Re: Art Criticism Today

1. What should art criticism be doing?

For me, art criticism is in dialogue with art, but also with culture. It is not merely “supporting” or “evaluating” art, but describing how it functions within and as a form of culture. It is also a form of writing. Hence, art criticism may be evaluative; it may be tied to the market; it may be a provisional history or a sketch for an essay or theory—or a piece of literature.

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

That it remain responsive rather than prescriptive. That it start with art and work outward, rather than imposing its views and biases upon art.

3. Is there a crisis in criticism?

Not per se. There is a crisis in culture and society brought on by capitalism and the failure of neoliberalism, “democracy,” electoral politics, and many other systems and institutions. Any crisis in art or culture is merely a symptom of that larger crisis.

4. Has art criticism been marginalized in the art world consensus? Is it influential in terms of what readers think and do?

Yes. Given my experience as a critic, writing matters a great deal. This does not mean that it directly influences the market, art history, or critical consensus, but it still matters to many artists, curators, and other writers. I also saw a work in a museum recently that I am quite certain was purchased at an art fair because another writer and I mentioned it. Because of what it was (a cleverly crafted plantation desk) and who made it (a 19th-century African-American slave), I was not at all upset about possibly participating in “the market” or “canonization.”

5. Who and what is an art critic?

An art critic is a person who writes seriously about contemporary art. More loosely, “everyone’s a critic” in the same way “everyone’s an artist.” Writing is hard work, however, and criticism is not a well-compensated field, and so my greatest respect is for those who remain engaged and writing about contemporary art for decades—regardless of their views or positions.

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

All of the above, except blogger (although most of my writing appears online.) I have written thousands of reviews; I write essays and am finishing a “late” Ph.D. in art history; I am an artist (or “artist”) in two genres, music and fiction; and I adhere to Oscar Wilde’s idea of the “critic as artist.”

7. For what audience do you write?

Literally: An audience of 18 million online readers at a 10th Grade reading level (the New York Times) and a combined general-and-specialized New York audience with Left and far-Left leanings (the Village Voice); Hypothetically: My peers—people with a similar interest in art—myself, and future generations.

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

Good. Its populism has forced “elite” organs to be more populist and populist ones to be, on the best occasions, more rigorous.

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

I trust artists to show me what is interesting and I enjoy being challenged to consider how expanded forms of art making affect criticism. For instance, a recent argument is whether so-called social practice demands a different kind of criticism, which eradicates the need for judgment and evaluation and considers instead whether a work accomplishes anything of social value.

10. How has globalization of art and the art world changed art criticism?

It has created a lingua franca of art that can be recognized at the global level. On the negative side, this leads to homogenization or what artist Joe Scanlan has described as “The Average.” For criticism, it creates the illusion that one can master a global field of art, from Los Angeles to Dubai to Beijing. This is a fallacy: I am a local critic whose beat has expanded exponentially over the course of her career; there is more art in New York than one human being can ever possibly see. On the positive side, it makes me rely on local critics around the world to describe the work that is vital in their contexts and bolsters the argument for well-written and informed criticism.

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

See above.

12. How do art magazine policies affect art criticism?

Like galleries or museums, they have programs and prejudices. (And they rely on advertising revenues.) I also feel that they are not the places where the most exciting art criticism is being published today. I am very late in saying this; many people have been making this claim for decades.

13. Are gender-based and political issues still viable in art criticism today?

Absolutely. With a majority of female students in art school and a majority of male artists showing in galleries, museums, and biennials, we have a problem in the art world that feminism did not fix. My decisions on what to write about—when I am free to make them—are often (usually) based on politics. Similarly, I am a little surprised to reach middle age and find that most of the chief-critics in this city are still straight white men.

14. s it a function of art criticism to analyze art world institutions?

A questionnaire I answered a few years ago asked a similar question, and I will repeat my answer here: “Art exists in context. Art journalists/reporters tend to cover these issues, but when [the issues] spill into the exhibition space, that becomes the province of critics.” In other words, when the container spills into the art-space, you can’t ignore the container. Art world institutions are tied to other institutions, and as Occupy and many other recent movements and uprisings have demonstrated, we have a global institutions problem. As a writer, I feel it is my job to articulate these problems and to take a stand, when I can. In my estimation, that is following Baudelaire’s timeless imperative to write criticism that is “passionate, partial, and political.”

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Martha Schwendener

MARTHA SCHWENDENER is a critic living in Brooklyn and a Ph.D. candidate in the art history program at the CUNY Graduate Center.