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.