Who do you write for?
Looking at Frieze online this morning I came across a series of interview with writers (critics - whatever that word means, and editors, etc) explaining their perception of the role of the writer/critic/art criticism today. I struggle to get over the Greenbergian idea of the critic, so avoid using the term entirely as it suggests something polemical (and modernist?) at work in writing, which feels a hundred miles away from my own work. But perhaps there is a moment of crisis emerging here, not only through asking who do we write for, but also who exactly is reading this stuff? Karen Archey’s response was unsettling, in that no one from her ‘community’ are generally interested in criticism, and they are the people she writes for, about, with. She asks “Does art criticism serve a public outside of itself? Or simply preach to its own choir?” At the risk of being self-reflexive, is the only option to ‘vocalise’ this struggle in/through writing itself?
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?
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.