Who Do You Write For? 3 More Critics Respond
Part Two of our survey of influential critics features Laura Cumming of “The Observer”, Dutch critic Hans den Hartog Jager, and Elena Vozmediano of Spain’s “El Cultural”.
What purpose do you think your criticism serves? Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
Art Critic, The Observer
I believe that the art critic has three responsibilities: to the artist, to the reader and to herself. In the first instance, my job is to work out what the artist is aiming to create and whether he or she has succeeded. In the second instance, I must create a written parallel to the gallery experience for those who are thinking of going, may never get there or wouldn’t contemplate going in the first place; and this written parallel should incorporate my judgement about what the artist had in mind and how far it succeeded. Finally, I must write the best piece I can, with the most precise evocation of what I have seen, and what I think of it, with a view to enlightening a highly educated and interested readership, and drawing them close to the art. Above all, I must tell the truth.
Laura Cumming is art critic of The Observer and author of A Face to The World: On Self-Portraits (2009).
Hans den Hartog Jager
Art Critic, NRC Handelsblad
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Culture is conversation. I know it may sound dull as an opening statement, but I truly believe this bare, essential fact is much too often overlooked amid all the chattering and contemplating on contemporary art. Of course, art criticism has often been declared dead – as dead as painting, photography and installation art – but at the same time I’ve always felt that even the most cynical cultural gravediggers needed a lot of words, a lot of conversation, in order to get their opinions heard. Living men lie on the ground and keep on screaming that they’re dead.
Culture – whether a novel, a theory or an art work – lives when it succeeds in penetrating that thick, mushy cloud we call ‘conversation’, when people feel the urge to think about it, to formulate opinions about it, or to engage with it one way or the other. Of course, you can joke about that, call it naïve, but in the end those conversations, whether written or spoken, are still one of the most interesting, most challenging, most fulfilling things one can do in life. At least they are for me.
As an art critic, writing for such different publications as NRC Handelsblad (a large Dutch newspaper), Vogue and Artforum, I have the opportunity to let my voice be heard relatively loudly. This privilege, I think, is best used by understanding art criticism as an exchange of ideas among the work, the reader and myself. When writing, I’m always aware that a work of art never lets itself be caught in one description or one vision, whether art-historical, aesthetical or philosophical. Looking, thinking and writing about art is a journey, and as a critic, the most important thing I want to do is give my readers an account of that voyage – what I find and see on my way, what it does to me and whether it is enjoyable, challenging or disappointing. If I do my work well, it will help start a conversation or give the already-existing conversation a push. It may not be much, but it does make you feel alive.
Hans den Hartog Jager is a writer and art critic based in Amsterdam. He writes for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Vogue and Artforum, among others. His latest book is The Sublime (2011), an essay on the meaning of beauty in conceptual art.
Visual Arts Critic, El Cultural
I write for a cultural supplement, which means that I address readers that may not be art experts but are surely interested in cultural matters. All the sections in the magazine – literature, art, cinema, theatre, music; not science – include critical articles, and judgment is still very important for us. So that it is a favourable position for criticism and, most importantly, it recognizes in the reader that critical capability to see, listen or read, consider other’s opinions and elaborate his own. That would be my main mission as an art critic: to facilitate access to the works of art, without telling the public what they have to think of them, but just opening perspectives of meaning, analysis, enjoyment… while also considering questions related to cultural politics, the art market and the whole context of the arts. My blog on El Cultural‘s web page has permitted me to create that wider observatory that encloses so many subjects usually alien to exhibitions criticism, a genre that I sometimes find limited, in length and as a format.
I see at least two big problems that menace criticism: the disappearance of its traditional spaces – newspapers and magazines that no longer exist – and the expansion of what I call ‘promotional information’ about cultural events towards the pages occupied before by critical exam. As private enterprises, the media have to ‘sell’ what they think their customers would like to find in them, and that includes the kind of cultural information that the average reader would appreciate: big names and big events. Entertainment. And advertisers, as we know, must be cared for. Art criticism should fight to restrain that ‘invasion’ of commercial promotion and defend its spaces with honesty and independence.
Elena Vozmediano (Madrid, 1965) is a Bachelor of Art History by the Complutense University of Madrid. She was in charge of the Arts section in the supplement El Cultural, distributed with the newspaper El Mundo, in which she continues collaborating as visual arts critic, with nearly 600 articles in print since 1998. She is editor for the exhibitions guide ART MAD. In 2012 she was awarded the Art Criticism GAC Prize.