Crisis? What Crisis?
The debate about the supposed terminal decline of art criticism is beginning to resemble that concerning the even more protracted demise of painting. In both cases, while the stricken patient lies stretched out on the operating table, surrounded by surgeons desperately searching for vital signs, the business of criticism and of painting, goes on regardless, seemingly oblivious of an perceived crisis. For many, 'business' is the operative word here; as long as there is a demand for it, the market will always keep painting artificially alive, a process in which art criticism, in the form of the catalogue essay, is held to be complicit. Meanwhile the site of critical engagement in art, once dominated by painting, has moved elsewhere.
In his book What Happened to Art Criticism?, 2003, James Elkins pointed to the paradox that, measured in terms of sheer volume of production, art criticism appears to be in rude health, 'So healthy that it is outstripping its readers--there is more of it around than anyone can read'. 'Yet,' he claims, 'at the same time art criticism is very nearly dead, if health is measured by the number of people who take it seriously, or by its interaction with neighbouring kinds of writing such as art history, art education, or aesthetics. Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored.' Is he right?
He is probably right that the influence of art criticism is less openly acknowledged than in previous decades, but that is not quite what he is saying. It could be argued contra Elkins that the very ubiquity of art criticism that he refers to suggests that its influence continues to be felt in 'neighbouring' fields, albeit covertly, by osmosis rather than by direct engagement. Nor has there been any decline in the quality of critical writing, as conservative commentators often claim, lamenting some supposedly prelapsarian period when the dominant critical voice accorded with their own. The issue, as is so often the case (see Dave Beech, 'Forget Elitism', pp1-5), is one of power and status: the decline in the status of art criticism, and of the critic, is seen by many to coincide with the rise of the curator. This shift is not unlike that which Jonathan Glancey has argued took place in the 19th Century when the status of engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel was superseded by that of architects so that, while the Forth Railway Bridge is everywhere acclaimed, its designers (engineers John Fowler and Benjamin Baker) are not household names. The balance of power remains the same today, so that while Norman Foster is acclaimed for the design of the technologically advanced Millennium Bridge linking St Paul's and Tate Modern and of the ravishingly beautiful Millau Viaduct that spans the Tarn Gorge in the South of France, the engineers involved--respectively Chris Wise and the reportedly 'media shy' Michel Virlogeux--are virtually unknown except to specialists. No one, however, would suggest building a bridge without consulting with engineers to establish whether the design is structurally sound. …