Challenging the Artworld 2% Part 2: Why I no longer think Art Critics are Creeps
I’ll admit that I found something perverse about art critics. How can an individual who has never made art, earn his livelihood by offering opinions about the handiwork of artists, or the decisions of curators? I attributed their lack of qualification to a disregard for art in general, and artists in particular. Several recent experiences however, have prompted me to reconsider my opinion about the value of formal art criticism.
I spent three days in the company of art critic Tyler Green (as guide cum ambassador to ArtPrize), attended presentations by both Jerry Saltz and Theaster Gates, and then had the good fortune to be present at an impromptu critique Saltz offered to a young artist friend.
Gate’s presentation was disappointing, but found consolation in the fact that it was far better than the lecture I heard by Judy Chicago in 2010 (organized by the West Michigan Women’s Studies Council). Upon reflection, I realized that I have attended insipid or cruddy lectures by Carolee Schneemann, Robert Indiana, Miriam Shapiro, and Mark di Suvero, to name a few. In fact, as often than not, artists do not deliver engaging presentations about their work. I’ll concede that if an artist could adequately communicate his or her intentions verbally, there would perhaps be little impetus to explore any other means of expression. Why then, attend artists’ lectures? I suppose there is the celebrity component, even if the artists offer little insight into their inspiration or working process.
I enjoy engaged and informed dialog on the subject of contemporary art. I can also attest to the fact that it is not easy to teach about contemporary art in a manner that is accessible, relevant, and engaging. Recently I received a message from a former student who had just seen Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York. He thought it was beautiful. I had seen it myself at the Traces du Sacré exhibition in 2008, and when I stated in class that I considered it beautiful, the students were incredulous.
Contemporary art, doesn’t receive much attention from the general public. Andres Serrano, Christo/Jeanne-Claude, and Chris Ofili, are exceptional for receiving any attention from mainstream media. Having one’s work reviewed is something of a privilege, why then the antagonism towards art critics? Because reading a critic’s review is like listening to a critique delivered by someone who is neither a peer, nor a professor—none of the participants can interject an explanation, convey their disagreement, or even indicate their consensus. But the Barthes, Foucault, Derrida triumvirate would interject and say, that to limit the interpretation of an aesthetic expression to the intent of its creator, is to disregard the response of the viewer.
Other than a degree in journalism, Green would not seem to have any qualifications one would expect from an art critic. That being said, having spent many hours with Green, I was surprised at how knowledgeable he was about architecture, and art history. I also have to admit that his job is more demanding than I expected. Saltz was an art school drop-out. Upon learning this I concluded that becoming a critic allowed him to sublimate his own self-loathing onto active artists (You’re welcome Mr. Saltz, no charge for today’s session.), yet I find his writing lively and entertaining. It was Saltz for example, who invented the term “clusterfuck aesthetics.”
Artists are not necessarily the best spokespersons for their own work. Gone are the days when a Clement Greenberg could make or break an artist’s career. Art Critics do not have the ability to make the make the public love an artist’s work, but they also cannot impel their reading audience to take-up pitchforks and torches.