Art Criticism Today

My husband, a painter and an art critic, dutiful lad that he is, cheerfully attended last night’s annual meeting of the American section of AICA—the International Association of Art Critics. Yet he’s always told me never, ever, to do what he’s done—be both an artist and an art critic. Despite examples of the combo working out rather beautifully (take Donald Judd, for example), my husband repeatedly warns me that artists who also write art criticism face a serious drag on their studio time and, worse, end up fending off tons of people who want nothing from them other than that they give up making their own art in favor of writing about some other artist, or curator’s exhibition, or museum director’s plans for the future.

To borrow the immortal phrasing used by Alger Hiss in denying he was a communist, “I am not and never have been” an art critic. Even so, I read a lot of art criticism and, in the spirit of finding out what’s au courant in the profession, I attended the panel discussion on “the current state of art criticism,” open to guests of AICA members, following last night’s members-only AICA meeting. Moderated by João Ribas, who is curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the panel consisted of my husband, Peter Plagens, Barbara MacAdam, deputy editor at ArtNews, Walter Robinson, editor of Artnet Magazine, and Elisabeth Kley, an artist who writes features and reviews for a variety of art publications.

The joke in the art world nowadays is that the function of today’s art critic is to be on panels about the crisis in art criticism, and the panel didn’t disappoint in this respect. The first question on the table was whether or not there’s a crisis. The non-answer answer was both yes and no. Yes, there’s an ongoing crisis, one that’s been going on for at least a decade now, which boils down to the fact that print venues for art criticism have dried up. No, there is no crisis, because millions of people who were never heard before now write art criticism, and write it about artists and art heretofore ignored. They put it out there on their individual blog sites, non-paying group blog sites, or on their Facebook and Twitter pages. These millions of voices, dispersed over the vastness of the Internet, bleating out iterations of “art criticism,” have opened up the art world. At the same time, they’ve weakened the chance for any consensus to form around what constitutes good art, as well as diminished the possibility for particular critics writing in such publications as The New York Times or The New Yorker to convey authoritative opinions about art.

The panel members touched on all the relevant points—that art critics now write without editors (code for the fact that an awful lot of art writing is horrific), that the role of critics as taste-makers no longer appeals to either artists or the general public (who are you to tell me what art I like?), that critics today eschew making judgments (a fascinating topic in itself), and finally, that the conflation of art, spectacle, fashion, movies, and general celebrity culture into one mushed party has deformed art criticism to the point where it frequently amounts to no more than celebrity news or lists of auction prices. It’s very hard to find long articles whose subject is focused on the specific work of an artist—a kind of writing that few now seem to want to read.

Blaming art critics for any of this is, in my opinion, off target. Like newts swimming inside the stream of evolution, art critics belong to a species struggling to survive in a rapidly changing art environment. With powerful billionaire mega-collectors now driving the art market, which is now considered the final arbiter of quality, and those collectors caring not the least bit what some puny-voiced art critic has to say about the matter, a lot of art criticism has evolved into nothing but fancy description.

Living as we do in a culture that sees quality  as whatever it is that brings in the most money, it’s unrealistic, not to mention unfair, to demand of art criticism something different.

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