The non-crisis in art criticism
Post #1144 • March 19, 2008, 8:24 AM • 67 Comments
At almost every international art fair over the past few years, there has been a panel discussion about the crisis in art criticism. I have found myself talking about the topic in London, Madrid, Berlin and Miami. Wherever critics are paid to gather (you wouldn't catch us in the same room otherwise), they go on about the crisis. These debates have become an occupational hazard - but they also pay well. If I had known there was money in it, I would have invented a crisis myself.
He detours through a clever bit of self-mockery...
People blame all the money sluicing round the art world. They blame the internet and the rise of the blogger. They blame the dumbing-down of newspapers and the replacement of criticism with the sparkling, if vapid, preview featurette, and the artist-as-celebrity photo opportunity profile. Who cares about the art or the concepts? They're just the MacGuffin. Tell us about the parties, the openings, the drugs and the dresses. Artists are creative, and creative is sexy and good. Critics are a comedown. Some have hair sprouting from their ears. They're always complaining; they're untrustworthy; they're full of hate and spite and they make everything all so complicated, when all we're really trying to do is sell a lifestyle. Fuck 'em.
...and, proceding onward through some other-mockery, ends without answering whether we have a crisis on our hands or not.
Some things are not easy to grasp. We have to work at them. This, in part, is what criticism tries to do. It is also where a lively engagement with the art we encounter begins. And it is where we all begin to be critics.
So, do we? No. I don't think even the total extinction of criticism would constitute a crisis in the face of real crises, such as the myriad humanitarian and environmental problems that eye us from the trigger-end of the rifle barrel. Even to describe the problems facing criticism with such a dire term evinces hubris.
Rather, we have on our hands a problem of misallocated resources. If we want to distribute images and words about them in a maximally efficient way, HTML beats the hell out of publishing on paper. If we want to convey a lot of advertising, a magazine beats the hell out of a web page. In the middle thrash the newspapers. Meanwhile, art itself has some brutal allocation problems. Serious curatorial attentions flow preponderantly towards art that addresses issues in some way. But art addresses issues quite poorly compared to language.
Art only does one thing inherently or well: to serve as a repository for visual quality. You can make it do any number of other things, and many artists have to entertain other functions in order to get the ball rolling - purity of purpose doesn't enable very much art. (Purity can enable art, but so can much else.) But art, ultimately, provides pleasure. Even the people who fight the hardest against visual quality get a payoff from spending time with the allegedly issue-addressing work they prefer, a payoff of intellectual excitement and the feeling that they are witnessing something interesting happening in the context of art. Such pleasures epitomize the middlebrow mindset, but they still qualify as pleasures.
Criticism provides a way to get more pleasure out of art, like chewing gets flavor out of food. Whether it ends up influencing anyone's collection decisions or the direction of the market, or meeting any other metric of importance, doesn't matter. Accuracy of observation, honesty, clarity, judgment, and taste matter above all. Perpetrators of criticism might as well write well, too, while they're at it.
Perhaps it sounds trifiling, but getting the pleasures right, refining them, developing variations on them, and chronicling the work involved constitute some of the highest work of civilization. People take art too seriously in ways it doesn't justify and not seriously enough in ways that it does. It has little impact on the world or our understanding of it; one might as well expect such things of fine dining. But when done well it offers a thrill unlike anything else, one that sets in suddenly and then releases slowly, entering the eyes and delighting the visual component of our being that recognizes shapes and symbols.
After doing what they do to art, people do the same to criticism. Criticism cannot enjoy a position of influence in a market this large, which grew to its present size by rationalizing away taste. But as an ancillary pleasure of art, it has much to offer, and I assert that criticism's status as such comprises its core purpose and its highest one. It draws out and contemplates the pleasures of art where a work has such pleasure to offer.
We have no crisis - we have a tendency to fail to understand ourselves, and then overestimate the import of the products of our misunderstandings.