General 10-25-2002

Michael Fallon: On Arts Writing

Critics on Criticism: Part 1 of 3

Michael Fallon here kicks off a series of pieces by critics on criticism. By running these features, we at mnartists are hoping to begin a conversation about the role of critique in the lives of artists and in the life of the arts community. Critique is meant to inspire reactions. Please send your responses to and we’ll post them in the Daily Feature location

It’s not easy for a working art critic to discern what the role of art criticism is in a living art community. But I have tried to figure out what I intend my role to be over the five years that I’ve been writing criticism locally. That is, what am I doing, exactly? Am I here to support and prop up a community that seems constantly on the edge of disaster, or to tell a rousing good yarn regardless if anyone gets hurt along the way?

There are a lot of thankless aspects to writing criticism–such as the tendency for your hard work to be ignored, reviled, and very seldom praised. And as I know I’m not a masochist, I figure there must be some sort of reason or purpose I do this that so far I’ve only intuited.

In an attempt to discover my own purpose as a critic, I’ve observed the ways others feel and think about criticism, and I’ve made notes. I’ve read other art critics on their craft, and on occasion I’ve asked artists and non-artists what they think art criticism should be. As yet I have not come up with any firm conclusions about the critic’s role. I have, however, come to some decisions about commonly held beliefs regarding art critics. I’ve listed here what I think are four common misconceptions people have about critics and what they do. I’ll counter them with what I think are more truthful descriptions based on my own practice. If any of you have additional insights about the role of art criticism in your community, I’d welcome hearing from you in care of this domain.

1. Art critics exist primarily to glorify and promote artists.

Let me debunk this straightaway. Though in many cases critics do write positive reviews, the critic does not do this as any kind of service to the artist. The truth is, for the most part critics tend to see their role as independent from artists. When writing, critics strive to set themselves above the fray, and outside the social and communal world of the artists and gallery owners and curators, and they try to tell their version of the truth about what they see.

This is true mostly because the institutions that support criticism today–newspapers and universities–value the ideals of intellectual independence and honesty. But it is also true because ultimately, despite it all, the responsibility of the critic is to serve the general reading public, to give them, and not the artist, the benefit of their insights. Certainly no critic is infallible. We make mistakes, change our minds about our judgments or critical pronouncements, sometimes reveal ourselves to be wholly and frustratingly human and suggestible, and even on occasion make friends with some artists and become their boosters. Still, as an ideal it’s ultimately much more sustainable for critics to try to stick to the high road rather than address their writing to any sort of agenda or set of friends.

2. In general, art critics are the enemies of artists; they’re nothing more than leeches–vile, superfluous, and antagonistic.

It seems odd that this should be untrue too–for if critics are not really friends to artists, they must be the enemy, right? And I grant that because of the above ideals (intellectual independence, writing out of loyalty to one’s own perceptions) some critics may come across as self-righteous, pompous, clinical, and cold-hearted–as mercenaries who don’t really care about the makers of art.

But it’s best not to confuse the messenger with the message. Critics are just people trying to do a difficult job, and art criticism is a profession that has its own noble and independent two-and-a-half century history. The best art criticism on occasion influences society’s ways of thinking about culture and history. It’s an important field. It has its own category of Pulitzer Prize, and its own United Nations-sponsored organization. The best art criticism is as thought-provoking as any art form. One critic recently was given a MacArthur fellowship for his work. Another critic recently wrote a memoir that became an international sensation (though likely this is because it intersperses passages about her philosophies of art with descriptions of her sexual dalliances in the closet of the art journal she edits and elsewhere). Many writers–the novelist Emile Zola, poet Frank O’Hara, novelist John Updike–have used art criticism as a side pursuit to address issues and expound on the nature of things. And of course many artists have written criticism too.

It’s true that critics strive to work independently from artists. At the same time the existence of criticism is a tribute to artists’ ability to raise ideas worthy of discussion. And this is hardly a relationship that can be called antagonistic.

3. Critics are unfair; they bring to the gallery their own prejudices and are not open to different styles or approaches outside the ones they favor.

This is a big one–and much more difficult to debunk. While it is true that a critic, like anyone, brings to the task of criticism his or her own likes and dislikes, this is not really unfair. In fact, a critic’s preferences are essential to the very human interaction that occurs through art criticism. That is, we should recall that artists are humans creating work from their own imagination with their own hands, and critics, meanwhile, are humans viewing that work and somehow interpreting or reacting to it. This connective act fulfills the root intention of art; that is, art is something humans make and other humans respond to. The critic who respects an artist’s work enough to discuss it in print honors that work in a very human way.

I admit it can be maddening for artists whose work simply will never crack the hard shell of a certain critic’s own preferences. The fact that I tend to prefer art that addresses some aspect of the wider world–rather than the spot below the artist’s navel–has caused occasional consternation. I’m simply less interested in an artist’s internal life than I am in a more universal response to the wonders of the world, and this has informed reviews I’ve written. As far as it goes, as a general rule I try to look openly and freshly at art I intend to discuss in print, and try to remain wholly thoughtful throughout the process. But my response is my response, and not anyone else’s.

The notion of critics as preprogrammed and prejudiced may come from the dogmatic arts criticism of the recent past, when men like Clement Greenberg worked to determine and create art movements and their meaning. In those days, you were either for modernism, or postmodernism, or minimalism, or whatever, or you were against all that is good and right in the world. This often left a lot of good artists out in the cold, glorified lesser artists for the sake of the critic’s ideology, and created abundant frustration. But that former approach has been discredited for years now.
Still, contemporary art critics struggle to deal with their profession’s legacy. As Princeton professor and art critic Hal Foster wrote in his 2002 book Design and Crime, much of the current muddle and confusion in criticism results from the rigid ideologies of the critics who preceded us.
Indeed, Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice, recently wrote in a column called “Learning on the Job” that he consciously strives to avoid having an agenda. The following description of Saltz’s basic approach to his job is as good an approach to contemporary art criticism as I have read:

“My only position is to let the reader in on my feelings; try to write in straightforward, jargon-free language; not oversimplify or dumb down my responses; aim to have an idea, a judgment, or a description in every sentence; not take too much for granted; explain how artists might be original or derivative and how they use techniques and materials; observe whether they’re developing or standing still; provide context; and make judgments that hopefully amount to something more than just my opinion. To do this requires more than a position or a theory. It requires something else. This something else is what art, and criticism, are all about.”

4. If all the art critics in the world suddenly disappeared, no one would care.

Actually, this idea is probably more true than false. That is, in the scheme of things, art criticism really doesn’t matter much to the culture at large. If all the art critics disappeared from earth, chances are no one really would notice.

But then again, art itself is in much the same boat. As MacArthur fellow Dave Hickey wrote in his book Air Guitar, art really has no intrinsic value to society. Sure, without art the world would be less “fun,” to use word Hickey often applies to art, but life would go on just the same. And of course, this essential purposelessness sort of clouds the issue regarding the role of arts criticism in an arts community. That is, it is hard to know what role there is for what is a marginal activity in a marginal community.

Hickey acknowledges that art’s lack of purpose is the reason he loves it. That is, he loves art because it is frivolous and fun, something we don’t need to take as seriously as, say, war, death, taxes, and all the heavy stuff in life. In the end, artists will continue to make art, and critics will continue to write criticism as long as it remains fun, interesting, or rewarding, and as long as they like doing it.
That, then, suggests perhaps the best answer to the question at hand. The role of the art critic is not to take it all seriously, not to worry about his or her role, but to be part of the fun.