What’s So Important About Criticism?

What follows is a relatively contrarian stance toward art criticism and the role of critics today.

To begin with, as a critic, editor, and simple enthusiast, I find criticism to be an often delightful form of self-indulgence—one that allows me to set forth a problem for myself and then figure out how to solve it. There are no absolutes, no real rights or wrongs in such investigations. Obviously, what I consider good or bad art is not agreed upon by everyone. In fact, I don’t think the majority of people share my likes and dislikes. So it’s incumbent upon me to argue well on behalf of the art that interests me and hope to make a case for it.

My concern is not with the importance of criticism as a vehicle for making judgments so much as with finding ways of figuring out what artists, curators, and even institutions intend, and both determine and explain how it is perceived or even successfully misperceived.

In that way we can start a discussion, which I believe is the most anyone can hope for. It’s the true calling of criticism. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that almost no one would die without it.

I also don’t believe that the problems in art criticism today are particularly different from those of the past, though indeed the art being produced has evolved to include a vast range of new media that critics must explore, study, or ignore, but at the very least, acknowledge.

Despite the nearly unfathomable variety of artists and art we write about and our equally diverse audiences—so global that we can’t even pronounce their names—there is a level at which art speaks directly to all of us and piques our intuitive critical sensibilities. We’re entitled to hold both informed and uninformed opinions, since once the art is out in the world, it belongs equally to everyone. Sometimes we have to risk being wrong, but must at least make a valiant argument. Guided and misguided through such vehicles as the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook, we pursue the information that abounds, giving us almost ample opportunity to learn about our subjects and our audiences, who have access to that same material.

Criticism should not be a performance opportunity for writers, who compete with the artists under consideration—often at the expense of the art. In this universe of bloggers and blabbers with equal accessibility to every means of self-promotion, the temptation to speak out and show off without any form of editing is huge. The result can be a cacophonous symphony of unmodulated voices all drowning one another out and signifying nothing.

The thrill of writing about art today, whether as a journalist, a theorist, a popularizer, an art-loving enthusiast, or simply a critic, is that we are free to write and communicate whatever we wish to whatever audience we choose. It’s very democratic, and the most or best we as critics can do is communicate as directly and clearly as possible in the plainest language.

Contributor

Barbara A. MacAdam

BARBARA A. MACADAM is Deputy Editor of ARTnews and has edited and written for a number of magazines and newspapers on art, design, and literature, including Art + Auction, the New York Times Book Review, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, andthe Los Angeles Times Book Review, among others

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