Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?

The contemporary art world, like any subculture, is a symbiotic community. While talent, hard work, and timing are factors through which artists and artworks find a place into the canon of art history, there is also a good deal of nepotism. This “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” state of affairs has resulted in a recent dearth of genuine art criticism—though this may have always been part of the system.

Writing on art still exists, but it often avoids stating strong opinions in black and white. An article in the February 2009 issue of Art in America touched on this in terms of market characteristics. The author lamented the loss of standards of quality which he claims has been one reason for such sharp increases in the valuation of art by living artists. A major point was that a pluralist view in the art world, along with a refusal to state that there could feasibly be some system of quality standards, has resulted in a lack of experts who can truly assess this.

I do not expect that the reviews written in major art periodicals and newspapers are going to be scathing censures of particular exhibitions or artworks. I have first hand experience with the inherent dilemmas of writing art criticism. When I was writing art reviews for a newspaper in Boise, Idaho I routinely wrote about exhibits and artists that interested me—ones I felt had merit. One gallery owner complained to my editor that his gallery’s shows were never covered. My assignment, with my editor’s full understanding that I would likely be less generous with my compliments, was to review their next show. The gallery owner didn’t complain again.

The art community in any region or municipality is small. Even New York and London have quite manageable art communities. You can accurately surmise that Boise’s is a rather small one. Even when my reviews were mostly positive I would sometimes point out problematic display issues or inconsistencies in the selected works. Once, after mentioning that the enormous frame on a particular landscape painting dwarfed the better features of the piece, the artist took me task. While attending opening receptions during the following Boise First Thursday festivities I was harassed and followed by the artist from one gallery to another. I eventually left earlier than I had planned and decided that large opening receptions were likely not the best setting to view works anyway.

I think this might be one reason for the lack of true critical writing. In the smallness of the art world it is far too easy to anger not only an artist, gallery director, or curator, but the associates of those same people. Unless the critic has a stable position with a particular publication she may be walking on very thin ice when negative criticisms are relayed.

However, all publications are complicit in this lack of true criticism. In an effort to publish what sells best, journalistic integrity is compromised. What we are offered, instead, are synoptic reviews that provide a written facsimile of the exhibition inventory and layout, while avoiding any meaty discussion of the works’ merit, or lack of it. Expert opinion may still just be opinion, but it has the backing of the author’s expertise which should carry the appropriate weight. It is always the similar opinions of many experts that create a consensus that work is of great value. The critical opinion of one bad review will not end a career.

This disappointment in a lack of real criticism was made manifest in an art review of an exhibition of work by Stanley William Hayter, printed in the March 2009 issue of Artnews (the exhibit was of Hayter’s work from 1940-50 at Francis M. Nauman Fine Art, written by Alfred MacAdam). I had been immensely disappointed that I was not able to view the exhibition. The artist’s work has made a significant impact on my own printmaking. I own the catalogue raisonne of his prints and have read most of the available literature on his life and work. I even own several of Hayter’s etchings.

I could have written a more accurate critical review without seeing the exhibit or even knowing which specific works were in it. This was merely a biographical snippet gleaned from either sources I had already read, or perhaps from the catalogue for this exhibit. I gained no new knowledge or insight on the artist, his work, or even this show. There wasn’t even a sense of what specific techniques comprised the works in the exhibit—how the works related both to one another and the decade in which they were created.

I don’t fault Mr. MacAdam for all this. He gave readers exactly what the magazine editors had requested. And the brief piece was helpful if only to provide an introduction of Hayter’s work to a much larger audience. At the same time, I wanted something more substantial from the review, and from many others that I read.

Instead of just accepting the way things are I take this as an opportunity to make what little difference I can. While this blog continues to be written with those who are somewhat estranged from the art world in mind, I now have more resolve to provide additional critical analysis than what may already be available. In fact, there will certainly be some attention paid to Stanley Hayter in the coming weeks. Assessing art and artists of our time is valuable for everyone and hopefully creates more interest in a field that remains insignificant to far too many.

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