Why Do You Think You Want More Art Criticism?

Andrea Fraser “Museum Highlights” (1989); via Frans Hals Museum

It’s that time of year again when someone in Atlanta writes about arts journalism, this time from my friend, Andrew Alexander. Andrew asks readers of the Saporta Report to imagine an Atlanta without arts journalism. And, as is the custom, there are generalized complaints from folks in the arts community.

Having worked for a few years in arts publishing, writing, making, and teaching here in Atlanta I feel confident in saying that this perennial kvetch about art criticism in Atlanta is misplaced.

Y’all get the art criticism you deserve.

It should be pointed out, that there are pockets of folks who create reading groups and they are greatly appreciated by me. For example, Discrit. But there are a great number of folks (no surprise) who don’t bother to read criticism, don’t bother to write criticism, and don’t in any way feel uncomfortable about sharing their unfounded opinions about the matter.

When folks whine about the quality of art writing in Atlanta, I want to know:

  1. Who are YOU reading on a consistent basis? Tell us who we should be in conversation with, then, and we’ll see if we can’t make Atlanta audiences connect with less parochial concerns.
  2. Are you paying for art writing? I’ve seen the paid subscriber lists; folks just don’t read art criticism like it matters.
  3. When’s the last time you sat down for a week or so and read about an area outside your specialized knowledge, synthesized that literature, then wrote out a methodical treatment of a recent exhibition? Would you even recognize that work that was done by one of us?
  4. What do you think an art critic’s job is? More often than not, when I read one of these threads I walk away from it with the sense that y’all want blood.

But that’s not what an art critic does, ultimately.

My position is that all critique is grounded in providing a reliable method for arriving at decisions about sense-making.

That places the art critic firmly in the remit of aesthetics.

I recognize that in the parlance of our times folks often use the word “aesthetic” to mean “stylish,” but that’s not the way critics and properly trained artists tend to use the word.

The opposite of “aesthetic” is not “out of fashion,” but rather, “anesthetic,” meaning, “without sensation.”

My job as an art critic— that is, when I’m discussing an artist’s aesthetic decisions—is to help you, the reader, and the artist/curator/administrators of art spaces to see how their work makes what kind of sense.

In other words, my role as critic is not to offend or to write propaganda for or against individuals or institutions. That kind of work is merely rhetoric.

My role as art critic requires that I demonstrate the utility and creative necessity of reasoning-out the propositions put forward by the artist.

By following a line of reasoning found in the works being evaluated I am helping the works under consideration appreciate in value. Now, it’s important to recognize that this value increases not because I wrote about the work.

Rather, the value grows only to the degree that I demonstrate to the community that they also can perform the critical evaluations I’ve put forward. That is, when a reader/artist/curator/administrator can also reason-out and critically assess my position.

When others are able to engage in this reasoning-out exercise, there is an expansion of that rare commodity called critical thinking. We as a community benefit from having this common good expanded. We desperately need more of this precious commodity.

“Everything Is Very Precious” from L’Automàtica, Barcelona.