This Saturday, Oct. 12, at New York's New Museum, critic and writer Brian Droitcour will present "Vernacular Criticism," a talk advocating non-professional writing about art as a means of reinvigorating the critical discourse.
New York-based Droitcour, who was a staff writer for Rhizome.org and has contributed reviews to Artforum.com's Critics Picks and A.i.A.'s website, may be best known for his Yelp reviews of major exhibitions (for which he has been awarded Yelp Elite status), which he began in February of 2012. Over the 60+ reviews he's done since, Droitcour has managed to master standard Yelp vernacular, striking a balance between faux naïveté and an unpretentious, almost vulnerable expression of his opinion.
A choice quote comes from a recent four-star review of the Jonas Wood exhibit currently on view at Anton Kern: "My favorite thing in the Jonas Wood exhibition that's currently on view at Anton Kern is a gray dog at the bottom of a big painting—a schnauzer? not good with breeds here—that looked so funnily uneven and odd, not only because its head was cocked to one side, its eyes looking directly out of the painting at the viewer in that inquisitive, expectant way that dogs do—but also the way its face was painted was split in half, making its expression not just searching but also insane. Some dogs really have expressions like that!"
Droitcour spoke with A.i.A. at a Manhattan café about Denis Diderot and becoming one of the Yelp Elite.
MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN The description for your talk on Saturday says you're going to discuss the evolution of art criticism with regards to the public sphere—how do you feel it's developed?
BRIAN DROITCOUR Over the summer I read a lot of Diderot, who's generally credited with inventing art criticism as we know it. Art writing around that time was written for aristocrats who were going to collect art, but Diderot wanted to write about art for the people who were visiting the salons but weren't going to buy anything. He has a very lively, conversational tone that he said was inspired by listening to people talk at the salons.
That's how I think art journalism developed: as a sort of public service. In the last 50 years, so much professional art writing has been written for a certain elite, while Diderot's kind of art criticism is shrinking. I don't think it's ever going to come back, though I don't really have any big predictions. I do think that the role of the critic and the curator and the artist are going to be mixed. I'm thinking about how we can conceive of art writing when these sort of professional distinctions are dissolving.
SHEN GOODMAN How did the Yelp reviews start?
DROITCOUR It wasn't really all planned out. I just had been searching for an exhibition and a Yelp result came up. I was like, "Oh my god, there's a Yelp review and it's on the first page of Google. This is kind of amazing, and I want to do this." [laughs]
SHEN GOODMAN What kinds of privileges does Yelp Elite status bring?
DROITCOUR Your reviews go closer to the top, and they have monthly events where Elite reviewers get free food and drinks. I haven't been to one yet, but I'm going to check it out. I'm interested in why people are so invested in writing reviews and making this record of their consumption.
SHEN GOODMAN Have you found other Yelpers' art reviews illuminating, or are you more interested in it because Yelp gives an opportunity to a larger public that doesn't usually get to write about art?
DROITCOUR When they talk about how much they loved or hated a particular work, I can think about what that work means to people who don't have all of this professional baggage. There's some kind of reaction that makes people want to write about the work. It restores your faith in art a little bit.
The talk's about learning to let go of authority in some ways. Authority and objectivity and professionalism are ingrained as really important values that are part of an aggressive policing of the discourse that's entrenched in everyday life. It's about rethinking the discourse in a way that people online already have.