Clichés Lead Critics Down Slippery Slopeby Blake Gopnik
I’m so fond of my now-endangered profession as a mass-media art critic that I don’t want to see massive changes to it. I merely want to see its content transformed.
Here we are as popular critics, speaking to a bigger audience than anyone else in the art world—and to an audience with fewer preconceptions and a greater need for knowledge—and mostly what we give them is pablum. We reheat critical clichés that would fail a graduate student out of any decent art history program. Rather than trying to advance our culture’s collective knowledge of art by finding something truly new and important to say, most of us, most of the time, seem content to carry old bromides forward.
It’s not just that we don’t manage to say anything enlightening about art; it’s that even attempting to do so seems to have been defined out of the profession. There was a time when Clement Greenberg’s latest ideas where laid before the readers of Vogue. What are the chances that the mass audience for today’s magazines and newspapers (let alone popular web sites) will ever hear equally vital and timely ideas about art? The ideas are out there, spread here and there across academic art history and the specialist press, but we pop critics seem content to ignore them. Worse, by doing that, we’re telling our readers that works of art aren’t supposed to trigger new ideas, but are supposed to call up the same thoughts we’ve already thought—that Rembrandt is about “the timeless human condition” or that Monet captures the “true nature of color and light.” By being lazy critics, we’re teaching our audiences to be lazy consumers of art.
I’m willing to blame the demise of the pop art critic on the Internet, or on editors determined to dumb down, or even on bored readers more interested in prices than art. But there’s also a chance that, by setting our sights so very low, we critics have removed most reasons for our jobs to exist. Of course, if we’re the cause of our own downfall, we might also bring about our salvation. I imagine a future where every time you scan the popular press, you’re confronted with new insights into art.
A much longer treatment of these issues will be published in the upcoming anthology The ART of Critique/ Re-imagining Art Criticism and Art Student Critique, but can be read for now at BlakeGopnik.com/ArtIssues.
BLAKE GOPNIK has been the staff art critic for the Globe and Mail in Toronto, Washington Post, and Newsweek.