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Why Should Art Critics Exist?

Post #1795 • October 14, 2017, 7:39 AM

Why should art critics exist? Critics have answered this in various ways. Some see themselves as educators. Others point to a need to explain how art is “relevant to the present moment” or something like that. A few of them think themselves to be members of a priestly class, charged with interpreting the oracular utterances of art objects to the congregation of viewers.

They mean well, probably, but that's all nonsense.

Art is entertainment, as Walter Darby Bannard put it. “Art is merely a kind of entertainment that brings us something we value very highly, and it is made for those who are entertained by it.” Art criticism is an ancillary entertainment, and it too brings us something we value very highly.

In the case of good art, that “something” is pleasure and awe. In the case of good art criticism, that “something” is witness.

Most artists produce work with the idea that someone is going to see it and experience it, maybe not this week or this year, but someday. The artist may be working wholly for himself, but for whatever reason he makes things that are meant for someone else to experience as well. They are for him, and a hypothetical person like him. An implied audience is always there in the studio, demanding to be considered, maybe even accommodated.

Whatever one thinks of the necessity or importance of that audience, it is inarguable that what we call the “art world” would be dismaying without it. Commerce in art objects would go on, but not in any way that was meaningful, because only the buyers and sellers would be there to witness it. Audience is the forum in which private experiences encounter other private experiences. People bond over the similarities and argue over the differences. Witness increases, raising the importance of the whole pursuit.

A critic is a quintessential member of the audience for art. He is not in a class above his fellows, but at a high point within the same class. His power is to be able to hang apt and moving words upon his experiences—experiences that are often hard to describe because they take place entirely outside of language. His eyes discern nuances. He has put himself in front of art many times. He has educated himself about it, its history and its philosophies.

Art critics should exist because audiences should exist. The mark of art's importance is the way that it inspires audiences to bear witness to it ever more intensely. That intensity culminates in critics. Criticism would go on anyway without self-described critics, in an informal and inchoate fashion. But opportunities to bear the designation of “critic,” to write, to be published, amplify the power of witness in a way that an audience without them could not.

What would happen to art if such opportunities diminished to the point of disappearance? We don't know, but here's where we find out. Maybe nothing—we are just talking about an ancillary entertainment, after all, and critics ought not harbor the illusion that the whole operation hinges on them, or that it ever did. But it may plausibly short-circuit the formation of witness and fundamentally affect the character of the audience for the worse, sending the impression that intense scrutiny of, interest in, and reflection upon art is for a few smarty-pants oddballs, and the whole scene doesn't mean much of anything.

Either way it ought to prompt some concern that the media are shedding art critics at a time when more people are making more art than ever before in human history, and it ought to prompt someone to do something about it.

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