Critical Actsby Richard Kalina
In a multitudinous, barely focused art world, tempted, harassed, validated, and supported by market forces, the place of the art critic is maddeningly difficult to pin down. The profession, such as it is, is in a state of perpetual flux, with marginalization an always looming possibility. There are more venues, arguably fewer readers, and certainly less money. Putting aside issues of self-aggrandizement, self-expression, and career advancement, why then do we do it? It might be wise to posit something (foolishly?) idealistic: we have a higher purpose; we work for the greater good; we serve Art. How then to thread our way, honorably, through the thicket—to make a contribution to culture and understanding without succumbing to mere market enabling? The task of the critic is as ever—to mix explication of the work itself, contextual positioning, and value judgment—all in the proper amounts. Merely rendering quality verdicts (generally positive) in an environment that seems to value the ahistorical is the surest way to debase criticism. For freshly minted art this is a real temptation and even citing a work in history has its pitfalls, for it means giving that work a pedigree and therefore more value. In any case, new art functions perfectly well in the absence of criticism. Not that you shouldn’t have that criticism, but new art will be made and exhibited anyway. Older art is often another story, and critics, I believe, have a special obligation to it.
Even though I am interested in the wide stream of the present, happy to sample a cross-section of the plentiful flow of art being made today, I feel that I serve best by acting as a mediator between past and present, helping to recalibrate that art which stands between its prior set of interpretations and ones that we might make now. An ongoing engagement with art history allows us to measure things in a more nuanced contextual way, and when combined with the looser methodological structure and the quicker publication time of art criticism, things tend to get done relatively thoroughly and efficiently. I am most comfortable dealing with the relatively recent past—art that had its genesis in the forty or so postwar years, and art for which the thrill of discovery is augmented by the thrill of rediscovery. That focus is necessarily broadened by critical contact with art from both the early modern period and from the immediate present. As I write this, for example, I am working on a review of a biography of Cézanne. While scarcely a painter up for revision, an examination of Cézanne’s work, and to a lesser extent his life, rhetoric, and the history that surrounds him leads me to the question of just what it was about Cézanne that engendered such enthusiastic and continuing appreciation by artists, and intriguingly, why has that appreciation so often been couched in unhelpful, wooly generalities? What, if anything, does it say about the nature of painting then and now? If Cézanne has given painters a set of practical, non-mystical tools, tools as usable today as they were then, what kind of indeterminacy is embedded in them that makes clear explanation so elusive? This is a question of both historical and—with painting being contested territory these days—contemporary interest; for essentially everything in criticism leads to the present—sometimes directly, sometimes circuitously. It is the critic’s job to keep art in play, to ignore expiration dates, to question the assumptions that render art too readily comprehensible. Art criticism exists in an uneasy partnership with artists, art works, and institutions. It is important to go where you are needed, not just where you are wanted. It really doesn’t matter what the publication format is—book, catalog, periodical, online journal, blog; or the medium of the art considered. What is key is that art’s standing as the ongoing visual manifestation of intellectual history never be diminished, that utility does not replace revelation or—and I think there is no contradiction here—pleasure. It is not unreasonable to point out that there is a moral element to this. A critic, by looking, thinking and writing, acts. And those acts, just as much as the art examined, are subject to judgment and critique. This is the point of it all, the validation of the profession.
RICHARD KALINA is a painter and critic. He is a Contributing Editor at Art in America and is represented by the Lennon, Weinberg Gallery in New York. He is Professor of Art at Fordham University, where he teaches art history and studio art.