The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 12-JAN 13

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DEC 12-JAN 13 Issue

Re: Art Criticism Today

1. What should art criticism be doing?

The most important thing criticism can do is to interest readers in what artists do best, which is make art. I sincerely believe arts advocacy is the first order of business for criticism—art is too important an experience for mankind for it to be fenced off by class, an academy, or the market. The excitement of art, as well as its foibles, should be shared with as wide a public as possible. With that primary purpose in mind, I’d add that an art critic also has a responsibility to write well, issue judgments, entertain, and provide insights, the last of these being by far the most important of the critic’s secondary responsibilities. Critics, like Christopher Columbus, are often second-hand discoverers of the great, essential, non-instrumental truths about art. As Milan Kundera once said, at his or her best, the critic is a discoverer of discoveries.

2. What are the issues or polemics, if any, for art criticism?

Art’s position vis-à-vis the market is the most important issue for art criticism to address today. Put in Andy Warhol lingo, the question is this: After “the best kind of art” becomes “business art,” what then? How can art possibly reassume a critical position in the culture after the total commercialization of the avant-garde?

3. Is there a crisis in criticism?

There is an epistemic crisis of historical proportions everywhere, so of course this affects art and art criticism. We went from an age of postmodern relativism to recently recognizing that particularly Nietzschean strain of anti-universalist thinking for what it is: cultural conservatism in a countercultural garb. In the words of Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism. Crisis, therefore, is bound to be one of the chief experiences communicated by criticism today, both in art and in its own, far more fragile practice. I don’t believe judgment should be the primary value of art criticism, but it remains—like writing itself or informed thought—a sine qua non for the entire discipline. Thirty years of cultural relativism have not necessarily begotten a more equanimous, less tendentious kind of criticism. Instead, it’s produced both a kind of judgment that shelters beneath a hermetic crust of jargon and unintelligibility, and a more generalized atrophying of critical faculties. It’s a good critic’s job to address those and other manifestations of the crisis in criticism and in art, while always keeping an eye peeled to culture’s larger narratives. Just like in our present day, they are always related.

6. How would you define yourself as a critic? Reviewer? Essayist? Theorist? Artist-critic? Blogger?

I’m a critic who aims to write about the world via the lens of art.

7. For what audience do you write?

I write for a general audience and try to do so using direct, accessible language for sophisticated ideas. I generally tell people that I write for anyone smart enough to be interested in art.

8. Has the Internet been good or bad for art criticism? Does it raise the issue of elitism versus populism?

The Internet, like a horse-drawn buggy or an automobile, is a vehicle for whatever kind of driver takes the reins. As such, it’s neither good nor bad for anything, nevermind art criticism. I would say, though, that the effects of the Internet’s constant use for activities that masquerade as cultural criticism via blogging, Twitter, and Facebook posts, generally don’t encourage criticism so much as self-advertising. The Internet has spurred on an explosion of data heretofore unseen in human history (IBM scientists recently calculated that humans currently generate as much information in two days as the world produced from the beginning of recorded time to the year 2003). The problem with that insane surfeit of data—in general and within the mini-microcosm that is the field of art criticism—is that it generally does not translate into actual information. For that you need a community of considered argument, hopefully well-written, which is the opposite of what you have today on the Web, which is largely self-expression. The Internet is a case of technology outstripping the cultural conditions of its age.

9. How do you deal with the proliferating mediums in the art world today?

Well, art can truly be anything, which is a truly exciting idea. Surprise is one of the most important elements of art. The proliferation of media in art merely increases the chances for surprises.

11. How has the enormous growth of the art world changed art criticism?

Not very much. The commercialization of yesterday’s avant-garde routinely gives art and the art world lots of column inches, but I don’t see that changing the consensus among art writers or editors to be any more critical about what is clearly a dominant, ethically challenged mode of art production, promotion, and sales today. Like with our current system of art production, folks seem resigned to a very mediocre status quo. Also, in my experience very few commentators (Jerry Saltz being the significant exception) have cottoned onto the idea that the growth of the art world necessarily means that there is another, wider audience out there who is interested in art and that may be swayed by convincing arguments that art can be much more than just an economic asset or a positional good.


Christian Viveros-Faune


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 12-JAN 13

All Issues