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WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM ART CRITICISM?

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After reading and reviewing the new book “Critical Mess,” and reading others’ responses to it, I am left with the lingering question of what, exactly, we expect from art criticism. As an artist, not an art historian, writer or critic by training, I find myself turning to the examples of what others are doing, and wondering how we arrived at these methods of discussing and exploring work on the public stage.

I should start by saying that Big RED & Shiny was not started as a site for art criticism per se, but a forum for people to write about art. Some of these people are critics (occasionally even AICA approved, like Charles Giuliano and executive editor Christian Holland) while many are artists, and some are simply those who care about art. In other words, I want to distance our project from the hard-and-fast rules of Art Criticism and focus, instead, on how people perceive and appreciate art through writing. Let the Arthur Dantos and Raphael Rubinsteins of the world debate the dogma of their practice, for those of us who are beyond such simple conceptions have much more important things to worry about.

For me, one of the most shocking moments in my life came while I was in grad school in Chicago. Having failed to get into a class taught by Jerry Salz, I took another with Kathryn Hixson, then the editor of New Art Examiner. Kathryn proved to be a great mentor, teacher, and friend – and it is her inspiration that has guided me through much that has happened since, and I never regretted missing my chance to study with Salz.

My shock came as we drove across town, the few members of our class crammed into her car, and I asked her how she became an art critic. “I just started writing about art,” was the gist of her response. It turns out that she had been an artist, and began engaging with her peers in a way that led to writing, and later editing. Here was a professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the same department as James Elkins and Jerry Salz, telling me that she became an art critic by simply writing about art.

Looking back, it makes perfect sense. An answer to the question posed by the title of this screed might be that we expect art criticism to care about art, and to be written by those who genuinely feel an attachment to their subject. It is often noted that art critics make very little money from their writing, and many bloggers and online journalists, such as those on Big RED, make no money from their writing; what is left, then, is a love of the subject and a desire to see their culture grow.

The word “criticism” comes with negative connotations; an online dictionary gives one definition as “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.” To be a critic is, by definition, to NOT give easy approval to everything one sees or experiences, but to present “analysis and judgment” of the subject at hand.

Much of the debate in “Critical Mess” is around the “judgment” requirement. Many hold the idea of judging to be vital, in which a critic acts as a “goalie” to prevent bad artwork from being accepted into the canon; others view the act of judging as outdated, the kind of didactic enterprise Modernists engaged in and the sort of thing that is beneath post-modern thinkers engaged in what Peter Plagens dubs “postcriticism.”

For me as an artist, this seems like a lot of hair-splitting. At every stage in the creative process, artists seek out the advice of others. This may be in the form of studio visits, residencies, and critiques, or simply by talking with peers over dinner, at openings, or online. The very idea of “judgment” is present at every stage of this process, and yet no single “judgment” is the decisive beginning or end of a work. Artists absorb and digest, they alter and manipulate, all of the input they receive as they strive to create a body of work that is cohesive, meaningful, and engaging.

In this way, I think that many artists do not feel that the criticism they receive from a “critic” is any more or less valid than that of a peer, or a teacher, or anyone else who may encounter their work and wish to speak. In a lot of ways, art critics actually diminish their power to influence art-making by pretending to be above the artists they critique; artists respond to peer influences positively while generally rejecting “authority” in any form, even the established critical structure.

This is why, I believe, much of art criticism has passed into the hands of artists, and found voice in forums that are immediate, localized and antiauthoritarian. By allowing artists to engage as equals, these new forms reframe critique and the “judgment” inherent within it; rather than waiting for tacit approval or denial from an authority, artists are now much more proactive about adressing the ideas and theories that are most important to them and their community. It is in this way that our expectations of art criticism have shifted from a pat on the head to a round of drinks; that is, from outside and authoritative approval to the welcome support of peers and colleagues.

When considering the question “What do we expect from art criticism?” I am left with one overwhelming response: we expect it to evolve. Art criticism is, by its very nature, a response to art. There is no art criticism without art, and as such it should grow with the artists and their work. As the contemporary art scene grows in both scale and pluralism, and the sites for art expand across the globe and away from New York, the vital role of art criticism needs to expand and become equally decentralized, equally flexible, and respond to art in the moment and with a contemporary eye, rather than adhering to nostalgic standards from a time gone by.


Image found here.


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About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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