On Criticism: A Matter of Opinion or What? Sally O'Reilly Provides Some Statistics

By O'Reilly, Sally | Art Monthly, May 2006 | Go to article overview

On Criticism: A Matter of Opinion or What? Sally O'Reilly Provides Some Statistics


O'Reilly, Sally, Art Monthly


ONE OF THE DEEPEST INSULTS MOST FREQUENTLY LEVELLED AT ART CRITICS IS THAT THEIR WRITING IS 'MERELY DESCRIPTIVE'. This generally implies that the writer either lacks critical insight or is toeing the line, perhaps through cowardice or maybe because they are in the pay of the gallery. Historically, the criteria of art criticism have varied between contexts, from academia to journalism, but usually both artist and writer emerge relatively unscathed, with kamikaze attacks left largely to colourful columnists or infamous curmudgeons. Alternative nurturing functions of art writing might favour the artwork--affirming an artist's practice or resuscitating neglected genres or the historically repressed--or assume the more neutral role of interlocutor between artwork and viewer. These functions of writing all require different emphases on inert description, thematic interpretation and qualitative judgement, but there remains no consensus on current requirements in the national art press.

The necessity for judgemental criticism is difficult to quantify, as the traditional relationships between artists, institutions, critics and collectors have shuffled confusingly in recent decades. The curator, for example, has overtaken much of the critic's role in deciding who, to put it crudely, is in and out of the institutional stable. And throughout the pages of Art Monthly, writers' bylines indicate how polymathic contributors are: we are also artists, curators, lecturers, art historians, theorists and editors. And there are many other distinctions that can be drawn between individuals: those that work from a preformed ideology and those that react reflexively to each exhibition, sometimes contradicting previous positions--in other words there are, as James Elkins has noted, writers with stands' and those with 'stances'. Then there is the writing that manifests a belief in the continuity of art history and criticism, and that which reflects a pluralistic take on cultural production. Writers also possess and pursue varying levels of knowledge of and reverence for art history, critical theory and the history of art criticism itself. In short, the nature of criticism is as divergent as flora and fauna, or as chaotic as a field of weeds.

To return to the issue of the adjective 'descriptive' being used as an insult when applied to criticism: the Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program conducted a survey of the top 230 art critics in US national daily and weekly titles in 2002, which found that the least popular function of art writing was that of judgement, while the most popular was simply description. This might be explained in a number of ways. It might be down to the control of the art market over the entire field of practice, producing an atmosphere of caution, or even the extraneousness of the critic. Or, a finer point, as Benjamin Buchloch described it in a round table discussion subtitled 'The Present Conditions of Art Criticism', published in October, Spring 2002: 'The judgement of the critic is voided by the curator's organizational access to the apparatus of the culture industry (eg, the international biennials and group shows) or by the collector's immediate access to the object in the market or at auction.' Another reason might be a writer's self-perception as provider of information, shuttling experience from artwork to reader through an impassive mode of writing devoid of qualitative judgement. Art writing as a historical primary source takes responsibility for art history on the hoof, but it seems improbable that an involved individual could provide a record to be interpreted or contextualised according to external frameworks, while remaining neutral itself. In What Happened to Art Criticism?, 2002, Elkins outlines many additional shades of explanation for descriptive writing: for instance, the proliferation of styles since Pop have made rigid judgement inappropriate; Hal Foster's insistence, iterated in the October round table discussion, that his generation worked 'against this identification with judgement' as a reaction against Clement Greenberg; or the recent centring of methodology, process and subject matter and the subsequent marginalisation of value. …

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