Posts Tagged ‘taste’

A note on ‘dangerous’ – (Partial pondering of  the passionate pariah.)

A little more than a year ago I changed my tagline to The ‘Dangerous’ Life of an Art Historian.

For me, it was a very humourous and ironic statement. I often joked in grad school that I would die in a great book avalanche and that was the greatest threat to art historians. Art historians are rarely considered dangerous by anyone. Of course, I shouldn’t make assumptions about my colleagues. To each their own.

It was coincidence that I changed my tagline when I wrote an unexpectedly popular and hated post.

One commenter took my tagline and seemed to think that I thought the Art world was dangerous. – “Hey, and with more collaboration, the art world might not seem quite so dangerous.”

I don’t find the Art world dangerous. It may have a few people that can’t read take criticism, but hardly dangerous. Criticism.

Art criticism, yes, whatever happened to that?  When did it become acceptable to make a website devoted to the critic that wrote about you? When did writers stop critiquing work? When did writers stop questioning the institution? Or rather, when did it stop getting published by magazines in Canada?

A rather delicious hypothesis (sadly, I can’t seem to remember who said it) that the last Canadian Art critic is bound and gagged in a Canadian artist’s basement. All potential art critics are forced to live in fear of the artist and institution. Judging from experience, this statement isn’t too far off.

Currently, art reviews tend to be descriptions or explanations the work. Rarely someone will mention how the work fails, other than an off-handed remark about how it looks like every other work by artist X. Or the reviewer will vaguely mention how the work offended their sensibilities in a single sentence with no elaboration. (e.g. I found the work arrogant and promptly left the room.) When there is biting art criticism  it is often hidden in esoteric language and back-handed compliments.  Which can make it seem, to the reader without a large vocabulary, as though it wasn’t criticism at all.

My question of ‘whatever happened to art criticism’ is an old one and embedded in my own critical quandaries.  I have written art, literature and video game criticism. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet mastered the art of writing, but I do love to rise to the occasion. I adore the challenge of a well-crafted critique of a show.  Well written criticism can resonate.  Criticism can cause profound change.

I wonder that when art world started hating Modernist theory (Clement Greenberg), did we also start hating critique.

Did the art world come to the conclusion that it was not possible to critique a work without prescribing to preconceived notions of taste?

Don’t misunderstand, I firmly believe in decoding artefacts, not simply judging them based on taste. Much of my work is decoding and contextualizing videogames place in art and visual culture. However, I can decode and critique.

Criticism isn’t a bad thing.  It creates discourse.

While discussing criticism my colleague pointed me in the direction of James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism (2003). It became a beacon of hope for me back in 2003 and then later rekindled when I saw him speak at UWO in 2008.   I thought to myself: Yes, I wasn’t the only person that enjoyed critique or thought it had value! There are others. In 2010 I  started to follow the Toronto Art Critics Alliance.

In my last year of my undergrad I was taking a class mixed with graduate students. We got onto the topic of art criticism and I asked ‘why isn’t there biting criticism?’ I was told by a frowning and disapproving grad student, that Canada didn’t need criticism because it would ruin the Art world. Bad criticism would result in less funding and essentially the Canadian Art World would end. < /exaggerates > No one would make art because the artists would live in fear of the critic. The government would rule that art had no place in Canada because of a single bad review.  Artists would cower in fear over the oppressive nasty critic and the world would become a soulless wasteland. Art critics crush dreams and eat babies. They ruin culture. 

Since then I’ve been told that I was a douche and scum ruined art for believing in critique. Critics only hurt feelings. Critics have nothing to offer the world and are considered by many ‘bottom-feeders’ and a series of expletives deleted.

The ‘art criticism will ruin art’ argument often provides the excuse that Canadian art world is too small for critique.

But the Canadian film, publishing, restaurant, television and gaming industries are not too small for critique?

The quick counter-argument: But those are consumerist industries filled with product reviews.

Isn’t an art review in essence a product review? It entices potential viewers to visit the exhibition and possibly buy the art. I know, a bit harsh. We would love to think the art world is above making money, but pragmatically, everyone needs money in our capitalist nation.

The function of a review is to increase an artist’s fame, resulting in more sales and exhibitions.  Art is culture, but art is also a business. Reviews are for publicity not for intellectual debate.  I can understand that. There is value to that type of review. Everyone needs to make a living.  However, it is the business of art that is part why, I think art criticism’s voice has grown weak. We need the sales rather than the discourse.

Art critics don’t help with revenue, corporate sponsorship or government funding.

Even bad press is good press. At least some writer thought you were worthwhile to mention.

Of course this brings up the matter of: ‘well Ms. Dangerous Art Historian, why don’t you write more biting criticism?’

I have; admittedly I should do so more often.

However, I often find that biting reviews come from an exhibition that can get a reaction (intellectual, emotion, etc) out of me. Sadly, that’s rare.  The biggest failing of many art shows is that they have no impact and I forget them. It’s hard to articulate a critique on work that I feel utterly indifferent too. The majority of reviews I’d write would contain words and phrases such as familiar, tired, vacant, bland, huh another project on body image using collage in a non-imaginative manner, I believe I saw this show by another artist ten years ago, overdone, show was badly hung, etc.  I suppose the review writes itself.

Perhaps that is the other part of the disappearance of Art criticism. No writer wants to review a show that they are indifferent to or they didn’t like, since that would only garner it attention.

I will work to critique more art exhibitions.  I will attempt to write the types of reviews I enjoying reading.

As always, open for discussion.


Read Full Post »