August 25, 2007

IMHO: Art criticism crit

In maintaining Two Coats of Paint, I've read a great many art reviews and noticed a pronounced scarcity of explicit, differential value judgments - i.e., "this is good" or "this is bad." Here are a couple of ideas that help explain why art criticism is so much less snarky and opinionated than it might be.

In practice, the role of the art reviewer depends substantially on the target audience and social context. In smaller communities far from cosmopolitan arts centers, the reviewer is more likely to be a booster than a critic. In local newspapers and regional general-interest magazines, art reviews often consist of little more than rehashed press releases. With no designated art critic on staff, the arts-writing portfolio is up for grabs. Writers unfamiliar with either art history or contemporary art shy away from making value judgments because their frame of reference is - quite understandably - small. Since serious art criticism plays an important role in career advancement, however, the artists themselves suffer. A good review from a well-respected critic can establish an artist's reputation. Their art work sells, their prices rise, and better exhibition opportunities present themselves the next time around. Without reasonably sophisticated art criticism, the cycle breaks down, or at least slows considerably.

This dynamic may also keep serious critics from writing negative reviews: if a critic can help make a career, he or she can certainly break one, too. For this reason, critics tend to wait until an artist has reached a certain level of demonstrable professional achievement before they will consider writing about their work. Eminent critics like the New York Times's Roberta Smith generally examine the artist's work in relationship to the artists' stated goals and past projects, and through the dual lenses of history and contemporary art. With a multitude of shows open at any given time, and so few art critics to write about them, it makes sense that the best critics want to write about the shows they deem the most resonant. Thus, while artists may correctly interpret critical silence as a tacitly unenthusiastic or negative value judgment, the actual content of informed art criticism is predominantly positive. The more entrenched this standard becomes, the smaller the role that explicitly discriminating value judgments will have in reviews.

--Sharon Butler
Two Coats of Paint {twocoatsofpaint.blogspot.com}
August 25, 2007

This comment was originally posted on Art Journal's FlyOver blog.