Phyllida Barlow: What are the differences between “reviewing” and “criticism”?
Sarah Kent: Critics perform various tasks from reviewing exhibitions, to writing monographs, delivering lectures, and contributing essays to books and catalogues. In each case, the constraints differ, but favorable comments are generally more welcome than negative ones and in some cases are obligatory. For instance, as catalogue essays are marketing tools intended to enhance an artist’s reputation, anything critical will most likely be rejected.
This is equally true of books published by galleries and museums. The role of publishers, though, is to sell books rather than artworks so, in theory, a publication could be critical yet sell like hot cakes, especially if it were controversial. Reviewers supposedly have more freedom, but some publications are reluctant to print negative reviews for fear of losing advertising revenue. I’ve heard of galleries and P.R. companies erasing from their mailing lists reviewers who criticize a show and I’ve had experience of artists demanding to edit my copy before releasing photographs of their work.
Barlow: Why is “description” being used as such a dominant form, style and content, and literary device, by the art critic/reviewer?
Kent: Description is increasingly used in lieu of critical appraisal because the critics don’t know how to evaluate work that vitiates their criteria, because they fear their views may be unacceptable, or because they believe that judgment is no longer relevant. When Robert Hughes titled his collection of reviews Nothing if not Critical (Harvill press, 1990), he was challenging beliefs expressed by Thomas McEvilley, Hal Foster, Craig Owens, and others that making value judgments was inappropriate.
Since deciding whether or not to write about a work already involves choice, I believe judgment is unavoidable. If work does not interest me, I often decline to review it, so the idea that one’s passions and prejudices can be sidestepped is, I believe, a form of self-deception.
Barlow: Why do art critics/reviewers so blatantly lack the courage to write about the un-writable—art which is non-verbal and non-literary?
Kent: Surprisingly few are equipped to translate visual sensations into meaningful words. The years I spent as an abstract painter and lecturer in art history and criticism were an invaluable preparation. An extensive knowledge of art history is essential, but having been an artist, I believe I have more understanding of the creative process than most academics.
Barlow: Is art criticism, and/or art reviewing, now entrenched in a moral stance?
Kent: I equate the adoption of a moral stance with dismay at work that does not conform to expectations. As Jake Chapman likes to point out, the assumption that art should, or could, be morally uplifting or socially useful is fundamentally misguided since art is fundamentally amoral. The only sensible way to approach new work is with an open mind, though one’s responses are inevitably informed by one’s knowledge and prejudices.
Barlow: To whom is the art review/criticism directed?
Kent: A review is directed at those who read it whether that is the artist, members of the public, curators, collectors, other critics or, in some cases, posterity. I like to think that an intelligent appraisal can be useful to anyone.
Barlow: Are art critics/reviewers afraid of failure?
Kent: I think almost everyone is afraid of failure; a critic is only as good as their last review and their opinion is taken seriously only if it is considered free of influence or bias. I learned very quickly that, as a critic, one can’t afford to have artists or curators as friends, since people who supposedly value independent thought still expect special treatment if they are friends. The reality is that most critics do have such friendships and so are not free of bias.
Barlow: How does the history of art criticism affect a contemporary art critic’s position of what and how they write?
Kent: There must be as many answers to this question as there are critics. Before I began writing in the mid-1970s, I wanted to study art criticism, but no such course existed, so I did an M.A. in art history and aesthetics. But it was reading books by Roland Barthes, Gregory Battcock, John Berger, Thomas McEvilley, Hal Foster, Clement Greenberg, Lucy Lippard, Stuart Morgan, Linda Nochlin, Craig Owens, and many others that taught me how to look at, analyze, and contextualize works of art. And since so much of the art being produced at the time was steeped in theory, I also read Adorno, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Foucault, Freud, Derrida, Lacan, Wittgenstein, and others.
Nowadays one can study art criticism at university, but it is my belief that most original contributions come from left of field rather than orthodox channels, so I’m not convinced that this development is positive.
Barlow: How do art critics/reviewers assess their own work, including their own formal, conceptual, and aesthetic preferences?
Kent: Few people, I suspect, are able to attain enough distance to review their positions, especially as inherent in the making of judgments is belief in one’s ability to do so without prejudice. To be wholly objective is impossible, of course; one’s perceptions are shaped by age, gender, class, cultural and educational background, and experience. More than once I’ve encountered work that has disgusted and enraged me, only to realize later that my discomfort came from being forced to rethink my position. As a student at the Slade, I remember being dumbfounded by Pop Art, because it challenged my assumptions about what art might look like or be about. Interestingly, once the shift has been made it is irreversible.
Barlow: Does a critic/reviewer’s prejudice for or against a work lead to avoiding admitting this through fear of losing credibility and, instead, writing in a very convoluted and, maybe, sycophantic or sarcastic way (depending on the prejudice) which, in fact, reveals that prejudice in a disguised and therefore dishonest way?
Kent: Even though editors can be fooled by it, bluster is pretty transparent. Theorizing can be far more pernicious since it provides a veil of obfuscation behind which to hide confusion, prejudice, and so on. It is easy to mistake verbosity for wisdom and to assume that, if something is unintelligible, it must be profound.
Barlow: Are the roles of critics and reviewers now redundant, as a consequence of the events of 9/11 and the rise of a global art scene?
Kent: You could argue that horrific events such as 9/11 make art irrelevant and criticism superfluous. As Adorno famously remarked, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Faced with what he called the “final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism,” for him cultural criticism also seemed redundant; in these circumstances, he concluded that “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.”
Criticism is now being pushed into the realm of “idle chatter” by a less apocalyptic but no less insidious shift in the way art is perceived. From an activity that encourages discourse, it is being reduced to an investment opportunity for the super rich. And once art is viewed primarily as a commodity, critics have no function beyond endorsing or neglecting it.
Art has been allocated another role, though; exhibitions are more popular than ever. Museums seem to be fulfilling a function once provided by the church—as somewhere to go on Sundays, whether for spiritual nourishment or from idle curiosity. In this context, critics still have a chance to contribute to a discussion of what art is about, what it is for, and whom it benefits. It may be small, but it is still a space worth fighting for.
PHYLIDDA BARLOW (born 1944) studied at Chelsea School of Art, London (1960 - 63) and then the Slade School of Fine Art, London (1963 - 66) where she later became a professor. "Dock" is a large installation currently occupying the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain. Other recent international major exhibitions include Venice Biennale (2013), Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2013), Des Moines Art Centre, Des Moines (2013), Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach (2013), New Museum, New York (2012), Ludwig Forum Aachen, Germany (2012), Kunstverein Nurnberg, Germany (2011), BAWAG Contemporary Vienna, Austria (2010), and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (2004). She became a Royal Academician in 2011 and lives and works in London.