Critical writing’s contribution to contemporary art. {2011}

The Art World is made up of varieties of local, regional and international esoteric cultures controlling their reputation while expressing their own views and systems. Critical writings contribution to art is bound within these realities. A common perception of art critical writing is its insular and excluding position, whereby the language and theory used may be subsequently creating a destructive result to the admiration of contemporary art. Through this paper I will analyse critical writing’s contribution to contemporary art by examining its historical background, its effects and recent move towards an online presence. Contemporary critical writing’s foundation derives from the 18th Century / Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (whose writings on judgement, ethics and morals) and Georg Hegel (objectivity, rational theories) pushed boundaries for Karl Marx’s popular theories on society, economics and politics, (Britannica Online, 2011). Their writings, along with others, influenced French artists of the 19th century to bring about an era of artists showing work outside galleries in art salons, which in turn catered for the beginning of both the art dealer and critic. During the 19th century art criticism came in the form of journals (Revue des deux mondes, Die Dioskuren etc), which “often became a theoretical effort to justify critical choices” (Britannica Online, 2011).

The 20th century saw a shake up of the convention of formal innovation and expression writing versus a conceptual criticism and the study of form. Two key critics of the time were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg whose work starkly sits in opposition. Greenberg a formalist; believed that Greenberg’s approach influenced the works of Barnett Newman, Morris Louis and was one of the first critics to highlight Jackson Pollock’s work and thus along with Rosenberg played a key role in the popularity of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  David Carrier states “when Greenberg’s ways of thinking became generally accepted, museums everywhere sought Pollock’s and David Smith…art criticism changes how contemporary art is displayed, sold, and written about.” (Carrier, 2002, p114&p115). Rosenberg proved this with his essay ‘The American Action Painters’, which was first featured in Art News in 1952, helped establish Rosenberg’s critical establishment and he quickly became a leading critic of the 1950’s influencing work by Willem De Kooning, Joan Mitchel and Fairfield Porter. (The Art Story, 2011).

In the later 20th century the critic Rosalind Krauss influenced much of the contemporary art world and the post-abstract expressionist era by introducing a commercialised academic approach in influencing artists. Krauss worked as an editor for Artforum; a magazine that focused on minimal, conceptual, land and performance art in the 70s which led to the promotion of artists such as Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. Krauss then quite quickly left Artforum with Annette Michelson to create October; an intellectual-politically engaged, post-structural academic journal, which popularised postmodernism and opened up conversation between artists and the academia world. (Justin Wolf, 2011)

The relationship between artist and academia has increased in recent years with the decline in apprenticeships. This relationship has evolved since the start of the 20th century, influencing how deeply critical writing influences artists.  The study of art history has fallen due to the advancement of new technologies (film, media, graphics), while during the 70’s Artists looked eagerly to attain a Bachelors Degree, on into the 90’s a Masters of Arts, while in the early part of the 21st century we are seeing a flock to obtain PHD. As these new generation of artists are highly educated in art theory and philosophy it is evident that much of their future work will be influenced by the study of relevant literatures. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s art criticism was thrown into disarray, many of the norms dried up and a ‘crisis’ formed.  Michael Brenson describes how in “the academic world only the most generous scholars treat it with respect.” (Brenson, 1995) Art criticism has become cohesive with academic elitism; the academic writers push the ‘everyday’ reader away as they contribute an over stylized theoretical viewpoint adding philosophy and profound analyses on the context of the aesthetics. Jonathan Jones a critic for the Guardian newspaper is more positive describing how “the critic provides a service that gives a chance to talk, think and tell stories about art and artists” (Jones, 2009). Accordingly critics are directly involved in the evolution of the art world – how it is perceived, initiating discussion for its reader resulting in a pursuit of art appreciation by the public.

Shrinking art markets and a plunging economy has forced print companies to revaluate their editorial output. This dehydration of conventional critical writing has various effects on how art criticism is now read by the public. However rigorous critical writing allows for the evolution of contemporary art; it creates “efforts to pinpoint and stimulate greater creative effort in emerging artists,” (Wolff, Geahigan, 1997, p.7) which in turn creates an increase in art curiosity. A critic’s role is to identify, describe, critique, analyse, interpret and make a judgement on a piece of work. Their form and method of writing “should attend for the sake of evaluation to what has been achieved by the work, not to what was attempted or intended by it.” (Carroll, 2008, p.82) A critics work can effect how artists may learn, viewers may see, and curators work.  Critics such as the powerhouse couple Roberta Smith (New York Times) and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine, The Village Voice) have considerable clout as the seclusion caused by diminishing art publications has almost heightened their power on the rise or demise of an artist, curator or gallery.

During the ‘critical crisis’ of recent decades critical writers have gathered in talks, debates and round table discussions to have an open dialogue on art criticisms role in contemporary art. Isabelle Graw explains in her essay from a 2007 conference that criticism undoubtedly influences artists and the public’s attitude. She states criticism “will spread doubt, which is usually the first step towards the change of an opinion climate and can lead to a reconsideration of value,” (Birnbaum, Graw, 2008, p,16); a key component to keep contemporary art in a constant flux. While John Kelsey takes the approach that perhaps it is time that we let go of the stereotypical art critic and accept that change is on its cards; “it’s okay now to say goodbye to the critic, especially if he’s not up to the task of reinventing himself to meet the conditions he’s working under today. (Birnbaum, Graw, 2008, p.66) Kelsey’s point of change is important in the evolution of critical writing, the art world has changed dramatically during the past century, therefore if art critics wish to stay prevalent they must begin to accept a new ‘strange’ or they will not fend off the negative and lose complete influence.

It is important to highlight perhaps the drop in popularity around critical writing to fully understand where art criticism stands today. In Art Review’s November 2011 Power 100 (Art Review, 2011.) only three art critics made the list; suggesting that gallerists, artists, collectors, museum directors and curators have far more power and influence on the contemporary world. Through an array of publications this theory can be confirmed; James Elkins mentions criticism is in a state of “vigorous health and terminal illness” (Elkins, 2007, p.11) and its “voice has become very weak, and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism,” (Elkins, 2007, p.71). George Baker assassinates art criticism by stating it “is obsolete” it has “been violently displaced. It has been murdered.” (Birnbaum, Graw, 2008, p.23). This negative attitude (even if it may be based on a realist nature) evidently is destructive towards the progress of critical writing. David Carieer tries to guide the argument towards a constructive supposition in his analysis of Rosalind Krauss; stating art criticism may sometimes act as “merely promotional writing, the art critic just a servant of the art market. She (Krauss) and I want art criticism to be more than mere journalist reporting. We want art criticism to make a difference” (Carrier, 2002, p.111). This difference needs to be activated through the naturalisation away from the printed word and onto the online culture that art criticism has found itself.

Jack Bankowsky, editor at Artforum, speaks that this new relationship of art and new technologies cannot exist without “attending to the larger realm of visual culture.” (Bankowsky, Artforum, 1993). Bankowsky is clear in his dialogue that art practices must move with the times and evolve with the wider cultural spectrum. I believe this new era of online art blogging has opened up great benefits and a new life for a dwindled practice. Online art criticism has provided the opportunity for everyone to provide an input and gain notoriety in their opinions and reflections on contemporary art. With independent art websites cropping up this has allowed less censorship by editors-in-chief, sponsors and readership. Online critical writing has emphasized the use of personal style in writing and moved away from the formal language of theory. According to Martha Schwendener of The Village Voice “Art blogs have created a new, largely unedited, admirably “unprofessional” – hence, democratic – venue for people to speak their minds, gossip, or theorize about art.”  (Schwendener, 2009). As long as the blogger is fully informed they can reach thousands of readers daily. Successful art blogger – Abraham Ritchie mentions in a recent post in the Knight Foundation that “with new technology, never before has a critic been able to reach so many people all over the world and engage directly with an audience.” (Ritchie, 2011)

Online reviews allow for this international readership to create a discourse through comments and social networking, resulting in a form of interaction and instant participation is an angle that printed media can never have. Traditional art magazines have been forced to respond to this new trend by providing some of their reviews and articles online before the publication of the printed version. These online sites of course are still sedated by institutional polices and censorships.  In an article of The Brooklyn Rail arts magazine website James Kalm speaks about the ‘Virtually Overwhelmed’ describing the ailments of online criticism; “the dynamics of many art blogs seem to go through a cycle of struggle, acceptance and recognition followed by burnout.” (Kalm. 2008.) These pessimisms are the clear downfall that art blogging may succumb to; successful print magazines will consistently hold balanced readers while blogs can easily disappear due to lack of content or notoriety. Nevertheless online critical writing and its increasing acceptance is a sure contribution to the maintenance of popularised contemporary art.

To understand an angle of the complexities of print and online critical writing lets assess in brief recent International exhibition Dublin Contemporary (DC hereafter) reviews and their circulation statistics. Chris Fite-Wassilak contributed his opinion on DC in Freize magazine, with a circulation of 23,000  (Troncy, 2006) a negative review although a respectable example of critical writing for print; it hits all the right places by commenting on history, politics, the artists and opinion. Aidan Dunne of The Irish Times with a circulation 100,000+ (O’Brien, 2011) provided a steady flow of criticism on DC through radio and print. In his October 28th 2011 review (Dunne, 2011) he brought an interesting point; maintaining it was controversial that Jota Castro, one of the two curators of DC, curated his own work into the show. This self-promotion was reiterated by DC’s co-curator Christian Viveros-Fauné, in the November 2011 issue of Art Review to a circulation of 35,000+  (Troncy, 2006), whereby he wrote an analysis of his own practice of curating on the leverage of DC. These print reviews bring to light the egocentric tendencies of print journalism: trying to be controversial, yet safe, and always endorsing someone or themselves. Considering the size of DC it is surprising the lack of online content to be found; reasonably sized websites and, both Irish culture websites, give a positive nod to DC, while decides to take a negative stance, it is questionable how large their audience is, (Meg,2011) (Connector,2011) (Dublin Culture,2011). However is bucking this trend with a review by Ciaran Bennett, which is open to its 2 million unique visitors per month (Artnet, 2011). The review details the exhibition in great detail using conventional language straying away from any sort of theoretical form, highlighting interesting facts around the Irish economy’s downturn and its effect on DC. By analysing the circulation numbers, leaving a side the inequities of the print and online reviews, it is clear that it only takes one successful website to triumph the combined circulation of some of the most popular prints. The uncertainty surrounding online art criticism may still exist, nonetheless with the evolution of new digital media technologies – e-readers and mobile phones it is sure to evolve and succeed.

Notable critical writers such as Slavoj Zizek, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Waldemar Januszcak, Adrian Searle and Boris Groys have secured a powerful place in contemporary art criticism, wielding the power to make or break. Their work on various print publications along with the continuing efforts from prominent art magazines Art Review, Art Monthly, October, Eflux, Frieze and Flash, and the rise of websites and blogs from Edward Winkleman’s, E-Flux, Artnet, Art Slant, Art Log, Art 21, will all continue to exert a lifeline for critical writing’s influence on contemporary art, one way or another.

Published by Matthew Nevin – November 2011

Matthew Nevin is a full time student of ACW at NCAD. He is an active artist, and curator of the Irish Visual Arts Organization MART.



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