THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by James Elkins
This is the second part of a two-part essay on art criticism. Part One appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of the New Art Examiner. Thanks to everyone on social media who commented on Part One. Please send all comments, criticism, and suggestions to email@example.com. This essay will be revised for publication, and all contributors will be noted in the text.
At last—more than fifteen years since the 2002 Columbia University National Arts Journalism report mentioned in Part One—there is a new survey of art critics. Thanks to Mary Louise Schumacher, who assembled the survey as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, it’s possible, for the first time in a generation, to get an overall picture of art criticism in North America.
Schumacher’s full survey results will be published soon by Nieman Reports at Harvard University.1 Meanwhile she has published an essay, “Critics and Online Outlets Leading the Vanguard in Arts Writing.” I’ll report on some of her findings and then consider a half-dozen tendencies that have emerged largely since the 2002 survey.
Schumacher’s survey is extensive. Respondents were asked 107 questions about their jobs and the state and nature of art criticism. A couple of highlights: Question 71 was, “Please name three artists who you are especially interested in championing today.” The 182 answers are fascinating because there is virtually no agreement! Four people named Kara Walker with Anicka Yi, Hank Willis Thomas, and LaToya Ruby Frazier chosen by three people each.
There’s a slightly longer list of artists chosen by two people, and then the responses go on and on with artists chosen by only one person each—448 rows in Schumacher’s spreadsheet. This is vastly different from the 2002 survey, which revealed a consensus view of top artists—the sort that would be chosen by respondents whose median age was 47. (Schumacher’s respondents are almost evenly distributed from age bracket “26-35” up to age bracket “over 65.”) The 448-row spreadsheet of favorite artists is a clear sign of the efflorescence, diffusion, elaboration, and multiplicity of the contemporary art world.
Question 44 was, “Who do you believe are the most influential art critics working today?” Here the 222 responses reveal a very different pattern. Instead of a long list of individuals, there’s a clear clustering of preferences—and it’s every bit as conservative as the 2002 survey.
The top responses are: Roberta Smith (117 votes), her husband Jerry Saltz (86), Holland Cotter (69), Peter Schjeldahl (56), Ben Davis (25), and Christopher Knight (21). From there the number of votes per critic trails off rapidly: Barry Schwabsky, Hal Foster, Hilton Als... the entire list is only 141 rows deep, not 448. I find this disheartening.
Some of the top names are new (it’s nice to see Ben Davis, Hrag Vartanian, and Jillian Steinhauer), but most were on the 2002 survey. It looks like critics are still reading one another for information (that was a surprising result of the 2002 survey), even though they are looking at many new artists.
In 2002, Susan Sontag was near the top, even though she didn’t write art criticism. This time she’s vanished from the list. Jerry Saltz’s ascendancy to the second spot is surprising given that the respondents are other art critics, not general readers.
Some contemporary artists have writing practices that can be thought of as art criticism as well as part of their art practice.
Saltz has been one of the most energetic critics out there since his days crisscrossing the country teaching part-time on both coasts and in Chicago (I first met him in Chicago around 1988.) I am no longer surprised by the ongoing lack of serious response to his work, but I wonder if it ever concerns him.
Even with a Pulitzer, there’s a near-vacuum of thoughtful criticism of his criticism. My own response is in What Happened to Art Criticism?, and I still think it’s mainly right. (I said he avoids thinking about critical principles and theories by proposing he responds spontaneously, without preconceived ideas—even though historically and philosophically speaking, that just isn’t possible.) Recent longer notices of his work, like Dushko Petrovich’s “Jerry Saltz Butts In,” tend to be journalistic or impressionistic.
What’s crucial about Saltz’s work as criticism is his intention to evade reflection on judgment or its absence and to proceed without nameable or consistent arguments or positions—the very things that characterize any critic, no matter how iconoclastic, and which no critic, no matter how agnostic or allergic to “ideas,” can avoid. Criticism of critics, I think, is just as important as criticism itself. It doesn’t help that critics snipe about other critics or simply praise them: there’s a need for reflective assessments.
Question 85 was, “Rank how important the following are to your work”: (a) “Describing works of art,” (b) “Helping my audience understand art,” (c) “Making judgments about art,” and (d) “Adding my own insights about art.” The equivalent question in the 2002 survey was the one that underlay my pamphlet, What Happened to Art Criticism?, because it showed clearly that most respondents thought art criticism should describe and not judge. In the new survey the results aren’t as clear, because (d) overlaps (a), (b), and (c). It’s clear, however, that judgment remains a minority interest. In the rankings, the top choice was (b), “Helping my audience understand art.”
Option (c), “Making judgments about art,” was the least popular choice, with just 22% of respondents picking it for their #1 ranking. This corresponds well with what I have observed since What Happened to Art Criticism? With few exceptions, visual art criticism remains laudatory, descriptive, evocative, impressionistic, and neutral.
In the essay, “Critics and Online Outlets Leading the Vanguard in Arts Writing,” Schumacher reports on five examples or streams of “vanguard” writing that emerged from her survey. The first is Triple Canopy (launched in 2007); the second is Dis (founded in 2010); the third is Black Contemporary Art (founded 2011); the fourth is Teju Cole, who writes the “On Photography” column for The New York Times Magazine; and last is Maggie Nelson.
It’s an interesting list. Like n+1, Triple Canopy doesn’t publish traditional art reviews, and a given contribution might be “a piece of experimental writing, a performance, a digital game, an art object,” or “a public discussion.” Dis is also interesting for the media and forms it employs, so it might be said that all three represent a tendency to combine media in order to produce criticism, rather than writing it directly. Black Contemporary Art is an example of a platform for specialized subject matter, and the last two—Cole and Nelson—are individuals.
The heterogeneity of Schumacher’s list is a good reflection of the disparate responses she collected, and another sign of the disarray of current art criticism.
Emily Colucci is an observer of the art and cultural scene, with essays on subjects as different as Patti Smith’s inexplicable interest in carrots and “conservative camp” at Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing.
Criticism has changed tremendously in the fifteen years since the Columbia University survey. Here are six directions that have emerged in art criticism in the last two decades. Criticism seems to be increasingly diverse, and by some measures, it is—but by others, it remains conservative.2
(a) Artist/writers. Some contemporary artists have writing practices that can be thought of as art criticism as well as part of their art practice. For example, in Andrea Fraser or Gregg Bordowitz’s work, the line between criticism and art practice can be either intentionally effaced or meaningless. These days, there are a number of such experiments, like Roger White’s theatrical “Gallery Libretto,” from Dushko Petrovich’s Paper Monument. This conflation of categories is something new: for poststructuralists from Robert Smithson and Art & Language to Tacita Dean, critical writing has been distinct from visual artwork.
There is not much reflection on this topic, probably because it is still usually assumed that practice informs critical writing or vice versa—that is, they are distinct. Aria Dean has said that her art and writing are “curiously out of step,” suggesting the two are related but are not quite a single project.
(b) New forms of cultural criticism. Even in late modernism, art criticism denoted writing exclusively on specific art practices or pieces. Now there are many writers who mix their writing on fine art with writing on any number of other subjects. Rachel Ellis Neyra is a theorist and critic whose first book, under preparation, will involve “listening closely for unruly sounds made by what we otherwise quarter off as the visual, textual, and narrative” in Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, Chicana/o/x, and black aesthetics. Emily Colucci is an observer of the art and cultural scene, with essays on subjects as different as Patti Smith’s inexplicable interest in carrots and “conservative camp” at Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing.
In this kind of criticism, the art is woven into wider cultural narratives. Other examples include Doreen St. Félix, a cultural commentator at The New Yorker who also writes on art; Sarah Nicole Prickett, who writes on a range of art subjects; and The White Pube, a high-energy blog run out of Liverpool and London by two writers who describe themselves as “art critic baby gods” who “wanna write GOOD ~ have politix.”3
Exhibitions by a wide range of curators count as criticism because they intervene in existing art historical or market narratives.
(c) Curation as critique. This category of critics has always included curators, even well before the emergence of curation as a major part of the art world. Exhibitions by a wide range of curators count as criticism because they intervene in existing art historical or market narratives. This is as true of Okwui Enwezor as it is of Marina Reyes Franco or the Swedish-Cherokee curator and editor America Meredith. Joseph Grigely, who has the office next to mine at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is an artist who runs the Hans Ulrich Obrist Archive: a collection of all of Obrist’s catalogs and other materials since the early 1990s. Grigely teaches seminars in the archive. The project is not only curating the curator—although that would be a critical act in its own right—but articulating differences and points of overlap between curation, archive, and criticism.4
(d) Writing + performance + video. The websites Dis, n+1, and Triple Canopy are examples of platforms for art criticism that largely avoid first-person writing directed at particular artists or venues, and instead produce art criticism as an effect of projects that may combine performance, video, and other strategies.
Artists’ groups have explored similar territory. Among many examples, Our Literal Speed, IRWIN, South Africa’s Center for Historical Reenactments and Keleketla Media Arts Project, and the Raqs Media Collective have paid special attention to the relation between art criticism and art history. The IRWIN East Art Map remains one of the most extended attempts to intervene critically in existing art historical narratives. (Medium matters here: the website is very different from the book.)
Another unique combination of criticism and performance is Lori Waxman’s 60 wrd/min art critic, in which artists are invited to bring in work for an on-the-spot critical review of 100-200 words. In Waxman’s words, the project is “an exploration of short-form art writing, a work of performance art in and of itself, an experiment in role reversal between artist and critic,” and “a circumvention of the art review process.” Also in my institution, Seth Kim-Cohen, known principally for his writing on sound art, works on new critical forms including “performances-as-criticism... with and against musical accompaniment, with video.”5
(e) Criticism in podcasts, films, and videos. I owe this category to Lori Waxman, who read a draft of this essay and pointed out that an increasing number of art criticism projects don’t rely on writing at all. There’s the long-running Bad at Sports, which I contributed to several times—it was wonderfully informal and unpredictable—and the videos, podcasts, and TV channel on Art21. Lori also mentions TV shows like The Next Great Artist (2010-11) that featured Jerry Saltz in a panel of critics, artists, and curators; School of Saatchi (2009) which had Tracey Emin and Michael Collins as judges; and I Love Dick (2017-2018), an adaptation of Chris Kraus’s 1997 novel of the same name.6
The websites Dis, n+1, and Triple Canopy are examples of platforms for art criticism that largely avoid first-person writing directed at particular artists or venues, and instead produce
art criticism as an effect of projects that may combine performance, video, and other strategies.
(f) Fiction and criticism. Many respondents to the 2017 survey showed interest in mixtures of fiction and criticism. In Part One of this essay, I mentioned one of the original, and still most radical, examples, Proust. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in mixing fiction with art criticism (and art history). It’s a subject I am studying, and I think it is helpful to distinguish among disparate possibilities.
First there is fiction (novels, usually) that include passages of art criticism. Ben Lerner’s novels, like 10:04, are examples. Lerner writes well-informed criticism, but it is assigned to specific characters and set within boundaries in the narrative.
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in mixing fiction with art criticism (and art history).
I would like to distinguish this strategy from fiction that includes criticism but also embodies it throughout the text. An example is Don DeLillo’s 2010 novel, Point Omega, which contains a description of Douglas Gordon’s 1993 24 Hour Psycho; after those opening pages, the novel develops a narrative that enacts a similar “anguish and anxiety.”
That’s two possibilities. There is also fiction that describes the art world or artists, and so acts as art criticism. Some of Tom Wolfe’s novels fit that description, and so do Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang.7
Beyond these three is a largely uncharted region in which art criticism appears in and as fiction, metafiction, and “creative nonfiction”; Maggie Nelson, Susan Howe, Anne Carson, and Claudia Rankine have been written about in these terms.8
It would be wonderful if there were texts theorizing these and other possibilities. But relatively little has been written beyond case studies. It’s a great opportunity for scholars in search of dissertation topics.
Art criticism is consistently interesting. It resolutely resists anything more than provisional ordering. It continues to avoid judgment in favor of description; it favors neutrality and praise despite the encroaching market; it imagines itself to be in perpetual crisis or decline; it attaches itself to many media and voices; and it has no central texts, practitioners, or problematics.
Despite its disappearance from newspapers and other mass media, it is even more uniform, more widely produced, and I think less read, than in 2002. Its historians and observers, like me, convene conferences and edit books on its history, condition, and prognosis, but those have little effect on the continuous disarray of the field. My main interests in art criticism are still its insouciance about its concepts and its hope of locating a place to speak that is somehow outside of system, practice, or precedent.
James Elkins is an art historian and art critic. He is the E.C. Chadbourne Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His most recent book is What Heaven Looks Like. All comments welcome via jameselkinks.com.
1 Schumacher is art and architecture critic with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and 2017 Arts & Culture Fellow with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
2 I thank Seth Kim-Cohen, Daniel Quiles, Dushko Petrovich, Lori Waxman, David Getsy, Delinda Collier, and Sampada Aranke for ideas. These descriptions and choices are mine.
3 It’s not always clear whether the new narrative forms and subject matters of these writers put them at a conceptual distance from existing visual studies, art history, art theory, or political critique. In the field of visual studies, for example, it’s an ongoing question whether unexpected subject matter and theory produce new discourse.
4 There is relatively little on the subject of curatorial theory; Terry Smith’s book remains the principal source, despite some reservations. Without a consensus idea of curation, it would be as difficult to distinguish curation from art criticism as it has been for the October school to articulate the relation between art history and criticism.
5 Kim-Cohen, email, October 2018. Despite a large literature on multimedia and the post-medium condition and an equally diverse literature on performativity and criticism, I don’t know of any writing assessing the nature and possibilities of art criticism when it spans multiple media. (Always happy to hear of examples!)
6 As in (b), it’s an open question whether these podcasts, films, TV series, and videos bring new content to criticism along with their new forms. Some rehearse familiar sorts of responses that can be found in written criticism. It would be useful to have a careful study of one of these to see what positions and arguments it has that are medium-specific in the sense that they could not be found in written sources.
7 I thank Lori Waxman for these last two.
8 A useful parallel for the dialectic between fiction and criticism is the so-called “novel-essay,” a form that appeared in the early 20th century and for a while threatened to engulf the novel, stalling its plot and freezing its characters into mouthpieces. The principal example is Robert Musil’s endless The Man Without Qualities, and the principal scholar is Stefano Ercolino. I wonder if this might be a more useful starting point than the general poststructuralist interpretation of fiction as political critique.
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