A Voyage Around Art Criticism (1996)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art

| 29 September 2011
This text was previously published in Art Papers on the occasion of their 20th anniversary issue in November / December 1996.


My commission for this article was to address the question of how someone becomes an art critic. (What art criticism is is another question that we’ll have to deal with in due course.) The route to criticism is often, as it was in my own case, a series of accidents and wrong turns that, to follow the traffic metaphor to its absurd conclusion, is something like the scenario of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend: the film follows a French middle-class couple along a drive in the country— except that every other French couple has had the same idea, and the countryside has become a huge traffic jam, during which civilization crumbles into, first, brutality; then, philosophy; and finally anarchy and cannibalism. Where along that route art criticism lies, you will have to judge for yourself.

In any case, the final stage of my typically indirect route to criticism began when Alan Sondheim (a filmmaker, artist, and writer who spent a couple of years in Atlanta in the ’80s that were extremely productive for the Atlanta arts community) sat me down with Xenia Zed (then editor of Art Papers) and suggested we find something I could write about. I hadn’t written anything since graduate school and had only written about art for seminars on Renaissance and Baroque Italian art, but it happened that I was interested in Kathy Acker, whose work bridges the visual and literary arts in interesting ways. [1] Let’s see, I’ve kind of lost my thread during that footnote… I offered to write about Acker, which led to Xenia contacting the author, bringing her to Atlanta for a reading, publishing an excerpt of her upcoming novel, etc. And leading to me beginning to write art reviews and articles on contemporary art. [2]

The popular image of the art critic is pretty awful. A recent crime novel of some literary ambition is titled Killing Critics (by Carol O’Connell). Aside from the wish-fulfillment fantasy implied by the novel’s title (which got the novel featured in a prominent art site on the World Wide Web, artnet), critics are portrayed in the persona of a man with "a limited range of expression, devoid of emotion even when he smiled, only communicating cool indifference and élan." In or out of the art world, the critic’s image doesn’t get much better: Elizabeth Hess recently referred, in her Village Voice column, to a 1946 horror film with the unique premise that a deranged artist/serial killer is out to get the critics that have caused him to remain among the starving classes. Another thriller, the estimable Charles Willeford’s Burnt Orange Heresy, portrays a critic as ruthlessly ambitious, to the point of murder (and Willeford was a critic himself). Artists seem often to see critics simultaneously as a.) in existence to provide PR for them and their galleries; and b.) arrogant pests standing in their way.

In fact, most critics I have met in my double life as a critic and editor have been interested in promoting communication about art, for the benefit of everybody concerned or potentially concerned with art: the artist, the curator or gallery, the art world, and the public (which has a tendency to be mythical rather than actual— see Grant Kester’s scathing "Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public," in Afterimage, January 1993). At a recent round-table discussion on criticism convened by curator Mary Jane Jacob and critic Michael Brenson for the "Conversations in the Castle" project of the Arts Festival of Atlanta, all the clichés and prejudices about criticism were raised (by both artists and critics), but there was a refreshing openness and seriousness about what art criticism can accomplish in its intermediate role (existing, as it does, in a network of artists, the art world, the general public, cultural history, political reality, and journal deadlines). That group reinforced my experience that critics come to the job with a commitment to art, a writer’s desire to accomplish as much as possible within a clearly defined genre, and an openness to a wide range of aesthetic and non-aesthetic ideas.

My own oblique route to art criticism is rather more typical than atypical. Art critics (both memorable and unmemorable) typically are poets, philosophers, journalists, curators, artists, or anybody who can move a pencil or a cursor across a page in such a way that the result holds someone else’s attention for a moment. And it really is only a moment: the character and strength of art criticism is that it is immediate, of the moment, and engaged with a contemporary artifact and readership. What is called "criticism" in art history classes is actually something else: art criticism as a discipline or a practice is actually based in consumer guides to 19th Century European Salon exhibitions, private letters to patrons (cf. Diderot, the originator of modern art criticism), and the popular press— not in the descriptions of actual works of art that punctuate art historical arguments. The essays produced by the practice of art criticism may contain (and in many remarkable instances do contain) philosophy, aesthetics, dialogue with artists, and distinctive style— but they are essentially temporal and temporary. Art criticism has occasionally produced memorable texts qua texts (cf. Baudelaire), but is normally referred to, after the cover date of the magazine in which it appeared, mainly as an invaluable source of data on the art of the day.

That is to say, art criticism is a "minor" literature, in the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari’s very interesting little book on Kafka. The art critic is a minor or regional writer (in analogy with D&G’s use of those words), speaking in terms of someone else’s work even while exploring his/her own concerns and ideas. The art critic is engaged with both an artist and a reader (who are often, of course, the same person), and, for a writer, some of the most remarkable engagement with readers comes in writing for daily newspapers (your aunt Betty reads it, and you run into the artist you wrote about when you’re in line at the Kroger). Art criticism is journalism, not philosophy, and it accomplishes more when it embraces that immediacy rather than pretending to a more solitary and Olympian [3] position or discourse. As John Perrault has suggested, writing about art is a very effective and enlightening way to look at art, and we should continually remind ourselves that writing about art is about looking at art. I am reminded of Wendy Steiner’s chiding comment on Arthur Danto’s criticism, in which she mocks his position that the meaning or content of art is theory; like Steiner, I believe that we as art critics have to remind ourselves that the meaning of art is expressed as art, [4] not as an encoded text. [5]

Another question is what qualifies us to be critics, in the absence of any universally accepted accreditation or college major [6] or graduate program? In my case, perhaps it was a background in literary criticism, a postgraduate disillusionment with academia as the fountainhead of and podium for intellectual discourse, or perhaps my brief military experience (during which another book, like the works of Kathy Acker, changed the course of my life: How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, by Lenny Bruce [7] In the months after reading Bruce’s autobiography, spent in ostensibly studying to be a Counterintelligence Agent, [8] pretending to study the Vietnamese language, and actually folding sheets in the base laundry while waiting for my application for discharge from the military to be processed, Lenny’s dirty talk sustained me like the voice of an AA devotee’s higher power. I guess the point is that an art critic is best qualified by being a member of the audience, with the privilege of talking back to the artist and (we can hope) the perspective on life and art that will make a valuable response possible.

If we can’t say much with any precision about who the art critic is, can we be any more precise about how to do it? There are a few things that, as an editor, I can tell you not to do. Don’t begin with an epigraph or a quote. Those are the first things I will lop off, with all the pleasure of the guy in the funny hat with his hand on the lever of the guillotine. In fact, don’t lard a review with quotes at all, whether from Homi Bhabha or the artist you are writing about: you are supposed to be the one writing the review. And don’t constantly compare an artist, whether fresh out of art school or well into a career, to Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Rembrandt, or Picasso. Only refer to other artists’ work if it gives you a shorthand that will give a reader some idea of what is going on, never to insert the artist under discussion into art history (remember, art history knows nothing about criticism, and usually vice versa). Pay special attention to your opening paragraph: that is to say, it usually stinks, and is the second thing I will lop off after the epigraph. Many writers use the first paragraph to get themselves cranked up; the wise ones go back and delete it once they’ve decided what they’re going to say.

What you should do most of all (and most clearly based on my own prejudices about what criticism is and does, prejudices that many or most other critics and editors may not share) is remember that description is the most important part of art writing. Not simple description, the anthropoligical cliché popularized by Clifford Geertz is apt here: it is "thick" description that you should practice, drawing into your evocation of the work in the gallery whatever context in life or art will be important for a reader to understand what is going on in the work. No matter what journal you are writing for, no matter what audience, most of the people reading your article will never see the work you are writing about. You owe the audience and the artist some translation into a written form of the experience of seeing the work, whether it is ultimately a personal response or an explicit description (happily, it is possible to do both at the same time, without descending into the bathos of Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa).

And it is possible to accomplish a great deal in art criticism, both in the furthering of communication about art and artists and in the unique opportunity that the medium allows for bringing together cultural, personal, global, and local matters of interest. It is not, however, very easy to make a living. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding that artists have about art critics is that they fail to grasp the fact that almost all critics, like almost all artists, do not make a living from their work. We share a way of life in respect to low income as well as commitments and interests. Most critics, like most artists, do what they do from inner necessity as well as love and admiration for art—rather than from the naked arrogance and ambition of the clay-footed critics of the popular imagination.

I owe a great deal to Art Papers, and to the long-suffering staff who shared with me the nine+ years I was editor, and to Xenia, the long-suffering editor who hacked up my articles before I became an editor and had the chance to pass the favor along to others. Let the useful information in this article stand as a tribute to those who have taught and assisted me in the craft and profession of art criticism and art publishing. I also take no responsibility for the digressive and useless information, which is due to the recent influence of Xavier de Maistre’s Shandean Voyage Round My Room, which thanks to New Directions is back in print in English, and for which you can blame the concluding epigraph that I plan to squeeze into the space below (unless the editors delete it). De Maistre also said that a particular work of sculpture "is the tuning fork according to which I adjust the variable and discordant assortment of sensations and perceptions that make up my existence," succinctly rendering the power of art in everyday life.

Imagination, realm of enchantment!— which the most beneficent of beings bestowed upon man to console him for reality. —Xavier de Maistre

Glenn Harper is the former editor of Art Papers, current editor of Sculpture, and a contributor to numerous journals, including Art Papers, for whose editors he has enormous respect and sympathy.

Glenn Harper - A Voyage Around Art Criticism: 1 | Footnotes: 2

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