New York Artists Now

At the CAA, Critics Debate the State of the Genre

“Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody,” Holland Cotter told a crowd in a ballroom at the New York Hilton in Midtown last Thursday. “All you art lovers.”

There were scattered chuckles from around 200 art historians who had decided to spend more than two hours of that special day listening to The New York Times’s co-chief art critic chair a panel as part of the 101st annual conference of the College Art Association, called “Art Criticism: Taking a Pulse.”

That’s not a particularly sexy topic these days, when many believe that criticism is in a state of crisis or, worse, has been effectively neutered by the power of wealthy collectors and globe-trotting curators. But here we all were.

“This is like the lamest, most played-out theme that I can imagine,” one of the panelists, Artinfo’s executive editor Ben Davis, declared. He went on to bemoan the classic and still-pervasive idea that art criticism should aim merely to shape the course of the market. That’s the romantic notion of critic as vigilante, bringing frontier justice to the lawless art world: “It’s our job to hurt you,” as Dave Hickey characterized his vision of the dynamic between critic and artist in an interview last year.

By that fairly depressing measure, criticism is in trouble. These days, art that many critics agree is terrible is selling for outlandish sums of money. (Never mind that art dealers will tell you that certain reviews—at least remarkably positive ones from major critics at major outlets—can lead to sales.)

So what do we actually want from our critics today, and what can they realistically provide? What needs to change for them to be able to deliver the goods?

A perfectly honorable mission for them, Mr. Davis argued, is to be “ambassadors for things that are hard to explain, but interesting.” They can, in other words, strive to be honest and reliable witnesses. (“An artist needs a public,” as one audience member said during the Q&A period.) And yet many interesting shows in this town come and go without so much as a single substantive review.

“History is always in flux,” Roberta Smith, Mr. Cotter’s co-chief colleague at The Times, wrote in her review of A.R. Penck’s current gallery doubleheader last week. “Each rewriting, like each writing, will be reworked by subsequent generations.” Unless young critics—this one included—grow more venturesome in their interests, these rewrites will become more difficult. That does not mean reviewing shows at random, but it does mean ranging widely.

It also means that critics need to be willing to write and think in terms of a long view, not just using the latest trends, obvious connections and bits of gossip to make their cases. As artist Liam Gillick recently told Creative Time curator Nato Thompson in an interview of his own hopes for his practice, critics need to “Get the discussion out of the last 10 years, or the last five years, or the last Art Basel Miami art fair.”

The redoubtable Chris Kraus, sitting a few seats down from Mr. Davis, called for something far grander and potentially more fruitful for art critics than serving merely a journalistic, ambassadorial role. “One of art criticism’s grave limitations is its inability to look beyond its own context and language,” she said. Instead she spoke of art writing, which, in her understanding of it, encompasses broader forms and addresses art—sometimes even by being art itself—in new ways.

Such work is happening at the moment, but only rarely, and with too little notice. Much of it is coming from artists such as Bjarne Melgaard—whose recent book, the teasingly autobiographical A New Novel by Bjarne Melgaard (2012), could be read as a fantastical (and unashamedly sexually explicit) examination of the contemporary art world’s machinations—and the anonymous authors of blogs like Art Observations with Jerry Magoo and C-a-n-v-a-s,
who attack artists with a vicious glee that would be difficult to offer in more public formats.

Art criticism can also—and, in some rare instances, continues to—provide calls to arms, enlarging discussions by bringing in histories that are otherwise out of fashion. Mr. Cotter did so this past weekend in his largely positive review of the New Museum’s “NYC 1993,” in which he accused the museum of a failure of nerve in installing far from the front windows—its originally intended location—a text piece by the artist Daniel Joseph Martinez that read, “In the rich man’s house the only place to spit is in his face.”

“Inspire a conversation, a big one, about art and its many kinds of politics and who writes the stories, and why,” Mr. Cotter concluded. “That’s what we need from our museums and our sharp young curators on the scene today.” His words resonated. No sooner had his review gone online Thursday night than multiple colleagues emailed it to me. A discussion was already taking place.

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