`I'm No Artist But.' the Critical Condition; in the Third Part of Our Week-Long Series on the Culture of Criticism, We Look at What It Means to Be an Art Critic. Who Qualifies to Eke Words out of Images? How Are Exhibitions Chosen? and Do Art Critics Have Any Real Influence Anyway? by Tom Lubbock

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), December 15, 1998 | Go to article overview
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`I'm No Artist But.' the Critical Condition; in the Third Part of Our Week-Long Series on the Culture of Criticism, We Look at What It Means to Be an Art Critic. Who Qualifies to Eke Words out of Images? How Are Exhibitions Chosen? and Do Art Critics Have Any Real Influence Anyway? by Tom Lubbock


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


So what do you do, then?And you can guess how pleased I am at having this chance to talk for the equivalent of about 10 minutes, uninterrupted, on the subject of my job. Actually, when the question comes, I quite often don't say "art critic". I say "commercial illustrator". That was once my living. It sounds a decent, banausic sort of trade. It causes no trouble. Whereas "art critic" - well, it's one of the very worst classes of person.

What is wrong with art critics? They are as bad as other critics; vindictive, frustrated parasites, and then some. However, there are two main, extra negatives. First of all, the gap between art criticism and what it purports to criticise, seems especially wide: the visual and the verbal, and all that. So the art critic who spins words off images by the yard falls under the grave suspicion of simply faking it. (You may say that music criticism is trickier still, but the music critic somehow isn't such a folkloric figure.)

Second factor: Modernism in the visual arts has been more prominently bizarre than elsewhere. So it's always an art critic who - in the fable - rhapsodises the exquisite modernity of something that turns out later to be the work of a monkey. Indeed, for people who think modern art is a con, it is not the artists (honest nutters) but the critics (pretentious impostors) who are usually the real villains. But if I've come clean, and if the conversation doesn't stick on those points, then there are a few questions that frequently get asked, and I thought I should note them down. Most asked question: do you get to choose the shows you write about? Curious one: an oddly practical inquiry. Like saying: do you art critics always get free catalogues? And we do, incidentally, always - or we make the most dreadful fuss. In fact, accumulating large glossy art-books for free is one of the real perks of the profession. I mean, what do the theatre critics get to show for it? Free programmes! But what this choosing question means, I'm never quite sure. Is it a way of asking whether there's an "agenda" - some general tacit policy, agreed between the media and the art world, about what shows are going to to be covered? Or is it a way of saying: I can see your job must be quite a doss, but if you also chose the shows yourself, it would hardly be a job at all? As to an agenda, there is one. The process happens like this. The paper's arts editor will say to the arts critic: you are going to review X, aren't you? Critic: Oh God, do I have to, nothing to say about it at all. Arts ed: No, I think it's quite major - readers will be aware of it, and want to hear a view. And what makes some show "major" is the usual rolling, self- reinforcing process of established fame, fresh publicity and coverage. Of course, the whole process gets internalised, all down the line. These conversations don't usually happen. I don't need to be told which shows are major. I know it very well. And the straight answer to the question is that these major shows are pretty compulsory. Others are optional. Some weeks nothing presses and you're free to write about any show you want. Not that I wouldn't want to write about most of the compulsory ones anyway, and not that making people write about what they'd rather not is such a bad thing. For example, I didn't choose this present assignment, and thought it a little bit silly, but I seem to have got some true things said. As to the charge of idleness, I can only say that for the perfect fusion of work and leisure, the TV critics must surely take the prize. And we art critics do at least see the work under real conditions. We often go in normal public opening hours, unlike film critics who are stuck in small, underground screening cinemas, exclusively in their own company. But I suppose that only makes the art critic's job sound nicer. Yes, it's a good job, no doubt about it. So another question: what qualification do you have to be an art critic?

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`I'm No Artist But.' the Critical Condition; in the Third Part of Our Week-Long Series on the Culture of Criticism, We Look at What It Means to Be an Art Critic. Who Qualifies to Eke Words out of Images? How Are Exhibitions Chosen? and Do Art Critics Have Any Real Influence Anyway? by Tom Lubbock
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