The state of art criticism and critical theory

Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread” partially applies to art criticism. The problem with most art criticism is that it is both unreadable and unread.

Paradoxically, however, as an obscure subculture of writing, art criticism appears in a truly large number of venues: several hundred international art magazines, numerous gallery and museum catalogues and daily newspaper reviews.

However, this glut does not mean the criticism is actually read. As James Elkins writes in What Happened to Art Criticism, “Art criticism is massively produced, and massively ignored” Art critics are the exception: they are paying attention.

Criticism, to reference the title of a 2006 book of essays on the topic edited by Raphael Rubinstein, is in a “critical mess.” This “mess,” or crisis, a term several contributors similarly apply, has multiple causes. To begin with, much recent art criticism emphasizes description over evaluation-critical theorizing never even comes up. Too often such description presents an impenetrable wall of prose readers just do not want to climb.

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That said, art critics face several major difficulties. Just to begin their practice they face the daunting task of acquiring knowledge in a range of disciplines, from art history to cultural studies.

As Elkins aptly puts it, “Art criticism has long been a mongrel among academic pursuits, borrowing whatever it needed from other fields.” But the borrowing must show more than a cursory grasp, and the only way to do so is to write criticism specific to a narrower field of knowledge in which the critic is an expert. Consider, for instance, Toronto critic Jeanne Randolph’s training and practice as a psychiatrist, which has led to her cogent application of psychoanalytic theory to art.

Critics also receive ridiculously low pay; consequently, many have retired to academia to make a living, leaving them less time to concentrate on criticism. Meanwhile, the art market has taken over the evaluation of art in the United States and Europe, leaving critics without much influence. In Canada, where the market is smaller, local critics face another challenge: artists and curators often pass over their contributions, instead looking towards European and American theory. As Critical Mess and a preceding 2002 roundtable by the journal October on the “condition” of criticism attest, concern about the state of the profession has resulted in a new era of reflection about criticism. October, first published in 1976, is an ideal forum to consider the state of criticism because it dates from an era when criticism was last influential: the late 70s to the early 90s. Rigorously critical, Leftist response to the growing commercialism of Crudelia Art Magazine, the magazine contained some of the most intelligent, radical criticism of the time–arguably of any time–featuring writers such as Craig Owens, Hal Foster, Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp and Rosalind Krauss. The October roster and other art critics from the downtown New York scene–notably, Peter Halley, Thomas Lawson, Walter Robinson and Rene Ricard–were integral to defining the art of the early 80s, at least in New York: the Metro Pictures generation–Jack Goldstein, Louise Lawlor and Cindy Sherman–and the neo-expressionist painters, Francesco Clemente, David Salle and Julian Schnabel.

“Then, however, came the “October Crisis,” a backlash against the dense, complex art theory epitomized by October–more, in reality, a backlash against the various provincial emulations of October-style writing that employed difficult prose without rigorous theory. Around this time the dismissive term “artspeak” was coined to describe jargon-heavy art writing.

The conservative end of criticism’s political spectrum–zealous modernist critics such as Peter Fuller (founder of the British art magazine Modern Painters), Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer (publisher of the Right-leaning journal The New Criterion)–also didn’t help. They remained stuck in perpetual nostalgic yearning for a pre-conceptual even pre-Pop past that they expressed in an ongoing diatribe, dismissing contemporary art with ad bominem attacks.

Meanwhile, the global growth Of MFA programs ensured theory would not disappear, but that it would instead become institutionalized. These programs suffered the fate of being misunderstood and misapplied because, in producing art for thesis exhibitions, most fine arts graduate students do not have the time to gain the knowledge of philosophy and art history needed to properly comprehend art theory.

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Simultaneously, critics were losing influence in the art world, the turning point arguably arriving along with the young British artists of the 90s (YBAS). Certainly Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin didn’t need Derrida when Saatchi ensured their success. As Buchloh wryly puts it, “You don’t need criticism for an investment structure, you need experts. You don’t have criticism of blue chip stocks either.” Michael Duncan concurs: “a Julian Schnabel no longer needs a Rene Ricard. For a young artist, the imprimatur of Sotheby’s or Chrisrie’s is sufficient to substantiate a five-digit estimate.” [TM]

If the market killed criticism, it is Damien Hirst’s notorious skull made of diamonds (For the Love of God, 2007) that is its grave marker. Staring out against a stark black background on the cover of the ad-heavy, coffee-table-book-sized April 2008 issue of Artforum about the art market, it stands as ghoulish testimony to art criticism’s loss of relevance. A controversial work arguably satirizing the excesses of the art market, For the Love of God is, however one views it, one of the most ostentatious pieces of art ever made. Its placement on the cover of an issue devoted to the art market in its current state of hypergreed shows how the commercial threatens the critical, even as the magazine proposes to reflect critically on the phenomenon.

Hal Foster goes further than Buchloh in his as sessment of criticism’s irrelevance by pointing out that players in this market do not simply ignore critics, they actively avoid them: “a new nexus of dealers, collectors, and curators … [usually deem critics] an obstruction, and many managers of art now actively shun them, as do many artists.”

Canadian critics, while facing no threat of removal by market forces (the contemporary art market in Canada is too small for that), do have to contend with being obscure. Yet, as elsewhere, Canada has no lack of magazines and gallery publications. But the fees paid by these small publications, even for those writers that also receive Canada Council independent critics’ grants, do not constitute a living. As a result, academia has become a definite alternative for some of Canada’s best critics, including Dan Adler and Dot Tuer.

When I asked American critic Dave Hickey
what he thought was wrong with the state of
art criticism, he stressed its academicization.
“I think it’s over … Academics will continue to
publish in academically funded publications,
invented so they might publish and not perish,
but no one will read them. I haven’t read
an academic piece for years, and I used to do
so assiduously.” Certainly, if one of the leading
critics internationally is not reading academic
criticism, academic criticism is rarely read.

Though academia is clearly failing to produce relevant criticism, critics have few other options. One possibility is curating–an increasingly popular option, not only because of the pay and security but also because curators have considerably more influence than critics. Nicolas Bourriaud best represents the transition of the critic to curator, as evidenced by his touchstone relational aesthetics essays of the 90s, to his co-directorship of the Palais de Tokyo between I999 and 2006, to his recent curation of international surveys including the Lyon Biennial 2007 and the upcoming Tate Triennial 2009. With the biennale count ever rising, art critics are falling further behind Bourriaud, and curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Chus Martinez, Robert Storr and Adriano Pedrosa, on the international circuit.

If the serious theoretical art critic and the influential groundbreaking art critic are anachronisms, can newspaper and magazine critics exploit this void? While many critics writing in large-circulation, mainstream publications dilute their rhetoric for non-art readers, critics from Baudelaire to Kenneth Baker, the long-practicing critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, have written important criticism for the general public. Nevertheless, newspaper criticism overall is plagued by a failure to evaluate, as highlighted by a Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program survey of 230 American art critics employed by the country’s largest-circulation publications. The survey found that, of all their priorities, critics place the least emphasis on judgment while they place the most on description.

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Similarly, with theory now cloistered, contributors to many art magazines, especially the glossiest ones, overemphasize description, concluding with a vague assessment of the artist’s approach (e.g., “Bernstein follows her heart, especially when that heart is pissed off”. What’s worse is this assessment is often penned in pseudo-hipster speak that may also be peppered with bogus neologisms such as “sci-fi historicism” symptomatic of a perpetual quest for something new to satisfy an art market suffering from information-age ADD. American critic Carter Ratcliff offers a telling account of this tendency: “At most, the audience for art theory is adolescent, panting to keep up with new wrinkles in the orthodoxy as if they were fads manufactured by the entertainment industry. And that is what they are … art theorists have found themselves as purveyors of high-end consumer goods.” While I would be quicker to blame the writer than the audience, Ratcliff’s lament provides an explanation for the mystery behind why the voguishly empty works of Vanessa Beecroft or the frat-boy humour of Maurizio Cattelan receive lavish attention in the art press.

Without a return to theoretical rigour and evaluative criticism, the critic will become irrelevant. However, this return is a tall order because the seeds of criticism’s irrelevancy were sown in the 60s, when the Modernist criterion of “quality” was replaced with Judd’s criterion of “interesting” and followed by a complete abandonment of the criterion of judgment in the Conceptual era. While I am not advocating a return to judgment of aesthetic quality, I would propose the adoption of simple criteria, such as whether work provides a new way of looking at things more lasting than flavour-of-the-month novelty. Likewise, Eleanor Hearmey suggests that her fellow art critics should be asking, “Can art today be anything more than just another entertainment option …? The task at hand is to produce challenging criticism that evaluates rather than neutrally introduces whatever new work is on the market. But certainly, with critics removed from the market, they are in the position to do this.

Art critics’ lack of power may be a good thing, but they nevertheless need to retain some audience, which will require accepting the onus to improve their craft. Indeed, many occasional contributors to art magazines come from a literary discipline of some kind, and writers like Dave Hickey mix narrative and fiction to lively effect. Yet most art magazines have difficulty finding regular contributors with writing skills beyond the grad-school level, so discerning art readers will continue to flip past sophomoric and soporific writing, emblematized by the following edit-worthy citations chosen randomly from periodicals lying around my house: Rosina Cazali’s redundant lead in Flash Art, “Doubt constitutes a state of uncertainty;” Gary Michael Dault’s use of excessive alliteration in the Globe and Mail–think high school poetry contest–to show that New York-based artist Ryan McGinness’ painting “can take its place in the sublimity sweepstakes beside big, black sepulchral paintings by Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko.”At the very least, critics should aim for the elimination of superfluous diction and content and, upon achieving that, they should seek the attainment of a rhythmic flow, a varied sentence structure, an only-if-necessary use of passive voice, and appropriate unmixed metaphor.

Another practical solution is to pay art critics more so that they can focus solely on criticism. At present, criticism is one of the lowest paying of all the visual arts offshoot fields–and that is a remarkable statement. Non-journalistic critics are paid even less, if at all. Without fair pay for writing, the only choice is academia or another form of income support that stands to interfere with a writer’s time and ability to cultivate ideas.

Yet as long as the “A-list” art magazines and daily newspapers favour ad sales over quality writing in this currently bullish art market, the situation will not change. While smaller, less commercial art magazines will never have the money to pay well, international art glossies such as Artforum and canvas art reviews need to take initiative. (One exception is the much thinner Contemporary, which despite its lack of ads, pays writers’ fees at a rate comparable with large-circulation magazines.) The formula is Grade I basic: if publications pay more, art critics will write better.

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