Fearless Criticism

(originally published in January 2012, quotes double-spaced due to Medium’s formatting)

Art criticism is inherently problematic. Donald Kuspit wrote of dialectical criticism in the late 1970s in a seminal essay entitled “The Necessary Dialectical Critic” published in Art Criticism. James Elkins again addressed the state of modern criticism in 2003, in his book What Happened to Art Criticism? Yet while attending a panel by the International Association of Art Critics (IAAC) at last February’s College Art Association Conference in Los Angeles, what was made clear to me is that the identified problems of art criticism have not been solved, and in a moment extolling the depths of human weakness, have simply been apathetically accepted as the status quo, unwilling to be solved. I would like to finally propose a solution based upon the identified problems by Elkins and taking Kuspit’s proffered solution a step further in this essay by calling for fearless criticism.

To begin, it is absolutely important to address one primary question: What is the role of the art critic? The role of the critic seems to often fall into that of the tastemaker or the cheerleader. Kuspit identified these in his term “positivist” criticism.(1) According to Kuspit, the positivist critic,

“…documented the work as fact, he judged it as a value that could be clearly

fixed, and, true master of the work, he illuminated the esthetic in it for general

contemplation, holding up to the masses like a priest at a ritual the sacred

substance, the divine principle that made the work what it truly was.”(2)

The role of the tastemaker, or positivist critic, creates a collusion when the work is given a value by the critic. The commodification of the art work is precisely what has led to the art world and market that exists today, where art is utilized in a manipulated form with market values and twisted within the financial investment system by the dealer, who is reliant upon the established value of the work declared from on high by the critic. In Elkins’ terms, this would fall under descriptive criticism, which appears to be the predominant form of criticism written today. A reader need only sift through a sampling of magazines such as the New York Times, Art Practical, and Art21 to view a massive swathe of descriptive, positivist criticism, not to mention observing the progression of such descriptive criticism evolving within earlier writing such as that found in ArtForum and Real Life Magazine. This has been noted by art critics themselves as evidenced by the various complaints proposed by the three critics at the IAAC panel, Amanda Beech, Michael Corris, and Saul Ostrow.

Ms Beech’s presentation essentially became a complaint about how art critics are forced into descriptive or positivist criticism by the art industry and market. She makes an important point with this complaint: when art critics engage in the behavior and role of the tastemaker, they are inevitably pressured by the market (curators, gallerists, investors and artists alike) to write positivist criticism in order to increase the monetary value of the art work. To engage in the pedestal is to eventually become shackled by the industry. Currently, it would be impossible for a critic to be able to truly write honest criticism of an art work without becoming instantly shunned by the industry and forced from any credible publication or forum for which to write. Unfortunately, Mr. Ostrow’s presentation during the CAA panel was less than constructive. Mr. Ostrow agreed that the art critic is essentially stuck in a state of puppetry, dancing at the whim of the market. However, he essentially concluded that this is the status quo, and offered no solutions for change or improvement. When questioned by attendees at the panel, Mr. Ostrow dismissed the questions by simply reiterating that art criticism is stuck where it is (in description and positivism) and that this is simply the state of things right now. Mr. Ostrow’s apathetic and defeated attitude towards criticism is one example of why we must engage with fearless criticism and work to change the status quo, rather than pathetically accepting the whims of the market. To the point, the entire panel identified the problems, but were apathetic and unable to offer a single solution.

These same problems have haunted art criticism for decades yet rarely has a complete solution been offered. James Elkin’s book, What Happened to Art Criticism, essentially seeks to identify and offer solutions for what Elkins sees as the problems with modern art criticism, covering a range of work from the commercial (magazines, newspapers) to the academic. Elkins begins by listing off what he defines as the seven problems with varying iterations of art criticism, specifically using examples of a select few art critics. One key point he identifies is a twofold problem: A) the lack of stronger voices in art criticism, and B) the plethora of criticism available, far beyond the actual readership demand.[1] Elkins’ work builds upon Donald Kuspit’s “The Necessary Dialectical Critic”, which identified the positivist critic and the inherent problems within that model as detailed above.

The solutions that Elkins proposes vary and Elkins admits that these solutions are problematic as well. However, Elkins eventually states that reform of art criticism is essentially pointless.[2] Elkins instead opts to note what he ‘likes’: 1) Ambitious judgment; 2) Reflection about judgment itself; and 3) Criticism important enough to count as history, and vice versa.[3] These are not true solutions, but rather preferences. Unfortunately, Elkins shies away just slightly enough to not make a clear decision and offer a real solution for the problems he sees with the various forms of art criticism, which falls into the danger zone that exists with Donald Kuspit’s proposed solution of dialectical criticism.

Dialectical criticism, according to Kuspit, is a criticism of dialogue. It is the criticism of democracy. Kuspit argues that:

Dialectical criticism becomes the detotalizing of art history, the dismemberment

of its conventions and pattern of possibility, for the sake of a new openness — which itself never becomes a totality or ideal — which is the only meaning of

freedom that is not yet bankrupt, however much it has shrunk in value.”[4]

While Kuspit states that dialectical criticism never becomes an ideal, it still exists in an idealistic space which can fly far out of control leading to much discussion, yet no strength or conviction of position. Society has become extraordinarily apologist offering weak positions in dialogues and while desperately attempting not to offend. In the political sphere, debate has devolved into sophomoric tirades with no argument support and sheer emotional reactivity. This climate could, in theory, infect art criticism as well in the pursuit of dialectical criticism. While dialectical criticism is an excellent starting point, it is easy to become mired in dialogue without any strong, decisive stances to be taken. This does not mean the critic should become the tastemaker, a slippery slope that leads to the weak state of criticism we experience today.

I would like to propose a different direction for criticism which addresses the problematic solutions identified by Elkins and builds further upon Kuspit’s dialectical criticism: Fearless criticism. Fearless criticism essentially changes the role of the critic to simply a provider of critique. There is an inherent responsibility to the artist and the public to both educate and provide constructive criticism — to grow the artist and teach the public about art. This does not mean falling within the role of value-judgements, but rather a form of outreach and honesty about the work with an intentionality towards improving the work and overall public knowledge. Much as artists receive regular critique within the art school setting to identify strengths and weaknesses which further develop and build their work, the critic can serve the same role in the professional world. This means strong conviction of opinion, yet at the same time not falling into the trap of commodification and market-driven forced descriptive criticism. A direction of critique additionally builds the knowledge base for the public which is furthered via dialectical criticism. Creating the space for dialogue and strong opinion removes the critic’s former status of elite tastemaker as well as the pitfall of having criticism determined by buyers, curators, and gallerists, freeing the critic from the current status quo. Didactic and constructive criticism creates the fearless critic.

[1] Elkins, Whatever Happened to Art Criticism, Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC: Chicago. 2003. pp.2–4

[2] Ibid, pp. 80

[3] Ibid, pp. 83–85

[4] Kuspit, D. “The Necessary Dialectical Critic”, Art Criticism, Vol. 1, The Department of Art: State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1979. pp. 15