But there is much missing in art criticism today. The lack of a viable and vocal conservative position is one thing. Mr. Martinez, as it happens, was also on the panel, and decried the fact that there is “a lot of lip service paid to progressive politics” at the moment. As in American politics, the absence of a sensible conservative position has led to all sorts of lazy thinking among almost uniformly liberal art critics and historians.
In an era that has been reduced to enduring spectacles like New York critic Jerry Saltz dueling with arch-conservative Glenn Beck, reading artist-writer Mira Schor in this month’s Artforum discussing the legacies of conservative critics Robert Hughes and (onetime Observer writer) Hilton Kramer felt positively surreal. Here were two people, once giants, who had consigned themselves to ever-shrinking marginality during their long careers by being unable to change and defending opinions on art and identity that could at best, as Ms. Schor said, be defined as “retrograde.” No one meaningful has stepped in to take up their positions in fresh ways.
Both men “mourned the passage of historically based criteria,” Mr. Schor noted, and it is here that their example seems most important, in a time when many critics have jettisoned any serious notion of such criteria for evaluating works of art. The curator and historian Amelia Jones, who was also on the panel, called on critics to think self-reflexively about their work, considering not only the quality of the art they review, but also the quality of the values by which they evaluate art in their reviews.
Mr. Martinez brought up the recent controversy surrounding two articles by Times critic Ken Johnson that some have accused of being racist and misogynistic. (If you thought art criticism didn’t matter, your mind would have been changed by watching certain Twitter feeds during that week last November.) Like many of the artists in one of the shows Mr. Johnson reviewed, “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980,” Mr. Martinez is based in L.A., and on the panel he said that he kept hearing from colleagues in New York about how upset people were. At first he didn’t understand why they felt so strongly. He spoke with four L.A. artists in the show who seemed unconcerned. Finally, he said, a colleague told him, “Daniel, it’s The New York fucking Times.” That drove it home. An entire organization had let those reviews run as they were. “There is an institutionalized racism that has not been addressed,” he said. “There is an institutionalized misogyny that has not been addressed. There is an institutionalized homophobia that has not been addressed. It runs rampant.”
That experience, he said at another point during the panel, made him wonder “who we are and what we have become as an art world. What do we expect of our critics; what do we expect of our artists? What is it that we want to build for ourselves?”
Art criticism, like art, can provide a forum in which we can play out various political and societal tensions using what Ms. Kraus called “contemporary art’s coded and infinitely malleable discourse.” But it needs in some way to circle back into broader discussions. And here art criticism—like the art industry in general—has a long way to go.
“Quite honestly, if you just take a tiny peek around this room,” Mr. Martinez said, “when people say that it’s a Caucasian art world, they’re not joking. I can count, what, three black people in the room, if I’m lucky? What does that mean to anyone? Nothing, because everyone is going to go back to their jobs.”
“Someday, maybe, it will change,” he added. “I’ve been waiting.”
Zoë Lescaze contributed reporting.