Criticism and Civility
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, the craft of criticism feels more urgent than ever, a skill to continually hone at all costs. When I was first asked the question, “What is criticism?” upon entering the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts five years ago, I’d suggested that good criticism, in the context of considering art, is a civility. To take time with a work in order to not only see it, but also to listen, taste, feel and really commune with it, is to provide the attention art deserves in order to ask critical questions and inspire provocative discourse.
I am a slow thinker, always have been, but I now receive information more quickly than ever before, as do we all. Debating whether this is a positive or negative state of affairs seems a moot point—our technological advances are here, they are entrenched, and we’ll not revert to older systems. The networks themselves are a neutral baseline anyway. What matters is how individuals deploy them, and here is where danger exists. Anyone can doctor a photograph, or create a meme, and send it out into the world via the Internet where the chance exists it will be seen by untold numbers of people. We see dozens of these images a day, and for many, it’s much simpler to see and believe rather than take the time to do the work of slow thinking and research in order to arrive at a critically informed position. The United States has just witnessed an unprecedented presidential election. The successor, our president-elect, ran a triumphant campaign built on images like these, which depict Mexicans and others of Latinx origin as rapists and freeloaders, Muslims as terrorists, blacks as gangsters, and women as commodities whose value is measured in body type (to name just a few).
As art writers, we have a specialized knowledge of, and a particular interest in what images have the power to accomplish. Our task in the coming years will be to wade through the morass of information, discern what is fact from what is a lie, and examine it from all angles in order to come to an enlightened viewpoint, rooted in truth. Then, we’ll need to encourage others to do the same, utilizing every channel available in order to counterattack the deception that besieges us.
Criticism is a civility. I do still believe that. But compassion and grace are being filtered from our culture like sand through a sieve, and so I think my five-year-old statement needs revision into something more burning, something graver. Critical thinking, and the writing it produces, has now become a matter of life and death.
JESSICA HOLMES is a New York-based writer and critic who contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.