Art criticism and transformations in the art world

Art criticism and transformations in the art world
‘Confronting the “death” of art criticism’ continued (2/6)


The rise of art fairs, international biennials, and international art auctions has greatly transformed the shape and dynamics of the art world in the last three decades. In 2002, a highly influential survey conducted by Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP), The Visual Art Critic, asked 230 art critics of mainstream newspapers whether popular news media provided sufficient coverage of the dynamic and expanding world of the visual arts.[1] The report’s main finding was that “criticism has been struggling to keep up with the swift evolution of the art world.”[2] Almost a third of the critics (32 percent) agreed, “there is too much art being produced today.” When asked if “today’s art criticism offers reliable guidance and evaluation for working artists, curators and galleries,” the critics’ responses were mixed. They recognized that their role is limited or somehow deficient when it comes to addressing the art being made: “Two out of five art critics (41 percent) disagreed with the claim that art criticism offers reliable guidance to today’s art.” Art critics are not confident in the ability of their discipline to serve as a guide to contemporary art.

One main reason for this is that the art world critics engage with today is much larger and more intricate than it was just three decades ago. Even the kinds of events that have become commonplace, like the international fair Art Basel, leave many critics perplexed. The survey also found that “the majority (58 percent) of alternative weekly writers [as against 35 percent of daily critics] believe that today’s art criticism fails to bring clarity to the activities of the world.” Concerning the art fair, one of the most widespread activities in the world of art today, New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz pointed out in 2005, “few are further from the epicenter of action than an art critic at an art fair.”[3] Art fairs made Saltz feel “existentially adrift.” Why can’t a critic with a trained eye and sharpened pencil confidently take a stab at some of the works on display? There are certainly heaps of art to scrutinize—to be compelled by, to loathe, to feel ambivalent about. Perhaps every critic feels a little “existentially adrift” when surrounded by thousands of art works that have no self-conscious cohesion. It may be the case that art fairs are not the most appropriate way to view art: crowded hallways, desperate dealers, tense assistants, awkward smiles, tired feet. But the experience of art in fairs is not necessarily more alienating and overcrowded than 18th and 19th century Salons. Something, however, is different: Unlike the mid-19th century, it is clear and unavoidable today that the critics are not driving the discourse around art. Art fairs would continue if critics were not present, but would enter their own crisis if collectors failed to cash out.

Cover of Artforum special issue on “Art and Its Markets”

Glossy art magazines like Artforum, Frieze, and Art + Auction[4] have addressed this expansion of the art market, which has not only grown in terms of profit but has also come to play a more decisive role in the discourse surrounding art. The auction price of an Andy Warhol, a Jeff Koons, or a Damien Hirst were the occasion for art-related headlines in both art magazines and wide-circulation newspapers. Market value became, perhaps, the most common means by which to grapple with the social conditions of art in the present. Quite often, as in the case of a special Artforum issue in 2008 on “Art and its Markets,” these artists’ works become an occasion to unpack the problematic question of the “value” of a work of art. Such registrations of the “problematics” notwithstanding, the fact that the auction price of a work has become the dominant means of engaging and understanding the trends in contemporary art contemptible. Reporting and commenting on the art market is, no doubt, essential in tracking trends in sales, which is one way that art publications have been able to keep up with the “swift evolution of the art world.”[5] Thus, rather than art criticism, it has primarily been arts journalism, with a focus on reporting the going rates of exchange, that has been better able to keep pace. However, such an approach is not well equipped to make qualitative assessments of the significance of changes in the practices of artists. Art criticism, the discourse that traditionally addressed such questions, has fallen behind to such a degree that art critics themselves are skeptical of its ability to keep up.

A comparison of the traffic for sites like artnet.com, which tracks market trends for artists and hosts online auctions featuring over 2,200 galleries, with the website of Artforum, one of the oldest and most influential international art magazines, provides another case in point. According to the online information aggregator, Compete, artnet.com had 348,979 unique visitors in the month of January 2011, while artforum.com had only 9,487.[6] At their most active month of the year, July 2010, artnet.com had over 512,625 while Artforum had 23,472.  It should be noted that artnet.com does publish articles by art critics, and Artforum does publish articles focused on market-specific news. Nevertheless, the two websites have very different foci. The content on artnet.com, for good or for ill, quite clearly appears to have satisfied a larger need, in the context of an expanding, market-driven, and globalizing art world, in a way that Artforum, with its focus on criticism, interpretation, and concern for art theory, has not.[7]

A terrifying thought motivates the argument ahead: Compared to dedicated, substantive engagement with art works, it is much easier simply to learn the tricks of the trade, keep informed of the latest catchwords-posing-as-discourse, and succumb to the idea (candidly expressed by Raphael Rubinstein) that “everyone would be happier if you just drank the Kool-aid and relegated yourself to smoothing the way of new art into the market.”[8] Critics, the four dozen or so who might have full-time jobs as writers, or work as regular columnists, are still practicing a profession.[9] They still need to fulfill their editorial directives, and follow the standards of either journalism or academia in order to write for a reputable publication. These publications have rigorous deadlines and limited space. During the last decade, art and culture sections have been the first to be eliminated in the dwindling newspaper industry. Understandably, any writing that steps outside the norm of an already marginal subject, any writing that fails to sustain a diminishing readership, is liable to be treated as unnecessary baggage, if not downright irresponsible. Although standards and deadlines in publishing have been around for over a century, something—even if just the desire to critique art—seems to have been lost. What is expressed in Baudelaire’s famous dictum from “On the Heroism of Modern Life” rings true even today: “It is true that a great tradition has been lost and that the new one is not yet established.”[10]

Focusing on a similar set of problems, the preface to Judgment in Contemporary Art (2010)[11]states, “while the economy of contemporary art seems to demand rigorous critique, art writing functions solely in the service of an expanding, unregulated art market.”[12] In a period characterized by a quickly evolving art world, art criticism as a form of practice has struggled to sustain influence. Similarly, the first sentence of Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism? is not shy to declare, “Art criticism is in a worldwide crisis. Its voice has become very weak, and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism.” Elkins quickly adds:

But its decay is not the ordinary last faint push of a practice that has run its course, because at the very same time, art criticism is also healthier than ever. Its business is booming: it attracts an enormous number of writers, and often benefits from high quality color printing and worldwide distribution. In that sense art criticism is flourishing, but invisibly, out of sight of contemporary intellectual debates. So it’s dying, but it’s everywhere. It’s ignored, and yet it has the market behind it.[13]

This contradiction, of “massively produced and massively ignored,” of a state of “vigorous health and terminal illness,” as Elkins describes it, might not be so obvious to a generation for whom writings on art, music, and film are to be found everywhere you turn or click. The problem is not lack of venues for art criticism. Yet writings on art and culture, despite becoming a broad spectrum of “literature,” have lost their critical weight. Art criticism hasn’t disappeared from the art world, but its influence both on the social scene surrounding art and on art practices themselves, has greatly diminished. This has, in turn, affected the development of the practice itself.

One can walk into one of the largest international book fairs, Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair in September 2011, and see hundreds of international periodicals, booksellers and publishing houses in the art world. Quantity and diversity are unquestionable. There are, according to the guide book, artists’ books as well as magazines and monographs dedicated to “cultural production,” “promoting photography,” “art theory,” “dialogue between cultural research and the social sphere,” “the examination, development and definition of art and culture in the world,” “encouraging dialogue between visual art and writing,” and so on.[14] Even Artforum, once widely recognized as a publisher of art criticism, described itself at its booth as “exploring contemporary visual culture by the best contributors of our time.” Surprisingly, not a single participant in the fair claimed to be publishing or doing art criticism. The closest to criticism found at the book fair was a panel discussion titled, “Furthering the Critical Dialogue,” aiming to “discuss and evaluate select publications,” which in this case were artists’ books, “rather than speculate on the state of criticism per se.”[15] The amount of materials available at the yearly fair is overwhelming, and this material is far from being ignored. Yet there is a noticeable absence of criticism—art writing that is not only critical of the art but also defines itself as art criticism—even when one actively seeks it.

There is an even a larger of amount of “ephemeral cultural criticism” being produced online since Elkins published What Happened to Art Criticism? This is not to say—though it has often been claimed—that the emergence of the Internet is the cause of the death of criticism. The concern that writing has become impoverished in the face of an overabundance of information, infotainment, and Search Engine Optimization (SEOs) is misguided. Similar anxieties attended the rise of the printing press.[16] Advances in communication technology do transform the way we receive and share information, but it is reductive to blame technological innovations for larger, historic shifts. There is nothing inherent in new media technologies preventing them from being utilized for the proliferation, deepening, and elaboration of art criticism. What must be explained is why such technological advances appear to have blindsidedcertain practices and discourses, but not others. Cultural and social practices have their own immanent development; they undergo crises and evolve. If anything, the Internet has opened up new avenues, however underused at present, for art criticism to develop and broadcast itself. The massive growth and transformation of the art world, including art publishing, are not external threats to a hermetically sealed practice. Rather, such changes indicate precisely that criticism itself, as a form of practice, was already in crisis.

But what does it mean to say that a form of practice is in crisis? The emphasis here is on the usefulness and purposefulness of art criticism in new socio-historical contexts. As the previous examples demonstrate, art criticism itself was unable to make sense of the changes happening in the art world and, instead, was hard pressed into producing broad “ephemeral cultural criticism” (Elkins), or art writing that solely functions to “smooth new art into the market” (Rubinstein). The critic somehow failed to evolve along with the art world, or, conversely, evolved all too easily, without knowing itself to be evolving, such that the writing became unrecognizable as criticism. Thus it has also become useful to not merely call this situation a crisis, but recognize it, at least potentially, as a death of art criticism. Consciously or not, the practice of art criticism has been cast aside, left behind—perhaps buried in Clement Greenberg’s tomb. (The allegations against the often-despised American art critic will be elaborated in the section on “the flight from judgment” below.) For now it will suffice to keep in mind a very important question the above section raises: What are the real conditions that make possible—or impossible—the qualitative assessments about contemporary works of art?


next: The demise of the critic—the rise of dealers, collectors, and curators

 


[1] Szántó, The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America. (Note: only a total of 169 art critics responded.)

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Saltz, “Feeding Frenzy,” Village Voice.

[4] Themagazine was acquired in 2003 by Louise Blouin Media, which also publishes Modern Painters and owns artinfo.com, one, if not the largest online art news websites.

[5] Szántó, The Visual Art Critic, 6.

[6] See http://siteanalytics.compete.com/artnet.com+artforum.com+artinamerica.com/?metric=uv#

[7] On June 25th, 2012, while this thesis was in its last stages, Artnet Magazine posted a closing notice on the frontpage of its website, which stated: “the first and best-known art magazine to be published solely on the internet, is ceasing publication, effective immediately. This difficult decision is an economic one, and reflects the fact that during its 16 years of digital life, the magazine was never able to pay its own way. At present, plans call for Artnet Magazine to remain available in an archive on Artnet.com.” Since the rest of artnet.com continues its functions, it demonstrates the constraints the market imposes over art journalism and criticism. Accessed on August 27, 2012. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/frontpage.asp.

[8] Rubenstein, Critical Mess, i.

[9] Szántó, The Visual Art Critic, 20. The NAJP survey listed 40 (out of 169) critics as having a full time staff position.

[10] Baudelaire, Art in Paris 1845-1862, 116.

[11] O’Brian and Khonsary (eds.), Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism.

[12] Ibid, 6.

[13] Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? 2.

[14] “2011 NY Art Book Fair guide book,” back cover.

[15] In 2011 NY Art Book Fair website. Accessed August 28, 2012. http://nyartbookfair.com/archive/2011/conference

[16] John Palattella, “The Death and Life of the Book Review,” The Nation, June 2, 2010.

 



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