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Today’s frenetic art world pushes criticism to the sidelines—and many critics are not helping matters

Do art critics still matter?

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In the popular imagination, the art critic seems a commanding figure, making and breaking careers at will, but one hard look at today’s contemporary art system reveals this notion to be delusional.“When I entered the art world, famous critics had an aura of power”, recalls ArtBasel director Samuel Keller. “Now they’re more like philosophers—respected, but not as powerful as collectors, dealers or curators. Nobody fears critics any more, which is a real danger sign for the profession.”

At one fundamental level—money—critics are scarcely valued either. Even the swankiest art publications, such as Art Forum, Frieze and Art in America pay only $100 to $150 per freelance review. “I’ve never made a really viable living while working in art publishing and writing art criticism in New York for the past decade, which makes me feel rather powerless”, says critic Sarah Valdez, whose writing appears regularly in Art in America and Paper magazine. “I know that galleries and artists might benefit financially if I review a show positively. But to consider this ‘a position of power’ would be for me—or any critic—completely ludicrous.” Not surprisingly, arts criticism today tends to be a stepping-stone toward more stable and remunerative employment, such as academia (Daniel Birnbaum of the Städelschule Frankfurt), art consulting (Allan Schwartzman, for clients such as Brazilian tycoon Bernardo Paz) or art dealing (Christian Viveros-Fauné of New York’s Roebling Hall galleries).

Only a fool goes into the arts for the money, of course; prestige is the bigger draw. For centuries, criticism functioned as the rough draft of art history, drubbing out bad work while championing the innovative and accomplished. Yet today we have no Clement Greenberg laying down the law on Modernism or Pierre Restany defining New Realism. “By the time I began writing about art in New York—during the 1980s East Village scene—it seemed as though the critics wielded a different kind of influence than those of previous generations”, recalls Calvin Reid, an artist and critic for publications including Art in America and Artnet. “Critical influence was a version of enlightened public relations, as critics became more informational, less purely analytic and less imperial in their impact on an artist’s perceived value and level of public attention. And dealers certainly became more important, aggressively pushing their actual and perceived power to put an artist in the limelight.”

Granted, today’s critics still have the power of directing their spotlight. “I can’t tell you how often I go into a museum or gallery and have someone practically beg for coverage”, points out Tyler Green, the Bloomberg News art critic better known for his blog Modern Art Notes. “There are so many galleries and museums, and such a limited number of media outlets, that they all fight for whatever reviews they can get.”

But curators usually beat critics to the punch when it comes to “making” artists. Long before reviewers started weighing in on P.S.1’s “Greater New York” show, which opened in March, there was a half-year hype during which galleries and collectors swarmed the studios of the artists selected for inclusion. In that sense, on the day in 1969 that Harald Szeemann went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turned against criticism. Other curators soon followed his lead, working unfettered by a single institution’s constraints. “The role of the critic has been gradually taken over by the curator”, notes Stockholm’s Power Ekroth, who writes criticism for artforum.com, edits Site magazine, and also curates exhibitions. “The curator builds up a career by becoming the new stronghold for validation of taste. The curator is also closer to the artist, because where the critic is trying to be ‘objective’ the curator is clearly subjective.”

Even collectors have jumped into this fray, canvassing the globe for discoveries. Thus, by the time many foreign artists hit the New York/London axis, their markets are already burgeoning and their exhibition schedules set; the reviewers come too late to the party. “Personally I don’t feel I have any power at all”, says Italian critic Michele Robecchi, senior editor of London’s Contemporary magazine. “There are critics who think they do, but even a major magazine feature is unlikely to change your life or that of the artist, big-picture wise. As far as I’m concerned, the only people in a position of power are the great artists.” Tellingly, Madrid’s ARCO, which boasts the most ambitious discussion programme of any art fair, held only one panel on arts criticism this February, compared to six on collecting art and five on curating. (Full disclosure: I was on that criticism panel, despite being only an occasional critic.)

Ultimately, the critic seems trapped in an inherently reactive and ever-more marginalised position. After all, the function of critics has remained largely static while the art world metastasised, growing too big to allow them any real overview, charging too fast for their publication deadlines and developing a slew of new information channels that bypass critics altogether. Not so long ago, Europeans depended upon travelling critics to relate the latest developments in New York or London. Today, fairs and biennials function as seasonal trend updates, and anyone curious about a faraway show can simply hit the gallery’s website for JPGs and a press release.

Of course, that’s not the same as reading a thorough review. Which brings us to another problem for critics: scanning is rapidly replacing reading. One major New York dealer recalls surreal results after the first show by the gallery’s new star was pole-axed by The New York Times. “For two weeks people called up to congratulate me on the ‘great review’ ”, the dealer recalls, requesting anonymity (clearly, critics retain some power). “They only registered the review’s existence, not the reviewer’s opinion.” Based on personal experience, Ms Valdez sees things similarly. “The problem is not that critics are disempowered so much as the fact that people are generally intellectually lazy”, she states. “That said, even I have to admit it’s hard to stay awake reading most art reviews.”

Indeed, while external factors undermine the impact of critics, their often impenetrable writing hardly helps matters. British author Simon Winchester, a man sufficiently literate to have traced the Oxford English Dictionary’s origins, once set himself the task of parsing esteemed critic Benjamin Buchloh’s texts. After two years, he abandoned the mission, confessing that Buchloh “remains as obscure and unyielding for me as Assyrian or the grass script of the early Chinese”. An extreme example, perhaps. Yet it hardly seems coincidence that the English-language critics commonly cited as being influential—Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice, Roberta Smith and Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times, Adrian Searle and Jonathan Jones of The Guardian and Richard Dorment of The Daily Telegraph—all work for mass-market newspapers, forcing them to weave even their most complex ideas into a prose stripped bare of indigestible artspeak.

Just as importantly, to have an impact critics need to criticise, and far too much of today’s art writing, especially in art magazines, is merely descriptive or context-giving. Sometimes this stems from a theoretical notion that “judging” work is passé, but many observers suspect more practical considerations are at play. “I don’t think of the art-magazine critics as critics, really”, says one veteran London gallerist. “They’re part of the scene and always seem to be thinking more about their other options in the art world.”

Professional entanglements run rife between critics and the galleries whose works they review. Few critics have staff positions in galleries, but many do short-term business with them, either for curatorial gigs or while writing catalogue essays. In a classic 2002 Village Voice column, “Learning on the Job,” Saltz derided that practice: “The writer acts as a paid gun or apologist, not a critic; what he or she writes must be approved to be published. Perhaps critics’ fees should be printed along with their essays, as artists’ prices are available on gallery checklists.”

Yes, there is a difference between impropriety and the appearance of impropriety. I raised the catalogue-essay issue during the ARCO panel, and Adrian Searle told me to “Grow up”, remonstrating that he had curated shows and contributed to catalogues without compromising his independence—an assessment his loyal fans (including me) would accept. That said, no reputable magazine would employ a film critic pitching Hollywood scripts, a music critic doing A&R work, or an author reviewing books by other members of his publisher’s stable. How weird has critical ethics grown? In a 2002 survey conducted by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, only 20% of American critics polled felt it was never acceptable to write about artists whose works they owned or collect.

The art world, like any organism, requires a certain amount of pruning to stay healthy. So the disempowerment of critics—our putative pruners—should cause concern. What is to be done for them to remain relevant? Paying a living wage would help. Failing that unlikely development, conflicts of interest should be signalled to the readers. (And perhaps when the full-disclosure notice starts getting embarrassingly long, everyone involved will think better of an assignment). Obviously, an unremitting emphasis on clear, compelling writing would give critics some chance of actually being read.

But in a system with so many intertwined players, the one power critics can really exploit is that of rendering independent judgment. Flinching critics do no one in the art world any favours; when almost every review is positive, then no review means much. As for fears of bruising fragile egos and thereby imperiling art’s progress, consider the words of William Kentridge: “No critic’s review of an exhibition has ever been harsher than what that artist has dreamt up at 3a.m. on his own.”

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