The Value of Criticism

Below is my contribution to ‘The Value of Criticism,’ an event that took place at the Glucksman in Cork and featured some really insightful contributions from a lot of people working in or around art criticism in Ireland. The topic of our (Brian Fay, Declan Long & I) panel was ‘Who is Criticism For?’ and as you can see, I responded to this pretty tangentially. Hopefully I can write something about the day as a whole soon.

The subject of today’s conference, ‘the value of criticism’ is, to my mind, a more positive rephrasing of the so-called ‘crisis’ of criticism, which gained currency – particularly in the wake of the roundtable published in October in 2002. In 2008 at UCC a similar event to this one took place – even featuring some of the same participants – and culminating in a book (edited by James Elkins and Michael Newman) called The State of Art Criticism. Last year, I contributed to another panel discussion, ‘What do you expect from art criticism?’ (organised by Paper Visual Art Journal) alongside some more of the participants here today. I also vaguely remember a similar event taking place at the Lab – with more familiar faces – in 2011.

In short, there seems to be a constant, maybe even paranoid, need to rehearse the value and stakes of art criticism. Increasingly, though, such a need is moving towards outlining the practical expectations of it, rather than revolving around the theme of crisis. I’m thinking in particular of something like Gilda Williams’ 2014 book How to Write about Contemporary Art. However, if we’re still trying to articulate its specific value, it could be argued that the theme of crisis has not been fully dealt with. Perhaps it is a healthy self-criticality, but on the other hand, has there ever been a conference on the value of painting, for example?

I’m going to park this for today, as it’s the topic of my PhD research and I don’t want to go there. Today, the question is: who is art criticism for? The temptation here is to talk about audience, which I don’t want to think about – it is already well tread. For me, the imperative to think about your audience is a tiresome one: it’s probably much more beneficial to think about the art (or your editor). The audience generally follows from these considerations.

This ‘who’ is of course related to the ‘why’ of art criticism, and seems to frame the debate so as to name a particular group of people that art criticism is for. At the same time, it seems to work to divide art criticism’s reach down the middle – into those it is for, and those it is not. The question, then, is centred on the use-of criticism, assuming that art criticism only becomes useful in its orientation towards an audience, which is a typical enough assumption, I guess. Received wisdom says that something becomes valuable only through its reception. As something without an audience, then, art criticism is somewhat pointless. My question, though, is: is art criticism actually useless by virtue of it being for no one, if it never gets read?

The short answer is no. Thinking and writing about art are always valuable. This does not mean that the art criticism in question is good, per se, but simply that it is valuable to think and write about art. Hinging its importance to an audience means to deny that fact. It also means to suggest value where often there is none.

Most of what we do these days is treated as useful only by virtue of its use-value. Numbers matter: targets: “reaching” people. We can sense this in the art criticism of Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, for example, who surely composes his reviews to be as inflammatory as possible. When Jones writes texts with names like ‘Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries’ or (a personal favourite) ‘The artist who lays eggs with her vagina – or why performance art is silly’ (2014) – he – and the Guardian – seem to pre-empt its audience negatively – gleefully anticipating its incredulity. It is art criticism as click-bait. Jones could have readers than his colleague Adrian Searle – he is there to perform the role of provocateur – but does this make Jones the better critic? Probably not.

Let’s take another extreme example: the American book reviewer Harriet Klausner (pictured above), who wrote a staggering 31,014 unpaid reviews for Amazon before her death in 2015. Back in 2006 a journalist from Time magazine described Klausner as:

…part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don’t care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They’re increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can’t match. They’re not fancy. They don’t have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do [i].

Now, by rights, Klausner should have been the most influential book critic in the world, shaping popular taste to hitherto unknown heights. But she wasn’t. Instead, and in contrast with the view of the above journalist, people still look to the professionals, people who work to define ideas about art – and indeed are paid to do so.

And so, whilst it is important that as many people as possible read art criticism – I for one think its is a valuable thing to do – its value should not be dependent on people reading it. Of course, the same applies to art: gauging something’s value by merit of attendance figures and press coverage is painfully reductive. It is a much more diffuse affair.

The critic and curator Morgan Quaintance, writing recently for e-flux, described a creeping conservatism that he perceived in architectural collective Assemble’s Turner Prize win, in late 2015[ii]. Their win, he says, represents a keen desire for art to do something; to produce some kind of tangible, public good. In so doing, it negates the fundamental radicality of art as something that is basically useless. Such a view can be seen slipping into the discourse of art criticism, too, as it grows increasingly professionalised. It needs to do something. More and more art critics become curators. But the inherent radicality of art criticism is its basic uselessness – the fact that no one, not really, reads it. It is a relatively free space.

Dave Beech, writing in a recent issue of Art Monthly[iii], describes art criticism in very familiar terms to mine. He says that the art that he is interested in, typically conceptual, tends to require further reading before he can write about it. Essentially, that reading helps him to understand the art better; that there is in fact little to be gained from looking at this kind of art for an extended period of time. For this kind of art, its sense is to be felt through reading, and then writing, about it. This view repurposes art criticism as an almost selfish activity, working to subjectively unearth this or that work of art. As an activity, it becomes almost completely self-sufficient, taking cues from the artwork in extending it. And indeed, this is something that I’ve found more and more recently. More and more, it is when I get home that I begin to understand the work better. I can’t perform in the gallery. Thinking that question again – who is art criticism for – it seems mostly to be me. I accepted that not many people read my writing a few years back.

In fact I want to conclude with the hypothesis that art criticism might be for no one and, at the same time, everyone. This is of course a difficult position to uphold – that something can be useful by virtue of it being useless. And yet everyone in this room wants to be here, and wants to talk about art criticism – as something that still performs in the world. Art criticism doesn’t have to have a quantifiable use to matter. It doesn’t have to bend to a managerial logic of numbers – of “outreach” – but can in fact seek out new ways of defining value. Or not!

[i] L. Grossman, 2006, ‘Harriet Klausner’. Time, December 16th 2006, available at http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570726,00.html

[ii] ‘Teleology and the Turner Prize or: Utility, the New Conservatism’. E-flux conversations, 2nd December 2015, available at http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/teleology-and-the-turner-prize-or-utility-the-new-conservatism/2936

[iii] ‘On Critique’. Art Monthly no. 393 (February 2016)

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2 thoughts on “The Value of Criticism

  1. “Jones could have readers than his colleague Adrian Searle – he is there to perform the role of provocateur – but does this make Jones the better critic? Probably not.”

    One issue that must be addressed, when considering the despair that this piece seems to encompass is how the writer herself continually calls for “more,” while absenting it from the above sentence.

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