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Who Do You Write For? Our Survey of Art Critics in the Media Continues…

by frieze

In conjunction with frieze’s summer issue, which looks at art’s currency within the wider culture, we asked art critics and editors of cultural publications and media to tell us how they see the role of art criticism in mainstream media today, and how they view the impact of their writing on their audience. In this installment, Karen Archey, Sacha Bronwasser and Will Gompertz reply.

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

Karen Archey
Editor-at-Large, Rhizome
New York, USA

In a recent conversation with an editor of a well-known art news website, I asked why they don’t run reviews. ‘No one wants to read reviews,’ he replied, ‘they generally never get any hits.’ The website features headlines such as ‘Is Laurel Nakadate Sleeping With James Franco?’ and ‘Our Favourite Mean Things Said Against Dale Chihuly’. In a moment of sheer masochism, I asked friends and colleagues on Twitter whether they read art reviews for leisure. Though the audience I pooled was a fairly broad one, they’re primarily involved with Internet-related art practices, and read publications ranging from Rhizome to Artforum. Do they ever, I wondered, read reviews for the sake of personal betterment, even if they have no personal or professional motivation to do so?

Not only was the answer resoundingly ‘no’, but it seems as if the answer was quite opposite of what a critic might hope: those who responded to my call only tend to read reviews to either ‘see how bad the writing is’, witness the public castigation of a fellow artist, or in simpler terms, to ‘hate-read’. If my own community – which is also by and large the audience for my writing – openly admits to not reading criticism to learn anything about the art at hand (education being a primary impetus for my writing), what is my purpose as an art critic? The answer for myself – and I believe for many others – remains to be seen.

To worsen our situation, it seems as if criticism is under attack for its increasing lack of value beyond the insularity of art-world discourse. Does art criticism serve a public outside of itself? Or simply preach to its own choir? Or even more nefariously, does it solely exist to usher insiders through a variety of consumer options in luxury goods? In her recent essay for the catalogue of the Whitney Biennial, Andrea Fraser wrote of the revealing and concealing powers of art criticism. Allowing that the concept of ‘the art world’ is one increasingly differentiated and fractured, likely due to recent surge in capital residual from the 1% earning more and having more expendable income which trickles to non-profits and galleries alike, Fraser cites art discourse – art criticism, journalism, lectures, catalogue essays, the boot – as connecting these varying accounts of the art world, and that which often perniciously divorces the social conditions and material reality of art from its conceptual framework. ‘As much as art discourse may reveal structures and relationships to us, it also serves to conceal,’ she writes, ‘with direction and sometimes misdirection.’

Yet, this misdirection and aforementioned perverted audience seem only able to be overcome by art criticism itself, and precisely by art critics who labour to broaden such discourse. While it may seem like a futile exercise to attempt to reinvent criticism with the outmoded tools and structures it has come to cement within our world, the least we can do is try, and to vocalize the struggle.

Karen Archey is an art critic and curator living in New York. She acts as the Editor-at-Large of Rhizome at the New Museum and is a columnist for the Beijing-based contemporary art magazine LEAP.

Sacha Bronwasser
Contributor, De Volkskrant
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

When I started out as a freelance art critic for De Volkskrant in 1998, newspaper criticism served as a guide I more or less trusted. I had to, as it was virtually the only guide. The (very few) Dutch art magazines were monthly, bimonthly or even less frequent – and thus too slow. Television had no interest whatsoever in contemporary art and weekly opinion magazines did not consider art as a factor that moved the world. Oh yes, and there was no Internet.

It was an honour to enter this world of the printed word that, on a daily basis, reported from the field I had been educated in. I felt like a soldier sending messages from the frontline of culture. The reader was a true and stable follower.

Soon everything would change. Today the arts pages of the leading daily newspapers are guides to a much smaller group of readers. Most readers get their information from a variety of sources – the newspaper article is just one of them. Hence the shift in tone and content that I experienced since, lets say, 2002, 2003.

Art is part of the DNA of De Volkskrant (as opposed to some other dailies, who cut their arts department drastically when newspaper sales went down after 2000). But the articles in general have become shorter. The tone has become ‘lighter’ – the standard solution when one has to fight for the reader’s attention. At the same time, an article has to offer more background information on the subject – more than the facts a Smart Phone screen can contain. And the soldier-from-the frontline attitude had to change, because everybody can be present at the frontline whenever they want to, cameras and all.

Now, as an art critic, with each new article I have to choose my position: do I report, do I participate, do I reflect, do I criticize, do I go undercover? Is satire an option? What is the approach I haven’t heard of yet? In these virtual times, why would my editor want to print it on real paper and distribute it all over the country and beyond?

I regret some of the changes, but in general it has refreshed newspaper art criticism that – I admit – had become quite a smug profession.
For whom do I write? Like every newspaper journalist, I write for a reader I do not know. Not necessarily for colleagues or art professionals. My reader might be interested in art, but doesn’t have to be involved. He/she comes closest to a respected friend with whom I can laugh but also profoundly disagree.

_Sacha Bronwasser (born 1968) is an art-historian, who writes and speaks on contemporary art and film. She is a regular contributor to the daily newspaper De Volkskrant, works for the International Filmfestival Rotterdam and is co-director of the small foundation Cinema Zuid, platform for the moving image. In 2011 her first book was published, Zo Werken Wij (This is How We Work), ten portraits of influential Dutch artists. _

Will Gompertz
Arts Editor, BBC News
London, UK

Has art criticism ever recovered from Louis Leroy’s sarcastic review of an exhibition mounted by a group of young experimental artists in 1874? Poor old Leroy thought he was being très amusant with his barbed comments in Le Charivari newspaper regarding the technical shortcomings of Monet, Cézanne and Pissarro. The joke backfired, and instead of consigning the artists’ efforts to the litterbin of art history, he provided them with a collective noun with which to launch the first modern art movement.

Subsequent commentators on art failed to take note that such judgmental hubris not only damages their reputation, but also that of art criticism in general. Fauvism, Cubism and Constructivism were all names provided by individuals wishing to damn the efforts of the artists about whom they spoke; catty remarks made without due care or attention.

Provocative posturing is a staple of criticism today. Editors and publishers – under pressure to have their publications stand out in an overcrowded market – give columns to the highly opinionated and bombastic. The arguments presented by such ‘personalities’ are often overly simplistic and caustic, but they do get read. Unlike, perhaps, the considered 3,000-word essay by an unknown but well-informed curator. It’s a shame.

And so is the star system. Those (up to five) red dots that appear above a review: a shorthand summation to save the reader time and trouble. They are without nuance or craft, but like the apple Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, kinda irresistible: alluring but destructive. I dread the day I open The New Yorker to find red stars above the (excellent) reviews written by Calvin Tomkins or Peter Schjeldahl.

But then the greatest editorial power given to a reviewer or cultural commentator is not the space in which to write about a subject, but the privilege of selecting one in the first place. For the vast majority of artists whose work is never commented on, the Wildean aphorism that ‘the only thing worse than being talking about is not being talked about’, might well sum up their feelings about the relative narrowness of arts criticism.

Personally, I am less interested in whether something is good or bad, but more in why something exists in the first place. It is the story behind projects that fascinate me: who, what, why and why now. History has proved to be an excellent judge of talent, but it is only those writing and reporting today that are in a position to accurately document the times in which we live.

Will Gompertz has been BBC arts editor since 2009. Before that, he was a director at the Tate Gallery, where he was responsible for Tate Online and TATE ETC. His blog can be found on the BBC website here.