The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 12-JAN 13

All Issues
DEC 12-JAN 13 Issue

Middlebrow? Smile When You Say That

1. There are lots of kinds of art criticism. My temperament and experience leads me mostly to short form reviews and medium-length critical essays in more or less plain English, for a lay audience, or at least a non-hermetic part of the art world audience. (It’s weird to say that because the hipper, or cutting-edge, or whatever-term-you-want part of the art world fancies itself as decidedly un-hermetic, and engaged with socio-political issues in the real world. But a lot of l’art éngagé, and certainly a lot of the critical writing accompanying it, is pretty esoteric.)

Rather predictably, I guess, I think that art criticism should be expressing opinions—what’s good, what’s not, and how and why the critic thinks so—to whatever audience it chooses to address.

2. See #4, below.

3. At the journalistic end, there is. Few newspapers and mass magazines have art critics anymore, and except for big traveling museum shows that are coming to your city, art criticism can’t be farmed out or gotten from a wire service or its equivalent. Simply put, who’s going to review, for the local media, a gallery exhibition that doesn’t travel? There is some coverage in the national art magazines, but they’re contributed to by underpaid (and that’s an understatement!) freelancers who are generally reluctant to express thorny opinions because, unlike staff writers, they’re economically unprotected from the go-along-to-get-along art world.

As for the academic and theoretical end, I don’t know. I read only enough of that stuff as I think I have to in order to keep nominally in touch with the way(s) the art world is going. Life is short and the writing isn’t very good.

4. If the “consensus” means which art gets shown, collected, curated into museum shows, and which artists become, thereby, “important,” the answer is yes. Forty or 50 years ago, the “consensus” worked something like this: Critic discovers artist (either in his/her studio or in some grungy little gallery); because of that critical attention artist makes sales to adventuresome collectors; bigger dealers, mass-media critics, and curators are attracted to the artist, and the artist’s work becomes “important.” Nowadays, globe-trotting collectors discover the artist, and buy early and wholesale; dealers get wind of this, show the artist, and sell to collectors who don’t want to be left behind. At that late point, critics finally come in.

“Readers” is a variegated category that includes artists, collectors who read the art magazines, students who want to be part of the art world, and art-interested general readers. It’s difficult if not impossible to gauge the effect of art criticism on “readers” as a whole.

5. Nominally, anybody who expresses an opinion about art. Practically, anybody who expresses an opinion about art in a public forum (print, Internet, lecture, seminar, etc.). Other than that, “art critic” is a Pickwickian club.

6. Reviewer and occasional essayist. (I’m an artist, but I don’t think of myself as an “artist-critic,” which implies criticism written deliberately to support an artistic position.)

7. For the audience of the publication that pays me to write. (It’s the publication’s judgment whether I’m a fit for its audience, and I can modify my writing only so much to fit a publication’s audience.) But my audience ranges from the less esoterically minded readers of the art magazines to the slightly more esoterically minded readers of general interest publications.

8. The Internet has been both good and bad for art criticism. Good, because it’s exponentially increased the number and variety of critical voices available for reading, and because the resulting dialogue among critics and readers takes place more or less instantly. Bad, because one has to sift through so much incoherent, self-indulgent, agenda-laden, and simply bad writing in order to figure out what’s really informative, reliable, and insightful. I used to keep reasonably up with maybe 10 blogs, and check in on maybe 15 more every once in a while. Now it’s down to about three and five, respectively.

9. If you’re talking about proliferating media in art itself, not very well. What I know and can appreciate and analyze best are paintings and sculptures, in the broad sense, i.e., static-object art. When art becomes movies, theater, dance, poetry, etc., my abilities to deal with it are stretched a little thin. A critic has to be either a polymath genius or a pretentious blowhard to write confidently about everything that gets into the galleries (or, increasingly, out on the street) these days.

As for proliferating media in art criticism, I don’t watch much art-critical video (e.g., lectures on YouTube, or episodes of Art21) because it’s too time-consuming. I can read a lot faster than people can talk, and the visuals—glimpses of works of art, and actually seeing the face of the speaker—are of little value.

10. It’s both helped and hindered it. Helped, because it’s put new and different art from new and different places in front of critics, and they attempt to think outside their boxes. Hindered, because it’s made art criticism shallower and more trend-following. Since art criticism is still mostly a matter of opining on what one sees in the flesh, and since American art critics can’t afford to travel from New York or Los Angeles to Tokyo, Seoul, Istanbul, Warsaw, Cairo, or Johannesburg with any regularity, they’re ever more reliant on electronic images, what globe-trotting collectors buy and show, and what curators of big biennial-type shows contain.

11. By “enormous growth of the art world,” I’m assuming what’s meant is it’s going from the oft-cited 200 people below 10th Street in New York in the late 1940s to the gigantic entertainment business (e.g., Larry Gagosian’s simultaneous exhibitions of Damien Hirst’s dot paintings in several major cities, and all those contemporary art museums being built in the Arab world). The change? Money talks, criticism walks.

12. Art magazines have become more promotional than critical. Puff profiles are more the order of the day. As I once said about such profiles in the popular press which tries to appear hip, what the editors want is fawning with attitude.

13. Yes, although contradictions abound, particularly on the “political” side because the—let’s call it “progressive”—political stance of most artists and critics is on the side of the world’s underdogs, while contemporary art is still a luxury enterprise supported by very rich people—overdogs—who’ve amassed their money in God knows what ways.

14. Two of the best critical essays I’ve ever read are the film critic Pauline Kael’s (that dates me) ostensive reviews of Shaft and Paint Your Wagon in the New Yorker. In both cases, she decided that simply writing a straight review—talking about the acting, screenwriting, directing, and cinematography—of them was beside the point. Instead, she wrote essays about “black filmmaking,” i.e., movies by and/or for black audiences, and about how leaden, big budget movies were financed. Similarly, it’s sometimes more to the point for an art critic to write about the politics and economics behind an exhibition than it is to write about the art in the show.

That said, critics of less-than-Kael prescience often find it difficult to write about the art, but easy and opportunistic to write about what they see as the machinations behind an exhibition. (Think of all those reviews of the Whitney Biennial that merely count up the numbers of artists from different galleries, different cities or regions, and opine upon the curator’s or the museum’s perceived biases.) Simply put, it’s easier to write—and easier to read—about art-politics than it is to write or read about art. 


Peter Plagens

PETER PLAGENS is a painter who’s shown with the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York since 1974, and was also the staff art critic for Newsweek (1989 - 2003). Currently, he writes a bi-weekly art-review column for the Wall Street Journal. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Laurie Fendrich.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 12-JAN 13

All Issues