What if art criticism wasn’t what we thought it was?


This Wednesday, The Artblog and St.Claire will be hosting a public discussion on the state of art criticism in Philadelphia. This event is being held in conjunction with the New Art Writing Challenge–a contest to find the best new approaches in art criticism. Entries are due at 11:59PM on October 1st. This week’s reader is a primer to that conversation.

Everyone says art criticism is important but then why does no one want to do it? I think it is because there is no money in it. (But there is prestige? We are all just playing with imaginary money in Philadelphia? Showing shows like there are careers on the line? Pinkslips up for grabs?)

I have a different reason why no one wants to write art criticism. BECAUSE IT IS BORING.

I feel the same way writing an art review as when I’m cleaning a litter box. A serious level headed PhD archeologist of tabby cat poop.  Scooooop shufflle shuffle shuffle I’VE UNCOVERED SOMETHING IMPORTANT IN THIS PROCESS. It is a chore that is unthanked, unpopular, but somehow necessary. We all agree it’s necessary, right?  Everyone agrees it’s necessary. The cats are thankful but they show their thanks by not peeing on your comforter. I know in this metaphor art is represented by a turd and artists are represented by cats. I think this in an interesting direction of thinking because it poses the excellent question: Aren’t we just keeping art (poop) around so that we can have/be artists (cats)?

And if writing art criticism is like cleaning out cat turds you all know what reading art criticism tastes like. Reading contemporary art criticism is somehow both boring and exhausting. That’s why reading ARTFORUM needs to feel like you’re eating mushrooms on a holodeck: over stimulation to misdirect your attention from the feeling that you are alone in a space vacuum.

The overtly academic bent of most art criticism also helps prop up the circus tent that is the art market.  An intricate seamless spectacle desperate to make its audience believe that just because someone says so, important art becomes important because it is important.

We all know this isn’t the truth.

It’s just a system of normal (disproportionately white (like me)) people making decisions based on different factors like money, perceived influence, and career. This is the current function of art criticism, explaining the seemingly complex complexities of this complex process; it takes years of reading and insider knowledge and you wouldn’t understand.  Art critics need this mirage to exist and to be perpetuated because if word gets out that anyone can write art criticism, then why should they get paid to do it?

Also and of course anything that is important must also be boring. THOSE ARE THE RULES.

Why is it this way?  Because the function of an art review has been distilled to a Facebook post or a gold star on an achievement chart that’s made on a bright green poster board. What does this art review say?  Who the eff cares! Post that gummy on social media and let the likes roll in!

Artists sometimes complain that art reviews miss the point or misrepresent their art. But wanting art criticism to accurately represent your art turns the review into an illustration or an advertisement. Art criticism should feel free to miss the point completely and wander off somewhere it doesn’t belong and sleep there on the couch for a couple of days promising it’s leaving this weekend but then why did it leave its toothbrush and bag here? How else is the conversation expanded?  Is art supposed to be the starting point or the ending point of a conversation? How else is art supposed to be about anything other than what the artist says it’s about? Then why aren’t artists writing papers? Do artist really want their art to be perfectly understood?

You should read this essay by Steven Cottingham. Most of the ideas I am writing about can be found better articulated there. Including a link between poetry and art criticism: After all, are not poets and art critics alike burdened with the task of articulating the inarticulable?

What if art criticism wasn’t boring to read? Then no one would take it seriously.

What if art criticism was something other than writing? Then how would I link it to my CV?

What if making art criticism was fun? Then stupid people would do it.

What if you had to pay for art criticism? Then I would make my own art criticism.

What if art criticism was more like art? That would make sense because art is a form of response/critique of our society.

What if art criticism came from some perspective other than the traditional white male western ethos of art history? Then it wouldn’t be relevant for our contemporary art that is from the white male western ethos.

What if art criticism wasn’t about explaining art but making it more confusing? Then why would we even have art criticism?

What if art criticism didn’t exist? Then people would have to make up their own minds about what art is about.

What if everyone was an art critic? Then there would be no more art criticism.