinking about them. Are there ways to support critical dialogue that don’t rely, as art magazines generally do, on gallery advertisements? Are there ways to encourage dialogue about ideas, rather than the personalities and money? Can the new technologies be harnessed to create a truly productive and interactive forum for larger issues? And can we, as critics, convince the other actors in the art world that what we do actually matters to them? If not, our movie model will not be the snooty white guy but the Invisible Man.
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a contributing editor to Art in America and Artpress and has authored many articles and books on contemporary art.