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Who Do You Write For? A Survey of Art Critics in the Media

by frieze

The current issue of frieze examines the social life of art and the ways in which contemporary art influences the wider culture. In conjunction with this special issue, we asked critics and editors of newspapers and periodicals around the world about the role of art criticism in the mainstream media today and how they see the impact of their writing on their readers.

First up: Peter Schjeldahl, Almuth Spiegler and Anna Tolstova.

Each of these influential critics and editors was asked to respond to the following questions:

What purpose do you think your criticism serves? Do you write with a particular audience in mind?

Peter Schjeldahl
Art Critic, The New Yorker
New York, USA

I guess the main purpose of art criticism is to inform and entertain general-interest readers; but anybody else gets to read it, too. I imagine that I write for a composite of particular people, living and dead, whom I love and/or fear and try to honor and/or disarm. Words by John Ashbery come to mind:

I prefer “you” in the plural, I want “you”
You must come to me, all golden and pale
Like the dew and the air.
And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.

Peter Schjeldahl is the art critic of The New Yorker.

Almuth Spiegler
Art Editor, Die Presse
Vienna, Austria

I prefer to talk about Art Journalism rather than about Art Criticism. Art Criticism is just a part of my understanding of my job, which is to cover the relevant exhibitions and artists in Austria as well as internationally, and to report from the art market. And all of that in three or four articles per week on average. My main interest is to be a mediator between art that touches relevant topics of society, and our readers, who are not necessarily art experts. My particular reader in mind is female, bourgeois, culturally interested, but quite critical towards contemporary art.

Almuth Spiegler, born 1976 in Vienna, has been Art Editor for the daily Austrian Newspaper Die Presse since 2000. Since 2005, she has also been the Austrian correspondent for Art – Das Kunstmagazin.

Anna Tolstova
Art critic, Kommersant
Moscow, Russia

One can’t think of the role that art criticism plays in Kommersant without acknowledging the political transformations in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. I’ve been an art critic for Kommersant since 2004 and a devoted reader of the newspaper’s arts pages since the early 1990s, so I’ve witnessed how the understanding of newspaper art criticism has changed in this publication over the last two decades.

Established as the first post-Soviet newspaper in Russia, Kommersant tried to construct its readership – an ideal Westernized readership consisting of enlightened businesspeople and intellectuals (not old Russian intelligentsia, but intellectuals in the Western sense), even though neither of these classes actually existed in the late Perestroika reality. Thus the arts pages served an important ideological purpose, satisfying the assumed cultural demands of this assumed audience. This audience was supposed to share liberal ideas and to be interested in collecting art, so Kommersant may have been the first periodical in Russia to report on the art market, auctions and art fairs, as well as on contemporary art, which was under strong pressure in the Soviet culture.

The Kommersant art critics of the1990s (Ekaterina Degot to mention the best) were recruited from the then half-underground contemporary art milieu. They considered the newspaper as the first public platform for promoting art free from Soviet ideological shackles, and they promoted it by such a highly professional discourse that in the beginning their readership happened to amount to nothing more than the art community in the broad sense. Nevertheless, Kommersant’s art criticism in the ’90s helped to institutionalize contemporary art, partly as an indication of the new Russian political course for liberal reforms.

Today, as the project for liberalization seems to be failing in Russia, and contemporary art is often persecuted by the most conservative strata of the society – such as Russian nationalists, the Orthodox Church and so on – the political meaning of art criticism still remains. But the readership of _Kommersant_’s art pages has become a little bit wider than the art community of the 1990s: on the one hand because the assumed audience has come into existence in the last 20 years, and, on the other hand, because the art community has been drawn to professional art publications, both printed and online, which have emerged since.

So today I see my task as a newspaper art critic mainly in educational terms: trying to address the broader audience, and to reconcile this audience with contemporary art and to explain its ways and means to the unsophisticated reader. ‘Unsophisticated reader’ implies rather an unsophisticated manner of writing, bringing one to use poetic language as far as it is possible in a daily newspaper instead of professional one.

Anna Tolstova lives and works in Moscow and has been the art critic for Kommersant since 2004.

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