Perspectives

Why Art Criticism Sucks Right Now (Spoiler Alert: It's Racist): Some Context and Suggestions

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Why Art Criticism Sucks Right Now (Spoiler Alert: It's Racist): Some Context and Suggestions
Untitled by Barbara Kruger via Sprueth Magers

In early July of 2019, The New York Times published a watershed opinion piece titled “The Dominance of the White Male Critic,” a joint effort by the co-founders of Critical Minded, a granting initiative designed to support U.S.-based cultural writers of color. The piece tracked and synthesized the social media fallout trailing initial reviews of this year’s Whitney Biennial, an exhibition largely populated by young, non-white artists. Establishment staples like Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker and Deborah Solomon of WYNC experienced significant pushback for their lazy, bad-faith approaches to covering the show, the most scathing examples of which came directly from the participants themselves. We live in the era of instant feedback, which means monolithic critical authority, especially in journalism, has been augmented by the oft-histrionic call-and-response of the hot-take chorus. Punditry hasn’t met its eclipse, yet, however. Algorithmic linkage dictates the neural group-maze of readership, and opinion’s steady democratization has impacted our thirst for clickbait almost as urgently as the post-digital market that birthed it. The voices privileged amid this cacophony seem shockingly staid, especially given contemporary art's stated proximity to the cutting-edge. Something deep in the machine's belly has broken, friends. 

...Anybody got a wrench? 

The art world, corrupt and opaque as it is, needs diversity of voice to mount any believable attempt at contrition; improvement, if we’re being optimistic. Old-school gatekeeping has long proven the enemy of progress. Still, glut doesn’t function as a stand-in for intersectionality. It would take a Pollyana of graduate school proportions to defend popular art criticism (read: writing outside the academy) in 2019. It... sucks. The landscape privileges clumsy, Caucasian cowardice above all else, and whatever content manages to escape the tonal clutches of a press release is usually engineered specifically for viral ire, to say nothing of International Art English's recklessly pestilential effect over the last decade. Jerry Saltz won the damn Pulitzer, for God’s sake. Even more insidiously, non-white makers simply aren’t receiving the caliber of engagement their work deserves. The results feel curiously bifurcated; rapid aesthetic homogenization runs tandem to an epic mishandling of identity political content, and, frankly, we’re all complicit in this degradation—writers, editors, the whole lot.  But, what exactly do we do with that intel, and how do we address the larger questions at stake, like, why is art criticism so racist? How is it even supposed to function in 2019? 

More importantly, how do we fix it? 

This latest Biennial, parked at the center of an international keyboard maelstrom, has proven a fruitful test-case for what art criticism can and can’t do. It can’t kill ticket sales for a lukewarm exhibition, for example. It can’t pretend to have the last word. But it can, in the case of “The Tear Gas Biennial,” a statement Hannah Black, Ciaran Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett penned for Artforum, inspire real, quantifiable change. Eight artists pulled their work from the show hot on the heels of the the manifesto's release, a testament both to the power of incisive commentary and the potential for activistic art journalism as a viable modality in 2019. The in-person protests against alleged war profiteer and Whitney Vice Chairman Warren Kanders garnered momentum primarily through online reportage, ultimately resulting in his resignation as of July 23rd, 2019. Still, need institutional overhaul  be the barometer for critical success in 2019? We can't all be Hannah Black, try as we might (she's too perfect, she really is). 

Let’s start with some context. 

 

 

WHY MY OPINION DOESN'T MATTER AND ALSO SORT OF DOES

via Giphy

A brief disclaimer:  While I’m hardly a real or good critic by any stretch of the imagination, I do work at an art magazine (thank you Artspace!) and freelance for other outlets on occasion. As such, the business I have writing this piece stems mostly from a passing familiarity with editorial practices, not from any personal delusions of grandeur. In short, I mean well, but am deeply unimportant. 

That being said, here are some trends I’ve noticed.  

- Artists I’ve covered often can’t tell the difference between a standard write-up (this person made something!) and a review (the thing this person made was fine, weird, spectacular, useless, etc.). That consistent and fundamental misunderstanding feels symptomatic of wider-reaching abasement.

- I do not get yelled at by men on the Internet often (nice but unimportant; see above), but when I do, it's always about fun or funny puff-pieces designed to generate page views. Typically, they leave the more theoretical stuff alone, because they don't, uh, read it. (This distinction will become important later when I start yelling about Hal Foster). 

- Writers and editors generally operate at the mercy of the algorithm; even a question as simple as "what will our readership like?" has to be replaced by "what will people click?" if the outlet wants to stay above water. Titles are vital. Engagement is key. Scandal works; outrage works. The whims of the Internet always prevail.

- Art writers, on the whole, seem most worked up about the waning importance of criticism as an enterprise (I will return to this point) and it's decreased impact on the international marketplace. Artists seem most upset about under or misrepresentation. This dichotomy constitutes the crux of the issue, by my lights.

- It goes without saying that the entire conceit of this essay hinges on art writing's conceptual validity in this ceaseless neoliberal limbo we all inhabit; It's my contention that writing well about dangerously price-inflated objects the environment can't possibly absorb bought and sold for the amusement of billionaires is a marginally more noble pastime than writing badly about dangerously price-inflated objects the environment can't possibly absorb bought and sold for the amusement of billionaires, but obviously... it's all a little silly/futile/stupid. The least we can do is reduce the damage, right?

Whom, exactly, are we writing for, then? 

My aim in assembling this piece is to find connections between big ideas and offer some conclusions in light of those claims, not to sound an alarm or prove myself in any way exempt (I am definitely not). Consider this a resource, of sorts, if you consider it at all. 

 

 

SOME HISTORY

Denis Diderot via Wikipedia

Salient historiography places the emergence of the art critical genre in 1715, the year Johnathan Richardson the Elder published a manuscript outlining the seven categories he felt were integral to the success of a painting (including invention, composition, drawing, and coloring), but this brand of assessment hardly emerged out of thin air. Depending on the criteria employed, one could construct a history of art criticism that expands or contracts the definition in accordance with a wide variety of agendas. In the first century BCE, Greek geographer Strabo remarked upon the architectural prowess of an ancient temple of Artemis, deeming it “superior in design,” though not in size, to a similar one in Ephesus. Around the same time, Chinese writer Xie He developed a list of six traditional principles to consider when judging a work of art, including that of “spirit resonance,” more or less tantamount to a piece's imagistic pulse. Then there’s the legacy of ekphrasis to consider, the Platonic rhetorical exercise dedicated to describing a visual art work in enough vivid detail to ensure writing’s dominance over painting and sculpture. Art criticism, even as it cohered into a discrete classification towards the end of the Victorian era, never quite managed to reach a real consensus on its collective purpose, with one early, notable exception.

In 18th-century France, the rise of public exhibitions, or Salons, invited citizens of every swathe into the rarified halls of the academe, prompting cultural elites to wring their hands and scowl (the stench! The pick-pocketing!). The artists involved found this new-fangled inclusion of regular people particularly heinous, concerned that the hoi polloi would be unable to make sound appraisals without the help of a comprehensive arts education. Thus began, in 1741, the tradition of Salon “commentary”; letters, anonymous or otherwise, composed specifically to translate the work on show to the public at large. Early art criticism thrived at the crossroads of a lively publishing industry and an increasingly egalitarian political landscape, but by the time Denis Diderot, editor of the first Encyclopedia, arrived on the scene in the 1760s, the King had stepped in, banning all un-regulated feedback on the Salons, which were originally designed to promote French monarchical supremacy. Diderot found a work-around; he published his reviews in a magazine that, while black-listed in Paris, was mailed twice a month to a secret international readership. This circulation marks the beginning of the form's widespread professionalization. His clarity of voice and rigorous standards for painterly achievement typified what theorist Bruno Latour would later term a hermeneutics of suspicion; the fetishistic belief that, by demystifying the assumptions of others more naive than they, critics highlighted their readers' "projection of... wishes onto a material entity that does nothing at all by itself" without turning that anti-fetishistic gaze onto their own convictions, setting the stage for centuries of oxymoronically subjective empiricism. 

 Charles Baudelaire via Kings Place

Pre-Baudelaire, pre-Ruskin, art writing existed both to inform and perform public taste. It was prescriptive; it operated as a simultaneous voice of the people and arm of the state, enacting a value system for the visual culture of a national consciousness. Art critics of the 1930s, like the experientialists, engaged in similar thought exercises, and, in many respects, so did Rosenberg and Greenberg in the decades following—even Greenberg’s return to Formalism in the ‘60s existed to promote the market prices, historical relevance and intellectual gravitas of a distinctly American aesthetic. The ‘50s ARTnews poet-critic trend may have popularized the abstract lexis we're all encouraged to adopt in the discussion of art, but the subtext remained the same. It's little wonder, then, that today's art critics, 90% of whom are white, according to a survey conducted by Mary Louise Schumacher for Neiman Reports, are struggling with the multivalence slowly gaining acceptance in art conversation. We are all attempting to graft outdated ideologies onto fresh perspectives, hoping in vain that the dead tenets of a dead industry will appropriately codify the breathing, osmotic organism they were allegedly invented to serve. Art criticism has never been solely academic, opinionated, literary or provisional, but behaves instead like many-headed analytical hybrid, that, when properly deployed, responds in kind to the unique needs of its subjects.

When deployed badly, well... you've seen the results. 

It's not 1715 anymore. It's not even 1961. That's okay. 

 

 

CRISES IN CRITICISM, MANUFACTURED OR OTHERWISE

 "Bad New Days" cover via Verso

Nearly a century ago, Walter Benjamin opined, "Criticism is a matter of correct distancing... It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted, and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society." This position seems particularly apt in 2019, the age of constant but frequently siloed interconnection, where critique is met with an ever-burgeoning skepticism. In his 2012 essay, "Post-Critical?", legendary critic Hal Foster problematizes the impossibility of a postmodern critical model, arguing that Habermas' articulation of the "public sphere" requires inquiry to thrive, and it's consumerist dissolution has led to a surge in work concerned with social discursivity. Instead of fretting about the non-reflexive ideological displacement of those represented through specious modes of authority, critics and artists can join hands in manifesting "the global range of the contemporary art world" as a "virtue."  Foster worries that a "post-critical" distaste for theory will not make way for thoughtful pluralism, but instead, "a debilitating relativism," which, frankly, makes sense. High-volume cultural institutions set narrative pace, and the looming reality of big data, feckless tokenism, and dark money requires worthy and prepared opponents with quick, wet pens. Foster assumes that responsibility with pride and purpose, posing collaboration as the sparkling specter of progress. 

This brings us to criticism's relationship to the art market, or lack thereof. In a truly delightful essay from 2008 for the Guardian, mainstay Adrian Searle declares, "At almost every international art fair over the past few years, there has been a panel discussion about the crisis in art criticism... Wherever critics are paid to gather (you wouldn't catch us in the same room otherwise), they go on about the crisis. These debates have become an occupational hazard—but they also pay well. If I had known there was money in it, I would have invented a crisis myself." He goes on to reflect upon the robust gallop of the sales circuit, taking a quippy layman's hard-line on the issue Foster sought to unravel four years later. "I just wonder why a critic even cares that their writing has such a negligible influence on the market... One can only mistrust critics who whimper about the waning of their authority. They are, I think, more interested in power than in writing. The only sensible way to deal with one's power, such as it is, is to not think about it." His takeaway is simple. Searle defines criticism as a "lively engagement with the art we encounter," further explaining that "critics are not the painting police nor the sculpture Swat team, not market regulators nor upholders of eternal values (there aren't any)." Of course, through the somewhat apocalyptic lens afforded us by 2019, these contentions might seem a tad breezy, but that insouciance belies a streamlined, helpful optimism. A decade ago, when Jerry Saltz complained, "At no time in the last 50 years has what an art critic writes had less effect on the market than now," he betrayed a troubling allegiance. Searle's divestment in market as paradigm, while glib, pulled focus back to a championship of artists, the very postmodern collaboration Foster suggests in "Post-Critical?".  But this all begs the question... is anyone reading this stuff? 

The October magazine roundtables of the early aughts left us with a smattering of nervous pamphlets and even more nervous theorists. In 2002, Rosalind Krauss famously stated "the sense that there is a kind of discursive space within which the artist has to be placed in order for the work to take on a certain kind of importance has pretty much vanished" (read: the Habermasian "public sphere"). These concerns were buoyed by the emergence of online platforms and the first signs of journalism's forthcoming structural implosion. However, in a 2006 follow-up, while heavyweights like Boris Groys decried art writing as a "textual bikini" invented to "avoid the embarrassment of discursive nudity," theorist Irit Rogoff posited a shift from criticism to criticality. This change necessitated a move away from traditional criticism, or the "application of values and judgements, operating from a barely acknowledged humanist index of measure sustained in turn by naturalised beliefs and disavowed interests" towards critique, "examining the underlying assumptions that might allow something to appear as a convincing logic," and finally to criticality, "an emphasis on the present, of living out a situation, of understanding culture as a series of effects rather than of causes, of the possibilities of actualising some of its potential rather than revealing its faults." Criticality imbued art writing with a praxis of generosity, free from the institutional apparatus responsible for curatorial oversight. Even Groys, in his book Art Power, admitted that academic art writing's stunning lack of readership loosened the lock for dialectical opportunity; it's easier to float radicality forth when no one is watching. Too many images, too many outlets, too many opinions to consume. When subtlety loses, The Algorithm wins. 

 Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama via The New Yorker

But, in 2019, people are watching. That old "public sphere" acts as the amphitheater for our generation's culture wars, and spectators are glued to their seats like never before. Philip Kennicott's Washington Post review of Barack and Michelle Obama's presidential portraits garnered over a million clicks, and the 2017 Hyperallergic coverage of Dana Schutz's controversial Emmett Till painting reached the hallowed halls of... The View, for instance. Contemporary art, especially of a post-digital persuasion, is the ideal battleground for ruminations on the human condition, and the human condition is under attack from all sides these days. To center market influence as the major failing of contemporary criticism not only misses the point, but insulates bad acting from much-deserved comeuppance. Bluntly put, art critics are being called upon to address culture in the synergetic spirit of their peers and are entirely ill-equipped for the task, preferring instead to bemoan the perceived loss of rigor and prestige they haven't been guaranteed for almost thirty years. Grant Kester's 2013 e-flux essay, "The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism," boxes with insufficient critical response to a new breed of dialogical art practice, one that engages politics, messes with temporality, and doesn't just amount to a reified brand ambassador for foregone academic conclusions. He proposes that art writing's piecemeal entitlement to theory is not just careless, but defunct, reconstituting the "monological" model of production favored by Kantian Modernists (... I've been caught!). While he doesn't suggest a clear alternative, the familiar tome of "collaboration" features many times throughout the piece. Ben Davis' 2009 "post-descriptive" criticism model comes to mind, too, in which he quotes Trotsky en route to a final thesis; "Criticism's goal should be, rather, to 'oxidize the atmosphere in which artists breathe and create'... to open the circuits between politics and art, and let them share their passions." 

So, what does this collaboration look like, and why isn't it happening?

Well, racism, for one.

All of the folks I just quoted—the chief editors, the MIT press regulars, the panel invitees, the tenured professors, the career philosophers—are white. How?

 

 RACISM, CASH, AND ACCESS

 Installation shot of the Whitney Biennial via ArtNews

In her aforementioned Neiman Reports piece from March of 2019, Mary Louise Schumacher implies that this glaring lack of non-white art critics might have something to do with self-taxonomy; when referring to her survey of over 300 working art writers, she insists, "While we attempted to be as inclusive as possible in our invitation, there are writers on art who may not be represented in this survey for any number of reasons, including because they do not identify as arts journalists," pointing to Zadie Smith as one of the most "insightful" writers on the Schutz controversy. (This is true, but... Coco Fusco? Does no one remember that rebuttal? Come on, now). Of course, there's more to this story. Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, Critical Minded co-founders, delve a little deeper in the New York Times essay I mentioned in the introduction of this essay. While critics of color are making waves in "outlets like Hyperallergic, Arts.Black and Remezcla," and the "thirst for such conversations" thrive on social media, "Twitter and Instagram don't pay their users. In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge." Of the mere 20 art critics currently working who make more than $80,000 a year, every single one of them is a white man. This constitutes systemic malfeasance above all else, but also serves as a convenient form of erasure. 

A short perusal of the comment section below Berry's and Yang's op-ed (not recommended, by the way) gifts the reader with a recurring theme; a parade of anonymous accounts demanding, in so many words, "how dare you imply that white people can't write about black stuff?" While this line of questioning doesn't deserve the dignity of elucidation, Shantay Robinson provided a succinct response to such dross in Black Art in America with her 2018 essay "From Negro Art to Post-Black Art, Black Art Criticism is Essential".

"Creating space for the intentions of artists who are attempting to enter into the highest rungs of the art world is like translating language. These critics understand the language young black artists speak and can express that to the larger art cultural world with profundity. Without these translations, the work of black artists may fall on blind eyes." It's not a dearth of ability, then, but a piercing need for cultural re-phrasing at stake. 

Writers like Taylor Renee Aldridge, Jessica Lynne, Antwaun Sargent, Jasmine Weber, Aria Dean, Kimberly Drew, Seph Rodney, Gelare Khoshgozaran, Hannah Black, Lou Cornum and Eva Yaa Asantewaa may be forging new ground, but they simply aren't afforded the level of access their white peers have come to enjoy. In the interest of defining terms, "access" can be interpreted as a catch-all for "visibility," which is to say, the kind of power, monetary and otherwise, afforded their older, whiter counterparts. I'm not implying that young critics of color aren't published in storied outlets or correctly celebrated for their achievements, but it does seem a bit dubious that the much-despaired eve of critical "authority" coincides so squarely with the efflorescent career trajectories of chronically under-paid and overlooked new additions, many of whom are forced to create their own lanes (e.g. the co-founders of Arts.Black) or expand their critical niches beyond the scope of art in order to participate. Art writing mirrors the stratified shortcomings of its source material; the art world runs on over-educated, perilously fractal freelance labor, buttressed by the high spires of oligarchical hobbyists and generational wealth. Art critics need to have the credentials and social Rolodex required for entry, but must accept pittance as payment for their intellectual outpourings. Privilege, then, comprises the genre's very backbone. 

Back to Schumacher's survey; while the author might very well be willfully ignoring the structural iniquity inherent to art criticism's rampant whitewashing (it also bears repeating that people of color, specifically black people, are routinely boxed out of all fields), there's a sincere point to be made, here; why would anyone exclusively align themselves with a racist, myopic genre? The most avant-garde thinkers of our time not only utilize interdisciplinary praxis to best navigate their concepts, but also re-combine othered identity as a critical alloy; Fred Moten, Simone White, Darby English, Saidiya Hartman, and Claudia Rankine all traffic in a politic of cross-pollinating enmeshment, "sent by sociality to sociality," in Moten's words. The hypothetical "collaboration" white art theorists can't stop talking about has already been underway for decades. Maggie Nelson's "autotheory" was pioneered by black women academics in the '70s as they lovingly hammered a novel armature for subjectivity into existence. These mucosal concepts aren't new, and they undergird much of the best cultural criticism on call; observational wunderkinds like Jia Tolentino, Doreen St. Felix, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ismail Muhammad and Panama Jackson regularly marry high, low, and no-brow commentary with virtuosic prose, never sacrificing dexterity in their quests to touch readers' hungry brains. 

 Jia Tolentino's forthcoming "Trick Mirror" via Amazon

I'd also be remiss in neglecting to mention John Yau, whose consistently measured, comprehensive insights for Hyperallergic have rendered him something of a true north in the polluted galaxy of art writing. His rebuttals to Jerry Saltz (I promise this isn't a hit piece, but, I mean, low-key, it kind of is?) are reliably iconic, none more so than a 2015 introduction to a post on Louise Belcourt's studio. "Despite the hue and cry about zombie formalism, there is a lot of very good painting going on these days. It is just that you haven’t seen much of it in MoMA or the Whitney in recent memory, and frankly you should not expect to. The apparatchiks are too busy either going to dinner with a trustee or documenting painting’s demise... to actually go out and discover that appropriation is not the only game in town, and has not been for a long time. Maybe the problem isn’t zombie formalism, but zombie curators."

There it is—collaboration with artists rather than short-sighted conspiracy against them, institutional critique in service of concerted efforts at transparency. That is the non-monologic model artists deserve. An absence of immediate relatability should not hamper any responsible writer from reflecting upon the merits of an art work, and it's up to us to reverse the tides of obtuse equivocation to which we've grown accustomed. White writers (this one included!) can, should, and must take accountability for art criticism's eye-watering suckage in 2019. 

 

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR HELPING ART WRITING SUCK A LITTLE LESS

Guerilla Girls via The Art Story

 At the risk of overstepping, (one I am clearly more than willing to take), I have included a brief list of suggestions for those of us mired in the Internet art writing game. None of these could be mistaken for panaceas, and most of them aren't native to my fried little brain. If anything, these alternatives might function as soft ethical guidelines, or, if that's too ambitious, handy primers for the work to be done. 

- Outlets should hire more editors of color: Doreen St. Felix pointed this out on Twitter. Seems simple enough, right? 

- Oulets should also hire more writers of color, obviously: Elizabeth Mendez Berry pointed this out on Twitter. Also, not difficult.  

- Institutions need to provide more tangible resources to writers. Red Bull Arts Detroit, the CUE Art Foundation and Recess Art aren't the only shops open in terms of emergent art writing fellowships, but the fact of the matter is, there's a scarcity of long-form gigs focused on fostering exploratory dialogue between artists and writers about in 2019. (Also, museums and major galleries should invite minority critics and writers on more panels that call upon expertise, not just axes of marginalization).  

- Unionization: Clio Chang wrote a fabulously thorough piece for The New Republic last month titled "How to Save Journalism," which outlined the methods Vox Media workers used to best mobilize their ranks in pursuit of a collective bargaining contract. One wonders what might happen if arts writers followed suit. 

- Let's forgo non-partisanship and ask some damn questions: Establishment columnists covet their performative non-bias, a blithe fairytale in today's trenchantly post-structural news environment. Artists deserve informed feedback, and everybody has an email address. If white writers don't understand what's holding court in the cube, why don't we just... ask? This isn't a Yale MFA critique in 1978; we don't have to worship at the altar of false objectivity. Market, shmarket—why not use the voices we don't particularly deserve as means to platform under-represented artists and their oeuvres? Why not... stop yammering on about Koons for fifteen seconds? Why not exercise a tiny bit of bravery, take an empathic, creatively bolstered approach to our collective craft, and uplift the work that needs it? 

- We need to start prioritizing experimental thought on more traditional online platforms: Sneak in some more ekphrasis, guys! Slap a saucy title on some wacky prose and force-feed that post-descriptive criticality to the masses. Make it so delicious that eyeballs can't help but flock to your radical content. There's nothing wrong with bringing a little X-Tra to ARTnews, you know? Hybridity is the future!

To conclude, a clarification; we're all well aware that we can't escape, you know, the hooked clutches of late capitalism. Most of the people hired to write about art need to pay some form of rent, and most outlets publishing art criticism of any description have to sell or promote work to remain un-shuttered. Clicks matter. The market absolutely tells us what to cover and how to cover it, and the market will never be extricable from fine art as a conceptual entity. Next week, I will probably write a goofy listicle, as will many of you. The problem at hand is not shared failure to reach Pure Critical Nirvana, far from it—the problem is the way exclusionary employment practices breed with misplaced professional frustration to create the kind of stulifying writerly zoochosis running rampant on art critical platforms. Culture writing is over-run with native advertising and frothy viral romps, and yet they all seem to be having a much more fun, equitable time than we are! Why can't art critics do that stuff?

Surely, change is worth a try.  Now, let me fold up my soap-box. 

 

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