THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Photo by Tiffany Cade
Buzz Spector, Tower #1, 2016, Collaged dust jacket elements on ink on paper, 60 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Buzz Spector, Suicide Note, 2005, Collaged postcards and vellum
on handmade paper, 9 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
By Buzz Spector
Here’s a job description for a course of study in becoming a critic of a contemporary art form. I’ve left off the discipline, and also the website where I found this, so that I can offer you the “what else” portion of the ad:
“________ critics evaluate and rate … and share their critiques in print or [online] … As part of their job ________ critics may evaluate several [exhibits, performances, books, movies, concerts, readings, dance events] a week … They generally discuss the goals and meanings of the [works] they analyze and give reviews that are entertaining and insightful.”
This about sums it up except that the term “description” is missing.
In the currently somewhat lonely precincts of art criticism, there’s considerable umbrage being taken against descriptive criticism. On several art and design school websites, I’ve read prompts about “Writing Art Reviews,” i “Writing a Review of an Exhibition,” ii or “Art Criticism and Writing: an Introduction.” iii
Description shows up near the top of the criteria list for the first of these. In the second case, the term appears on page three (of thirteen) from a 2005 essay by Sylvan Barnet, while the course summary in my third selection doesn’t mention description at all. If the academy is of mixed feelings about the role of description, many artworld publications or blogs, in print or onscreen, are vehement in castigating reviewers who content themselves with describing works of art.
This disdain places descriptiveness in the way of judgment, as if describing the way something looks was an aspect of writing neutral in effect; a deferral, if you will, of the value of opinionizing. Behind this concern, on the writers’ part, with the existential criteria of evaluation, is the shared concern that critics are increasingly thought to be, and related to, as art collection advisors without portfolio. As Dave Hickey puts it, “Art editors and critics—people like me—have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people.” iv
I can see Hickey’s point about what art criticism can be used for in the reductive field of collection management, but there are plenty of actual art consultants out there to whisper sweet nothings in the ears of the monied, and I’m willing to claim that none of those people ever describes the property they’re encouraging someone else to buy. Such stuff is already visible in auction house catalogs, institutionally published artist monographs, museum walls, or corporate lobbies.
No, description is an action of criticism when the value being assessed isn’t a priori monetized. That is to say, when the art critic describes the objects of art, the premise is one of setting in place a line of reasoning which is the basis for the conclusion, the passing of judgment. Judgment is something that arises reasonably from the descriptive terms that precede it.
Every artwork has a multitude of aspects, so its description can realistically engage only some qualities of materiality and affect. Critical writing with too much description risks confusing readers who can’t see the work itself. The basic descriptive elements include title, if any, date of completion, and at least an informal characterization of size.
Other qualities, of material composition, surface color and texture and, ultimately, subject matter are also important, but the order in which such aspects are read is also a ranking of their importance in relation to the value judgments you want your readers to grasp. But describing only the work is a failure in addressing the conditions of its visibility.
One of my favorite writers on this subject is Joshua Decter, who frames art critical practice thusly: “Each time one writes art criticism, one is not only writing about art but also writing about art criticism.” v The essay where this appears is titled “Art Criticism Always Arrives Too Late,” and Decter observes, pointedly, that the relationship in time of critical writing to the art it assesses is after the fact: “an exhibition opens, the art critic visits the show, offers an interpretation, and renders a judgment.” vi
This problem of temporal lag appears elsewhere in the field. In 1990, I designed the exhibition catalog for a show, “nonrepresentation,” curated by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. The other catalog essayist, Colin Gardner, noted a crucial distinction between nonrepresentational and abstract art: “By definition, the abstract object or image is a reduction (abstraction) from a signified that existed prior to it. In other words, like representation, abstraction harkens back to something that existed in a past present that is now significant for its ABSENCE [capitalization his].” vii
Gardner points out the inherent incompleteness of nonrepresentational art because such work is contingent on its viewing and context. I regard such contingency as necessary to all art. As I have said elsewhere when speaking of photographs, “there are no subjects, only situations.” But this is true about life, too. You had to be there.
With wry humor, Decter hypothesizes a possible criticism that precedes the art which is its subject, “so as to prevent certain art from happening in the first place, which would help both the artist and the potential art audiences.” viii Every application of judgment is inherently allegorical; things persist in the world—and the singular thingness of art is its distinguishing characteristic—but the meanings we ascribe to them change over time.
I’ve long thought that this ascription of meaning is the job that critics do, to share the mechanisms of judgment that arise from the interrelatedness of artists, viewers, and context, making possible more expansive ways of connecting the reading of the work in space to the writing of it in time.
Buzz Spector will retire in 2019 as professor of art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He looks forward to more time in his studio and at his writing desk.
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