Since the 1990s, growing numbers of art critics have come to believe that the art market had infiltrated every sector of the art world and had devalued art criticism’s role in shaping the art world consensus. As one art writer said, he feels like a piano player in a whorehouse. With this in mind, I issued “A Call to Art Critics” in the Brooklyn Rail December ’06 – January ’07 issue.
Among other questions, I asked whether what Jerry Saltz described as the “art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust, and market hype” was influencing what we wrote.
I concluded that as critics we should investigate the art industry’s values, infrastructure, and practices. If we didn’t, who would? As whistle-blowers, critics could be more effective than any other art professionals since they were inside the art world and could reach a sizable public because they knew how to write.
The institutional critique had engaged art critics earlier and had been squelched. In 1971, John Coplans and Max Kozloff sought to turn Artforum into an anti-market publication. They began to write and publish articles exposing the way in which the investment of money in art was becoming harmful to the art world. Coplans, for example, attacked a new crowd of collectors who were treating works of art like stocks and bonds, who were becoming museum trustees and curating shows. He recalled, “Powerful galleries refused to advertise in Artforum if it did not feature their artists. They wanted to control criticism and use it as promotion. And they got me fired.”
Apart from the power of the market, there is another reason why art critics have lost much of their influence as arbiters of art, notably the growth of pluralism in the postmodernist era. During the Modernist period, art critics took sides for or against avant-garde styles such as gestural or Color Field painting, assemblage, environments and happenings, pop, minimal, earth, conceptual art, and so on. The arguments pro and con were focused and critics commanded attention because their timely, engagé polemics attracted art world interest. What sharpened the debates were markedly different art-critical approaches: for example, Clement Greenberg’s formalism versus Harold Rosenberg’s existentialism, or Michael Fried’s defense of Color Field abstraction versus Robert Morris’s or Robert Smithson’s advocacy of Minimalism.
During the pluralistic postmodernist era there are no longer riveting polemics that absorb critics. Instead, critics tend to be reduced to choosing artists they admire (and in rare cases, dislike) and deal with each individually. Art world discourse has become unfocused and undramatic, and has fallen into a kind of disarray, and in the minds of many, irrelevant. John Ashbery perfectly, if inadvertently, summed up this new situation in “Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems”:
Confused minions swarmed on the quarter deck.
No one was giving orders anymore. In fact it was quite a while since any had been issued. Who’s in charge here?
Can anyone stop the player piano before it rolls us in the trough of a tidal wave? How did we get to be so many?
In order to trigger ideas about art criticism today, Elizabeth Baker, Phong Bui, Amei Wallach, and I formulated a number of questions which were circulated to a large number of art critics. They are in no particular order, nor were they all meant to be addressed.
1. What should art criticism be doing?
2. What are the issues or polemics, if any, for art criticism?
3. Is there a crisis in criticism?
4. Has art criticism been marginalized in the art world consensus? Is it influential in terms of what readers think and do?
5. Who and what is an art critic?
6. How would you define yourself as a critic? Reviewer? Essayist? Theorist? Artist-critic? Blogger?
7. For what audience do you write?
8. Has the Internet been good or bad for art criticism? Does it raise the issue of elitism versus populism?
9. How do you deal with the proliferating mediums in the art world today?
10. How has globalization of art and the art world changed art criticism?
11. How has the enormous growth of the art world changed art criticism?
12. How do art magazine policies affect art criticism?
13. Are gender-based and political issues still viable in art criticism today?
14. Is it a function of art criticism to analyze art world institutions?
Anna Tome assisted in the compilation and editing of these statements on art criticism.
The Rail invites comments from its readers. Please submit to firstname.lastname@example.org.
IRVING SANDLER is an art critic and historian. He is a contributing editor for Art in America, author of four surveys of art since World War II, monographs on Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Mark di Suvero and a chapter in the new book on Deborah Kass, Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After, and a memoir titled A Sweeper-Up After Artists, among other publications. He is the former president and current board member of the American Section of the International Association of Art Critics.