Clear portrayal and perception
By Ashley Janke and Sara Caron
On Tuesday, Ashley and I rode the elevator at MIAD for a period of about thirty minutes. We wanted to figure out what art writing does well, how it should and does function, what everyone’s roles are. We hoped to engage members of the community just wandering in and to remove ourselves from a familiar and comfortable environment.
Elevators aren’t generally conducive to conversation, they’re awkward and you feel weightless (personally, I’m terrified of them, it was hard). The setting of our conversation was also significant because an elevator is a space you imagine to be in constant motion but really it is stagnant until it is prompted to move. We would liken it to the way a community functions. You have to be involved for it to work. Art writing provides a wide range of perspectives. Near the end of our elevator ride we decided to call Neil Gasparka to see what he might be able to offer. Neil is an artist and an art writer living in Milwaukee.
We went to get ice cream with Neil and he began to talk about art preceding language, that art writing is a way of packaging ideas about art, of catering to the wide range of audiences a work and exhibition creates, that trying to translate between forms strengthens each. I like the idea of living with a work in a number of forms, living with it and allowing it to have a real effect on your thinking and your life.
Ashley said: “Artists have intentions and make the work, the curator communicates that and the art writer reads the work.” Through more conversation Ashley, Neil and I decided criticism shouldn’t be about “good” or “bad”, that that could be thrown out, but that it was, at its core, about communication, about clear portrayal and perception.
We recorded everything and will show the video soon.
Once upon a time, one had to be motivated to send in a letter, be employed by a publication, or independently publish their opinion on events and artwork in order to be read by the public. Money, time, and professionalism were needed to review and create an educated opinion. Writings done by critics were key sources of information to the public and helped shape and support outsider works as they called importance to the boundaries of creative endeavors. It is those watchdogs who pioneer raw materials in production and attempt to weigh them against history.
Art writing establishes a connection from the source of a creative vision to the public, delving beyond the initial aesthetic outer layer spliced with tropes and tribulations. There has been a shift in this role as a public interpreter of visual culture; the individual is now as important as any establishment or hierarchy. This, in part because of the internet, has created a highly saturated community of commentary (blogs) (educated or not) about all subjects and manners. If anyone can write, how does one opinion weigh more than another? Isn’t art subjective to taste? Does a critic detract from the art work if they are not partial? If the artist is criticizing the culture around them, why do they need to be criticized for the public to understand? Art writing is a diminishing valuable cultural tool; the critic serves to guide the viewer and participate around and inside social cultural historical and psychological significances in pieces of work to establish a bridge between the art world and the general public.
As more artists explore “the blurring of the boundaries between theoretical interpretation and artistic practice in a bid to take seriously the consequences for a critical writing implicated within the space of artwork itself. (Butt xxi) they have begun to choke out the responsibilities of curator and critic- cutting out the middlemen to stage a total control work. While this has its benefits, with the artist having unadulterated rights to influence the viewer and public, it may fail to connect or influence in a way that is better structured by the role of a curator or reviewer. The artist is continually practicing in a world that does not favor chance; and therefore one learns quickly that in order to make a name, survive and thrive one must manifest destiny- to make sure they are heard and influence the outcome of their piece. With the theoretical jargon and speculation of a third party (the writers) out of the way, the artist has a chance to shine to the public with just blunt reaction.
But is that what the public wants? Like any unfamiliar area, there are expected learning curves. The art world is seemingly open on its surface, but deceptively fraught with eddies of abstract theory, loose terminology, and pockets of elitism. While the public may be intellectually capable of discerning works, it is not trained to observe. Maurice Berger writes “by diminishing the role of the informed critic in the evaluative process-in effect, making the end user, the consumer, the most effective and persuasive arbiter of quality market driven culture leaves little room for minority points of view, edginess, difficulty or controversy whether in the cultural mainstream or sometimes even at its increasingly embattled margins” (8). Essentially, the artist is a raw source, the critic is the academic inquirer, and the public is the third party audience of the critic’s reactive record.
Critics often go against the conventions to challenge ideas and become “aesthetic mentors” (8) to pick apart a stronger meaning than initial reaction, beyond cheap tricks and shiny seduction, to analyze key manipulators. Without these, author Toni Morrison argues, “the [public] is capable of dismiss[ing] the difficult, arduous work writers do to make art that becomes and remains part of and significant within human landscape” (10).
To make a simple comparison, exploring the art world is a lot like exploring the great outdoors. Primal, part of the human interaction with the world, both are noble pursuits that are sources of inspiration and human connection. Instead of physical pursuit however, the art venturer moves into a world of historical, sociological, and cultural wilderness. The artist is this raw open unchecked source of visual creation, the wild. Most enthusiasts do not just step into the wild, they require the guidance of equipment, or means to interpret their surroundings. The art critic functions largely as this for readers. Although one may venture out without the help of a guide, to spend the day outdoors, many aspects of their environment are missed without trained eyes. Therefore, in order to obtain as much information and understanding from the art wild or the outdoors, it is imperative to bring some sort of context in order to sort out vast amounts of information. To be sure, often the viewer is caught in the theoretical abstractions and catch-22 theories. The complexity of discussing non-literal, non-linear subjects is not a rhetoric for everyone, maybe just on the weekends.
While blogs are taking away from this type of guided and informed writing, there is still a need and great validity within the profession. It is simply becoming diluted by the dissolution of the hierarchy of credible sources by the internet. The freedoms of publication are pushing out the middlemen of art vs. the public, and roles are switching among curators, artists and writers. Yet it is a dead movement? Although popularity of previous writing styles has left, perhaps a new more aggressive movement must begin in lieu of the self-important opinions that fill gaps in screens. There are few who are willing to go into the woods and live without equipment and really try to enjoy it, and there are few who are willing to go into the depths of raw creation without a context to decide which is up or down. Art writers need to provide that context, even if the artist extends to offer explanation for it. The critic is a means to participate within the art world, as well as operate outside of it, to academically question and effectively interpret visual interpretations with the intention to appreciate the forefront of creativity.
Berger, Maurice. The Crisis of Criticism. New York: New, 1998. Print.
Butt, Gavin. After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Print.
A generous act
By Stephen Strupp
In the restroom of the Mayfair Mall AMC Movie Theater after seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox, my friend asked me what I thought, and I told him I liked the part where they met the wolf. He agreed and said it was “sublime or something.” It was a simple thing to say, but he articulated something that I couldn’t about what it was about the scene that I was drawn to. It also gave me more to think about, as far as what is involved, emotionally and spiritually, in the confrontation of fears. And what it means to me as a viewer when a film creates a feeling of glory – what is it about the composition of the shot, the audio, and the context within the movie that makes it so sacred? Should I trust it?
When I spend time with a work of art, I usually have questions about it and I sometimes arrive at an insight. If I’m in a social setting like a gallery, I might share these feelings with the people I am with. People’s responses to my thoughts could include building on the idea, or maybe asking questions to understand it better. These conversations, provoked by the desire to understand what we are looking at, are sustained if there is some meaning or inspiration that pertains to our lives. These meanings might not be life changing, but they could be beneficial in some way, whether it is comforting or challenging.
Art writing is like a more public form for these conversations to take place in. Except, if I have an insight, I spend more time thinking about it and refining it before sharing it. This way, I can consider some of the other ideas or questions that would naturally be built on it. Writing about art is in this way is more an act of trust, because there is no way to get an immediate reaction (aside from comments on blogs). It takes patience to see what effects critical writing has. A review could give people a way in to looking at a certain piece, or challenge its presentation, which could provoke people to think about their reactions.
If a writer connects ideas appearing in various works of art, then trends can be identified, and the collective significance of a number of works can be considered. For this kind of self-awareness to be possible, it would probably be necessary for other writers to pick up on the same ideas and address them. Architecture critic Naomi Stead says, “I would argue that architectural criticism is useful in itself: it contributes significantly to a lively and thoughtful architectural culture.” The same idea is applicable to art writing, that art and criticism are part of the same art culture, and that writing brings a vital element of reflection. Stead’s view is of a more active relationship between architecture and criticism. There’s no reason that artists should isolate themselves from criticism. Being aware of what ideas are circulating is helpful at both ends of the spectrum. The power of this is that it can reveal some information about ourselves and our time period, our place in the world. It could help us learn to recognize common behaviors, what is provoking them, and what effect they are having.
I wonder why writing about art is not as popular as making art. Superficially, it’s not as glamorous. You can’t exactly have a solo show in a gallery exhibiting your critical writing, and you also can’t sell it. No one will hang it in their house. In this sense, I think that writing is generous, because it’s not something done with any sort of personal gain in mind. By nature, you are required to give someone else’s work attention, to be willing to empathize with it. As writer Dave Hickey describes criticism: “It is the written equivalent of air guitar – flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music. It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone” (Hickey 163). This stance suggests that the “knowledge” already exists in the work, and writers just distill it and clarify it. However, if this is true, then I don’t see any reason to believe that artists produce knowledge either. I think there is a cycle, which life, artists, and critics are equal parts of: artists build ideas from life and create art, critics build ideas from art and write criticism, and criticism returns ideas to life.
Hickey, Dave. Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. Art Issues Press. 1997.
Stead, Naomi. “Three Complaints About Architectural Criticism”. Oct. 2, 2008. <http://naomistead.com/2008/10/02/three-complaints-about-architectural-criticism/ >
Devour and Digest
In the grand scheme of things art writing is only a small part of the art world but an integral part. The art scene is made up of many different parts that rely and work together to create this scene. Without the curators, the art wouldn’t be put into museums. Without the artists, the writers wouldn’t have something to talk about, and without the writers talking about the artists’ work that the curators chose, the museums wouldn’t be very successful. These constant battles and power plays between roles is a problem in the big scheme of things. As these roles are separated and intermingled a lot of the job titles are lost. Artists are taking things into their own hands, but we always need an art writer. The writer can criticize a piece of work but is also separated from it. The artist can’t objectively criticize their own work. It has now become the responsibility of the art critic to look, view, judge, and understand the work then to write about it in a manner that allows the viewer to experience it.
Let’s take this pig for example. It is cute and great but what is the purpose of it wearing rain boots. Is it because it is raining? Or is it the sole purpose to just look cute and silly? Well this pig is like an artist or curator writing critically about their show or work. They are just this cute little pig wearing rain boots for no reason except for the sole purpose to look cute. A pig is an outdoor animal who is used to playing in the mud. Let the art critic wear the boots and walk in the rain.
In the book Air Guitar written by Dave Hickey he says many things about the art writing. On page 165 he states, ”I would write about works of art, then, about pieces of architecture and recorded music— objects that would continue to maintain themselves in the living present subsequent to my transporting them out of it.” He obtains the role of the art critic and pushes himself further. He is looking at pieces of art but then looking at non-traditional art and writing about it. He allows himself to experience everything around him. He views not only the art work but also the space around it.
The value of art writing is what you get out of it. I feel that in most cases if the critic actually takes the time with the art work they will have the ability to truly absorb the ideas put into it. In order to write and criticize art you must understand it. If you do not have to ability to understand it than what is the point of writing about it. “What writing cannot do is…account for the experience.” (Hickey167) It does not matter if you like the statement in which you understand but as long as you have a grasp of the concepts at hand. The art writing today is academic, analytical, understated, and so much more. Every art writer brings a different view and understanding between its subject and its reader. I prefer the art writer who is just an art writer. One that does not have an intense academic background, who can actually talk like they are there, present in the exhibition. I want to read a critic’s views and be able to picture it while reading the article. “Evoking the sense of memory of that first bright encounter.” (Hickery 166) I feel like this is an important aspect of art writing that has almost been looked over.
Another aspect of art writing that has been looked over is the written word on PAPER. This is huge. Doesn’t it hurt your eyes to look at a computer screen all day? Well it hurts me. I like looking at magazines and reading books to gain knowledge. I was raised in a transitional time which made me look at books but then I have Google. Google is addicting. It is your one stop shop for knowledge. I think as a community we have become lazy. We need to stop this need for blogging and start writing in newspapers, magazines, and books. Yes the internet is an amazing invention that should be used in most cases but when we have lost a whole medium and so many more are being lost everyday we need to take a step back and think. I want the written word on paper and I hope I am not alone on this.
Through my experience in this class I realized that you must commit yourself to the work you choose to write about. Before, when I was just there to view the art, I was focusing on the smaller details of the art work instead of the big picture including the space, time, and pieces. You must be able to experience and digest the artwork at hand and then take it a step further. Encounter the space in a manner in which it can be explained on paper. But you must make it your own. Describe to your audience what you see and not what they might see. You must make your writing your own. Use your words, your thoughts, your ideas and mush them into a small masterpiece written on a piece of paper. This is what the critical writing class has taught me. You must devour the concepts at hand and digest them.
Art criticism: A homeless vagabond
By Collin Schipper
It is difficult to ascertain the impact of art writing in the current world. There are so many art publications and outlets right now, and growing every day, that it would be impossible even in a moderate sized city to follow all of the literature about a single show. There are myriad reasons for this expansion, most economic. Newspapers, the number one source for populous art criticism, are falling away quickly, trampled beneath the ever growing massive shoes of technology and newer media outlets. People’s reports of actually reading print news and information are lowering, which does not mean they are not reading: it simply means it is much more difficult to see what it is they are reading.
And so it is that technology has replaced, for the most part, the printed columns of text about arts and entertainment. This has a massive impact on the quality of writing that takes place, as well as the amount. Most art writing is now blog based, which is mediated and monitored by a comments section, but is not typically peer reviewed. There is a tone of bias; a readiness to take large swings with larger egos and a combativeness that assails the blogging atmosphere, made available by the anonymity of the outlet. This has freed up one point that is quite necessary to address, about art critics making judgments. But part of the problem with the anonymity of a blog atmosphere is that there is not as much pressure for grounding in precedent and theory, or for truly analytic and well sourced writing. Instead, what is more prevalent is many opinion columns – what the author liked, what they didn’t, and hopefully a string of comments that may or may not expand the ideas of the author.
This forum has positive functions, as well as some deep pitfalls. The web offers a a wonderful atmosphere of freedom, as in speech and as in lack of economic exchange, that is created by online blogs and forums. The lack of boundaries makes it possible for many people who may have a wonderful voice in art criticism to give it air when they otherwise could or would not. There is no need for a long resume to begin a wordpress or other page, and this allows young people, amateurs, and artists and curators to step into a realm once dominated by journalists and theorists. The role of new perspectives and ideas is massively exciting. This makes it easier for people to have an outlet to write about small shows that would normally go unnoticed in a market that is traditionally very capitally motivated, allowing alternative space shows to get a decent amount of coverage compared to far flashier and more expensive shows.
There are also the aforesaid pitfalls. The lack of peer review and professionalism make it more difficult to feel as if there is any weight to the words of internet based art criticism. There is something to the tactility and physical presence of words printed on paper that lend them more power than the ephemeral words on a screen. There is also the lack of funding for art and entertainment writing that is becoming a larger problem. The arts and entertainment sections are usually the first to get cut from a dying newspaper, and most are on the ground, kicking and gurgling. Instead, it is the mass of free outlets that are gaining voice, and there is nothing that states which voice is superior or to be trusted.
There is another trend that prevails in modern art criticism, limiting the impact of art writing on the world, and that is a lack of actual criticism. As with any subject in post modern art, there are a million reasons why, none of them definite, right or wrong. And that is part of the problem presented to those wishing to posit judgment on a work or show. As Tom Morton wrote about Maurizio Cattelan in 2005, “Since the late 1980s Maurizio Cattelan has been making art that’s tough to talk about, or at least with much rigour or much candour. There’s plenty of noise made about Cattelan, sure … but this is mostly composed of gasps of faux astonishment, or of a frenzied clapping that, while it applauds the artist’s work, also attempts to fend it off.”1
The art of Maurizio Cattelan is humorous, daring, shocking, and thoughtful. And it is hard for writers to actually pick apart, to search for what is actually being said, and to ground and rationalize and legitimize his work in relation to a canon of historical works, because it is so very new and bold. Instead, most writers, as James Elkins points out, are tending more and more to write in a style of descriptive criticism.2 They are looking for a fine and delicate middle ground, never passing judgment or making definitive remarks, instead trying to neutrally or positively speak about the work on a purely superficial level. There are reasons for writers to work in this fashion – if one is writing for an upcoming or new show, the author does not necessarily want to affect the judgments of others, inhibiting the experience of the viewer. In this regard, it is a courtesy to the gallery and viewer, but though it is done with good intentions, it is not truly a gift. Elkins points out that many art writers are more concerned with creating a piece of literature that is enjoyable and poetic than they are with, according to a Columbia University survey, “Theorizing about the meaning, associations, and implications of the works being reviewed, and rendering a personal judgment or opinion about the works being reviewed.”
Another reason for this trend and focus is based strongly, I believe, on a fear of getting things wrong in a public space. By putting their ideas, theories, and judgments out in the open, the critic assumes a position of authority and asserts a certain ego, but that position is precarious in the post-modern world. The issue at hand is the acceptance that there is nothing definitive, no all encompassing truths. This destroys many theories, which have suffered greatly of recent, being based on the search for ultimate truths where none exist. Therefore, a critic must pass judgment from insight, searching for what theories are related to the work, and pointing out those points for the audience, but also look to where they may differ. The critic has to research their claims, and be prepared to adjudicate from a defendable fortress of knowledge. But sometimes, artistic analysis does not come from a place of vast formal knowledge. The age of Clement Greenberg is hopefully past its end, when all things had to be judged as all inclusive objects, based solely off the elements of historical relationships and other such premises. No, there is a great deal of art that is completely in a new place, that hits the viewer at a level of their sub conscious, the source for the reaction not necessarily discernible, but the feeling and reaction describable. Art that is not known much about, but is still known. And this is a point where a critic cannot be wrong in assessing judgment – and yet they still refrain.
This fear of a fallacy in interpretation and judgment has far reaching effects currently in the art world. Curators are taking smaller roles, the personae of the artist is taking over, and this is no doubt a consequence of the inability of curators to make formal and definitive judgments about the art itself, writing little and taking little ownership of the show overall.
At the Wisconsin Triennial of 2010, the curator, Jane Simon, talked about the growing role artists were taking in the presentation of their own work, and the show felt an impact from that, with little sense of cohesiveness or direction. As curators find the role of judgment whittled away, their ability to create themes in shows and to make specific analysis of the work is taken away as well. There are many similarities between curators and art writers. They both act as an interpreter for the artists, settling into the space between the academic and the public and pedestrian, acting as a buffer and filter for the images and ideas presented. It is odd that the curator, who gets the responsibility and privilege of taking a more academic stance, is still acquiescing to the will of the artists, and not forming any kind of judgment or dialogue about they work they are presenting, instead assembling a body of works and leaving it open ended. There must be some historical precedent, personal attachment or sentiment, or commentary presented – all acts of communication to some degree assert bias and judgment – but there seems to be little literature or presentation of what those thoughts are. This increases the difficulty of an art writer reporting on a show to critique it, adding one more layer of subterfuge and lack of clarity to wade through in order to attain an arguable position of authority.
The world of art criticism has become a homeless vagabond: wandering and lost, but often muttering words of unheard genius. One of the things the post-modern art world has tried so hard to destroy is the past voice of authority and formalism – the Hilton Kramers and Clement Greenbergs, who sat on their pedestals of self-imposed superiority and knowledge, academics rooted in theories of aesthetics and social ideals that are often self contradictory and fail to hold up to real world inspection and application. There has been a move to make art for the people, devoid of the inaccessibility of art so self involved it is devoid of social value and too heady to be understood by any but the privileged and elite. The last few decades of philosophy and social thinking have led to an understanding of a lack of absolutes; an agreement that all things are relative and no judgment is necessarily correct. But artists are passionate about their work, which the last Whitney Biennial showcased, is returning to personal introspection. In adding themselves so wholly into the work, the artist loses an ability to convey the meaning that an audience unfamiliar with the artist and their experiences can only hope to glean a small percentage of meaning from the work, and that will itself be influenced and understood from a position of their own personal lives and relations.
It is in this highly personal atmosphere that art writers are needed the most, acting as arbiters and disseminators of the information presented, creating causal inferences and historical references in order to create accessibility for an audience not versed in those elements.
The writer must then seek some theories, even if they are merely relative to the work presented, and not a personal viewpoint. They must pass judgment, because that is their role and duty. There is no need for a critic who merely describes the work when anyone can jump on the internet and find and see what works are presented. The critic is there to say why that work is important or not, to answer the reader who is questioning whether or not the show is worth seeing, and provide insight into that position.
If the critic wishes to continue to get work, they must be careful in their judgments, making sure that they are not too acidic or satiric in their writing to push people aside, and not snide or sardonic without a strong reasoning and basis. They must attempt to be objective, not basing their judgments solely on personal aesthetics or opinions, but instead seeking validation through history, other writing, and well articulated reasoning.
In some part, it is my view that the lack of high profile and successful art writing is the growing lack of position and stance, as well as a lack of academic backing and pedestrian translation. If art critics took cues from art historians, seeking to make writing that was authoritative and detective, their writing would be more utilized in academic atmospheres and have a higher readership and credibility, creating a greater profile. Art historians do not crumble at the prospect of creating and defending a stance on a work of the past, instead it is their job. While, with modern thinking, interpretation is constantly under examination, and no answer may be truly right, that does not mean that the ideas proposed are therefore wrong, just incomplete. That is not a problem in a world with a massive network of ideas pooled together that flush out the ideas to come closer to the whole, though, and each addition is a step closer.
Art critics have become cowardly, afraid to bruise the egos of artists who are not very forthright with their communication. This needs to be remedied for art writing to have a noticeable and appreciated role in society. Effective art writing has the ability to push art into the public realm, expanding its popularity, understanding and viability. Ineffective writing is just so much more dross; countless pretty words that add up to nothing more than a massage for the writer’s ego, and end up in lost annals of digital storage, forgotten and un-needed.
1. Higgie, Jennifer. The Artist’s Joke. Cambridge: MIT, 2007. Print.
2. Elkins, James. What Happened to Art Criticism. Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC. Chicago. 2003.
Long live the critic
By Sean Weber
As a student studying drawing and painting at an arts institute in 2010, I am aware of the woes of painting to the contemporary art world. Painting is apparently dead to most artists, tossed aside as though it has all been done before. What is there to gain from painting anymore? Is the contemporary art world completely devoid of value to painting—which it spawned from?
After enrolling in this contemporary art criticism class, and performing an outside role as the art critic and art writer, I became more aware of the woes of writing in the contemporary art world as well. To some art criticism is a dying thing—all its power lost to the curator or artist. Even the artist themselves have more power than they know what to do with these days, and we are all aware of the naivety of the artist’s statement that apparently falls short sighted of the artwork’s true interests. What is gained via the art critic? Is there any value in art criticism anymore? Or does its fate lie with paintings—dead to the world?
I have visited many galleries and showings in the past six-week duration of this course and immediately responded to the artwork in critical writing. I became aware of the idiosyncrasies that come forth from writing about the work, and how easily misconstrued and distorted the writing can become. It is not easy to mediate the exacting message that comes forth from the work, but maybe this is not the point. Art writers are inevitably choked up behind their own interpretations, opinions, and extracted ideas. I have found running from this voice is futile: although, through fostering it and not necessarily worrying about these idiosyncrasies, I could write more freely. The point being: everyone has voices and opinions, and when I write about art I simply need to put forth my ideas. I begin to choke when I over-think the task at hand. This parallels with me as an artist. Personally, I cannot sit in my studio and have this intense forethought to the thing, rather I need to just paint—just create.
I have had Cezanne’s quote, “Do not be an art critic, but paint. There lies salvation,” posted in my studio for some time now. If there were any way I could translate this wisdom to an art critic, then, first it would be ironic, but, more seriously, it could be liberating to understand. Why should one always be heavy with the thought about the thing and not just lost within it? Surely the contemporary art world is full of individuals or organizations that will be waiting to engage in criticism of the said art writing—waiting to employ their academic and historic lenses to rip something to shreds or to praise it to high heaven—but why? Someone’s opinion is simply someone’s opinion. What is said should not shape how you as your own walking-talking-thinking self perceive the thing, but rather you should pull your own conclusions. In the Jennifer Bolande show at INOVA, which had little to no information about the work, I was entrusted to my own thought and this made it one of the most interesting shows seen during this course. The art did the communicating. I was not mediated by an artist’s statement, and I was not immediately corralled by curatorial banter. So how do I ask art critics to forget themselves—to reinvent themselves and throw the world to the wind? Painting is not dead to me, so why should art criticism be dead to art critics?
Perhaps I am beginning to sound rhetorical and idealistic. I am fully aware of the impossibility of removing oneself from the canon. If you make paintings, then critics will inevitably consider the totality of the idea of painting in context. If you critique art for a living, then you will be faced with the full implications of doing so. It seems to be a fine line of caring and not caring, of knowing and not knowing. Letting it all go is quite liberating though, and I found that within the semi-professional context of this class that I have been able to write about art in a strange naïve manner. Maybe some of the writing I have done is quite off and missing the point, but nonetheless I have thought about the art and the presentation of it and then I have written something about it. I think there should be less forethought to how things are written and how things are talked about in art criticism. Stepping into the world of the art critic, without prejudice for how or why, might be one of the more fertile and interesting ways to write about art and the experience in the galleries.
Considering myself more of an artist than a writer, I recognize the irony that this essay might present to some. For me, I wish for my art to be the thing that communicates not for someone or something else to communicate for me. This is different than an art writer describing their interpretations of my art, though, because their ideas are fully legitimized in their own minds via their perceptions. It is the only way we ingest and digest ideas. If I communicate strongly enough through my artwork, then hopefully the art critic can come away with a fraction of what I am about and how I operate as an artist. So no, painting is not dead, because I paint. Therefore, art criticism will not be dead until we do not have writers willing to critique the work and manifest their ideas into written word.
I, now standing in the shoes of the art critic, am carrying the torch of art writing, no matter how small some perceive it to be, and I proclaim long live the critic.
Is art writing dead?
Many historians, curators, and artists agree that the old ways of art writing have gone out the window and art writing today is hard to define. With people losing interest in printed newspapers and traditional forms of writing, the rise of blogs and zines has grown tremendously. With this new technology, art writing, like many other forms of art and literature, now needs to be reexamined and perhaps even redefined, to fit the modern, high tech life we are living.
In order to define art writing or even look at the pros and cons of old and new art writing, it is important to look at its value. Why is it important? Why should we even care if the traditional, critical essay diminishes? For one, art writing provides a different perspective on the work that the artist or curator may not have brought to the viewer’s attention. With artists and curators working so closely now, it is hard for either one to put out a critical view of the work, and because of this, discussions of the artwork often seem generalized or one sided. By having other people write reviews of the work, it generates a discussion that might not have happened before. Art is made to be viewed and discussed, and if other people don’t put their opinions about the work out there, then it is impossible to start a truly meaningful discussion.
With the art writing that is being produced today, plenty of people are posting their opinions and experiences on blogs and in zines. It is easy for people to get their opinion out there. However, the traditional form of the essay is gone, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it certainly opens up the audience and provides for a more creative way to express and criticize. Yet because of this, art writing isn’t taken as serious, and focuses more on the writer’s opinion. Anyone can start a blog and write about how they feel. They don’t need to have someone agree with them and they don’t have to back up their opinion with sources, historical references, and a vocabulary that shows they know what they’re talking about. Because of this, art writing seems to have lost its credibility, and perhaps that is why people have lost interest.
James Elkins sums up the situation of art writing in his essay What Happened to Art Criticism? Elkins says, “…It is practiced more widely than ever before, and is almost completely ignored. Its readership is unknown, unmeasured, and disturbingly ephemeral….it is like a veil, floating in the breeze of cultural conversation and never quite settling anywhere” (4). Art writing is everywhere, yet because of its overwhelming presence, it is often ignored.
Another aspect of that is the fact that we live in a nation that has the attention span of a fly. We’re always moving onto the next thing, whether it is the newest application on our smart phones or the next big pop culture headline, we cannot focus on one thing for long. We are surrounded by so much media and live in such a fast pace world, it is hard to focus on one thing for very long. Because of this, people aren’t always interested in ready a long, critical review of a gallery show, and they often won’t take the time to give their own feedback about the work. Critic Katy Siegel points out in her essay, Everyone’s a Critic, that its not the fact that the world lacks a proper attention span, but that it’s just too big and there are too many things going on for art criticism to be the way it used to be.
“We may never have the public conversation in the eighteenth-century sense that Tom Crow and Jurgen Habermas eulogize – there is no coffee-house where everyone can hang out (and most of us would never make it in the door anyways)… The world is too big, there are too many artists and too many interests for us to believe in a single progressive mainstream whose identity we can debate” (47).
The art world has grown tremendously and there are too many opinionated viewers out there, and too many pieces and reviews to read. So even though there plenty of art writing out there, even though it may not be traditional, people may not have the time, or be willing to take the time, to dive into reviews and critical essays and think about what is being said.
So how do we fix this problem and make art writing something that is well received and strikes up a discussion? I think changing the format of art writing by finding fun, innovative ways to review the work can help make art writing modern and innovative, instead of being thought of as traditional and boring. Since our culture is all over the place and has a hard time focusing, art writers need to find a way to make art writing flashy and interesting, while still intelligent and thoughtful, so they can capture the attention of others. I do not consider art writing dead, but rather in a period of limbo, where no one is really sure where it will go.
Siegel, Katy. “Everyone’s A Critic.” Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice. Ed. Raphael Rubinstein. Lenox, MA: Hard Editions, 2006. 43-47. Print.
“What Happened to Art Criticism?” Ed. James Elkins. Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice. Ed. Raphael Rubinstein. Lenox, MA: Hard Editions, 2006. 1-11. Print.
Good public hygiene
By Alec Regan
Recently, a friend, writer and occasional artist described art writing as being about “hygiene.” I chuckled slightly, at first because of an image in my head of Neil Gasparka carefully trimming his nose hairs, then because how reductively accurate his analogy was. It is obvious, but important to note, that the artist came first. Art writers and publications, museums, curators, gallerists, audiences; all these depend on artists making art. If art is about communication and ideas, all of these receivers of art are as important as the art itself, they complete the equation. The only thing to be gained by adding your ideas to the world is the generation of more thought, more ideas by others. It is the emergent quality of the dialogue about art that really forms the art world and its contribution to society, and quality critical analysis of the concrete experience of an artwork is a way to not only take those new ideas and allow them to grow, but to ensure the health of an environment in which ideas are important, taken seriously, and given precedent.
Art writing is public evidence that people are thinking about art, and talking about it. Public dialogue is vital to progress in any field; politics, science. Hell… sports, cooking, whatever. Our ultimate advantage as thinking, talking, disagreeing human beings is that we can create a dialogue about anything, record it, and build on it.
Art has always been about newness, the cutting edge. It may seem like a contradiction, to try to define something like art, to try to function in a field where merit, value and significance are often and so easily attributed to a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But on the contrary, most significant artists are ones who questioned the state of the art. Art critics keep this environment alive, an environment in which value is questioned and analyzed, confirmed or denied. In his essay “Air Guitar” in the book of the same title, David Hickey describes art as a Yacht, and art writing as a dingy bobbing in its wake. He may have been being facetious, still, this seems awfully short sighted. I see a continuum, in which an artist grows out of his environment. That environment consists of everything, including journalism (and sports and cooking).
What makes good art writing? Insight, feeling, expansion; all of the things that make good art writing are the things that make good art. Things that make you think, whether you agree with them or not, are valuable. As for the future of art writing, I’m not as nervous as the older generation. So newspapers are going out of business. We don’t need them. We really don’t even need paper anymore. The web is ushering in a new age of user generated content, democracy, the likes of which no one has ever dreamed of. The lines between artist, critic, curator, facilitator are blurring. Why should we be frightened? It’s progress, the continuum.