What Is Art Criticism, And Why Do We Need It?

A few weeks ago I participated in a panel about art criticism at CentralTrak, the latest in the UT Artist Residency’s Next Topic discussion series. The conversation was at moments illuminating, at others disheartening. The largest disappointment for me was that we did not clearly mark out in the course of our conversation just what the value of arts criticism is, both to art in general, but also to its role in developing and deepening the work of artists locally.

That’s why I wanted to point to this article from the Brooklyn Rail that was written a year ago by David Levi Strauss, who now heads the MFA graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York. If you are interested in art, his entire piece is necessary reading. It carefully outlines the relationship between the art object and the words written about it, while highlighting some recent attitudinal trends. These include the tendency among some of his students to seek “protection” from the experience of art behind a critical methodology (which he rightly holds is an altogether different thing than criticism), as well as the belief among artists that criticism is unnecessary — or an attitude which too easily accepts the substitution of the market for criticism as the only means by which a work of art is evaluated.

This situation of artists “being rated only by price,” Strauss argues, results from a devaluation of criticism.

Among other things, criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.

For local artists, this situation should be concerning, particularly because for the vast majority (I could say all, but for three or four exceptions) their art work does not come into contact with the market. Even for local artists who sell work through galleries and have a decent number of committed collectors who buy their work locally, the difficulty of establishing secondary market value for artists working in a city like Dallas inhibits the possibility of market value growth of any artist’s work (which in most cases means the inhibiting of a sustained career as a working artist). In other words, Dallas’ irrelevance as a city where art is made is directly related to the locale’s insufficient market provenance. Irrelevant, that is, only in so far as the market is concerned.

Criticism, therefore, is of paramount importance in a city like Dallas precisely because it creates a place for a work of art to mean, irrelevant of market forces. Or, as Strauss puts it:

[Art] needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.

What I like about this sentence is not just how it describes the role of criticism in establishing the relation between a work of art and society, but also that in the description Strauss lays out the criteria for arts writing that can be accurately called “criticism.” On the CentralTrak panel, the question was raised whether or not critics should write negative reviews, and a few of the participants said they don’t have the time or interest to write about “bad art.” In light of Strauss’ comments, however, the question itself seems miss-framed at best, idiotic at worst. Even reviews that seem to disparage the quality of a work of art can’t be called “negative” precisely because they should be an attempt to extrapolate a work of art’s implication for — and relation to — the larger world. A review that argues that a particular work of art does not adequately or effectively bear relation or significance to society is positive in that it elucidates those shortcomings both for the viewer and the artist. For critics to say they don’t write “negative” reviews is the same thing as a critic saying they don’t write criticism.

Dallas doesn’t have enough art critics, but then no place could be said it has enough critics of any sort, particularly these days. Because of criticism’s role in connecting a work of art to public discourse, there is always a need for more and more varied perspectives on this relationship.  But Dallas is perhaps worse off in terms of art criticism than many other places (I couldn’t say this, however, about the state of local theater criticism, classical music criticism, and even, perhaps, pop music criticism). The problem is, in part, that there just aren’t enough people writing criticism. The other frustration is that many publications treat visual art as a kind of creative phenomenon, and not the starting point of critical dialogue. The art work is treated as a kind of artifact of creative intent. The personality of the artist (or their fashion sense) is of more interest than the art. Creativity is celebrated, creative enthusiasm is embraced as an end in itself.  We want to “support” art and artists like we would a child in a youth sporting event, in which the effort and the fun is the point and the game is of no consequence. Thus there is a tendency to champion anything that is merely presented, anyone who slaps a painting on a wall, or locks themselves in a box, or declares the fruit of their solitary doodling “art.”

This is one of the challenges to arts criticism in Dallas. It stems from an attitude shared by some artists, arts supporters, writers, and editors that implicitly suggests that critical friction is a negative force on forward progress. It is a rejection, as Strauss puts it, of one the very intentions and consequences of artistic practice.

I used to think that the plight of criticism was to be always the lover, never the beloved. Criticism needs the art object, but the art object doesn’t need criticism. Now I agree with Baudelaire: “It is from the womb of art that criticism was born.” Artists who disparage criticism are attacking their own progeny, and future.

Comments

  • Bill Marvel

    Nice piece, Peter. Having practiced that much-despised craft for many years I often felt like a manufacturer of dental instruments.
    Part of the problem is the name by which we call the thing — “criticism.” — which, whatever it once meant, now sounds more like something one might expect from a mother-in-law or a back-seat driver.
    Seen in this light, criticism is a negative activity. Critics become gatekeepers. Pollock and Picasso get through, Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade do not, no matter how many thousands love their work. Is it any wonder the critic is despised? How dare he or she impose judgment on someone else’s tastes, much less the artist’s creativity?
    Evaluation is an inevitable part of the critical process. But it comes at the end, almost as a by-product. We may instantly react positively or negatively to an object, but the real critical work lies elsewhere. Good criticism begins with perception and description. What am I looking at? What are its qualities? What effect is it having — or not having — on me? How do it achieve that effect? Is the effect worth achieving/
    This may seem trivial, but in fact I have often had my eyes open to a work by critics who saw what I had missed, or saw it differently. The reason seems counterintuiitive, but none of us sees clearly or completely. Vision, which takes place in the brain, not the eye, is highly selective. And so we all, in a sense, need to be taught to see. That’s why beginning bird watchers need a field guide.
    So the art critic is, first of all, a kind of field guide to the work at hand.
    Experience also teaches us to see, and the critic presumably, has looked at a lot more art than the average museum-goer, has visited artists’ studios, galleries. Each work you see informs your perception of the next work — and your perception of the world at large. If you spend the day in a Louise Nevelson exhibit, as I did once, when you step out the door of the museum, the world looks different. You see Louise Nevelsons, or Nevelson-like forms, everywhere you look.
    The job of the critic is to articulate this perceptual process. And we see, not just with our eyes but with our mind and memory and — yes — our knowledge.It would be difficult, I think, to write about the sculpture of David Smith without at least alluding to his background as a machinist at a locomotive woks. To know this background actually helps see his art more clearly.
    How does a work reflect its times, its culture, the personality and obsessions of the artist who created it? All these questions should somehow find an answer, or the suggestion of an answer, in a review.
    The word “suggestion” is suggestive, of course. No critical piece is final. Art criticism is a series of suggestions that serve to get the conversation going. The reader may agree, disagree, disagree in part. But without conversation, the art is dead.
    Gate-keeping — evaluation — plays a role in all this, but usually only behind the scenes. Good critics seldom announce whether a work is great, only good, or failed. But if they’ve done their work, the reader will have some sense of where the critic stands. And if they’re done their work really well, the reader may agree or disagree, but will see the work afresh.
    Finally, a word about the writing of criticism: Writing art criticism is the hardest kind of critical writing there is. Unlike plays, movies, music, and even architecture, all of which unfold in time, art just sits there on the wall. Art defies verbs, which are at the heart of all good writing, but it invites adjectives, and nobody wants to it around listening to a bunch of adjectives. (“Fabulous!” “Lovely!” “Painterly!”…) Art criticism pretty soon exhausts the talents of all but he most cunning writers (which is why I got out when the getting was good). If the critic loves art more than writing, he or she might become a very good critic. But a very unread good critic.

  • Andi Harman

    Any artist who spends even the briefest amount of time in a classroom is taught to deliver and receive criticism, regardless of whether the analysis is positive or negative. I was amazed at the panel that anyone who considers themselves a critic would almost proudly admit their refusal to write about “bad art” (which is an absurd phrase, anyways). I recall a panelist saying they didn’t want to waste their word count on art that they don’t like. Behavior like this seems destructive and kind of lazy/immature, to be honest. Artists and their the audience deserve genuine criticism outside of a temporary, sheltered studio environment.

    If a gallery has good marketing, their work will become visible. If the work is poorly curated or disappointing in any way, I don’t want to read a review from someone who has authority on the subject that floats their opinions through a rosy filter. The audience and the artist should know why something doesn’t work. And not writing about this stuff seems criminal. It’s so easy to point out why a band or an actor is awful; why is so hard with visual artists?

  • Michael Helsem

    criticism & superstitousness are ends of a spectrum.
    what the last 30 years have seen is both a slide into a swamp of the former, & a concerted, politically-motivated attack on the latter.
    it shouldn’t be surprising that the less robust practices of culture have suffered as a result.

  • Michael Helsem

    criticism & superstitousness are ends of a spectrum.
    what the last 30 years have seen is both a slide into a swamp of the latter, & a concerted, politically-motivated attack on the former.
    it shouldn’t be surprising that the less robust practices of culture have suffered as a result.

  • LDR4

    Is Levi Strauss proctecting his views with a Marxist methodology? Because his views fit the framework remarkably well.

  • Peter Simek

    Well played Rader, but I tend to read his thoughts less cynically than that. Or maybe we’re both subscribing to the same methodology.

  • LDR4

    Perhaps, but it seems that since TJ Clark burst onto the scene in the 70’s the social history of an object has grown to be a necessary inclusion in any discussion or criticism of art objects. It is only natural that Levi Strauss would incorporate this line of thought.