Art criticism is always performed within a certain context. I will therefore start this overview with a short presentation of the Norwegian art world, before addressing the activity of art criticism.
The Exhibitionary Complex:
Artists, Exhibitions, Galleries, and Curators
Norway has a population of about 5 million, of which about 2,200 are active artists, not including the craft artists that regularly present their works at art exhibitions. Annually, about 2,000 exhibitions are presented by a wide range of galleries: about 20 small and large art museums, some private. One hundred and fifty private and volunteer-based art associations, an old type of ideal institution one can find in all Germanic speaking countries in Europe, about 100 to 120 commercial art galleries, 25 galleries run by artists’ organizations and 20 to 25 more or less ad hoc galleries run by small groups of (mostly young) artists themselves. Besides this, there are a few annuals, biennials, or even triennials run by different organizers, engaging an increasing number of freelance curators.
This exhibitionary complex of 300 to 400 annual art exhibitions is financed in a kind of mixed economy, approximately 50/50 state and market. Most artists receive grants and/or project support, and most non-commercial galleries are either public or publicly supported. The large number of publicly supported artists and art projects means that even private and market-oriented galleries are indirectly supported, since market income is not very important for many artists. Galleries get their artists “for free.”
Art criticism: Exhibitions Reviews
One would hope that art criticism was part of this mixed-economy exhibitionary complex. It is not. Art exhibition reviews are mainly considered the responsibility of the mass media and journals, without any economic incentive from the government. Less than 10 percent of art exhibitions receive a critical review, and even fewer of them by more than one critic. Even important exhibitions in major art galleries or museums do not catch the attention of art critics, or, more accurately, the editors in the media. The massive public support for the production, dissemination, and mediation of art is not matched by independent criticism.
There are about 100 members of the Norwegian Art Critics Association (A.C.A.), which is organized as a section within the Association of Norwegian Critics (A.N.C.). Two other sections organize critics within literature, music, dance, and theater. Some of the members of A.C.A. are no longer active, but have maintained their membership. Most of the members publish less than five reviews during the year. Most of the reviews are written by less than 10 art critics, a few of whom are not members of A.C.A. Only a couple of them are full-time art critics.
The typical career of art critics is as follows: they start young, writing a handful of reviews a year for a minor paper or journal. They receive lousy pay, and spend more time working in other parts of the field; as curators, gallery guides, teachers at art schools, writing texts for exhibition catalogues, or as gallery assistants. This kind of work is much better paid, and many of these positions are directly or indirectly publicly financed. Art critics are multitaskers. After some time, the “non-critic” occupations offer better professional and economic opportunities for most of them, and they leave art criticism. Only a very few “survive” the long period before they can establish themselves primarily as art critics.
Definition of Art Criticism
The concept of art criticism is blurry, to put it modestly. The policy of A.C.A. in Norway, is that only art exhibition reviews published in independently edited media qualify a critic for membership. What the members do in other art related fields is not taken into consideration. This is in contrast to AICA. Here, a wide range of activities within publishing, curating, or teaching in the field of art do qualify for membership. Art exhibition reviews are not even specified among the type of work you must document. You can become a member of AICA without having once written and published an art exhibition review. Art criticism can be almost anything, including but not exclusively the evaluation of the quality of art and art exhibitions.
This extended international notion of what art criticism is, is in my opinion a great hindrance to the independent critical evaluation of artistic quality and to the promotion of quality in art. A clear distinction between critical and sympathetic writing, between independent evaluation and all other genres of writing about art is necessary, in order to evaluate the trustworthiness of what an art critic is writing. A proponent of the view that art criticism is the same as any professional writing on visual art is James Elkins. In the book “The State of Art Criticism” (2007) he writes: “Critics seldom know who reads their work beyond the gallerists who commission it.” A critic who writes for the gallery whose work the critic is expected to objectively evaluate? In my view that borders on corruption. A critic should be independent, both professionally and economically, from the interests of the subject of that critical writing.
Dag Solhjell (b. 1941) is an art sociologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Oslo. He has for many years specialized in critical writing about art institutions. Since 1992 he has worked as a freelance researcher and art critic. In 2012 he published a book on the Norwegian field of art with Jon Øien. In 2013 he published a book about the fate after 1945 of the Norwegian artists that had collaborated with the Nazi regime in Norway 1940 - 1945, with Hans Fredrik Dahl as co-author. In 2013 he also published a book about the tax case of the painter Odd Nerdrum, who was convicted to 2 years and 10 months confinement in jail for tax fraud. The book shows the conviction was a miscarriage of justice.