“Who are your favorite art critics? What art magazines do you like to read?” As a visiting critic at MFA programs around the country, I have often posed these two questions to students. Until recently most of them had a preferred art critic (usually Dave Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl, or Jerry Saltz, with an occasional theorist like bell hooks or Nicolas Bourriaud tossed into the mix). There seemed to be less attention paid to art magazines, though, when pressed, class members would admit to being aware of at least two or three. Over the last few years, however, I have noticed that fewer and fewer students are willing (or able) to offer the names of favorite critics, and that art magazines largely seem to have dropped out of their routines. Accordingly, I have adjusted my approach. Now I ask only one question: “Do you read any art criticism?”
Last year when I put this query to a group of fifteen students at a prestigious New York school, only one person raised a hand. With a little more prodding, five or six others admitted that they regularly read the artist interviews in the Brooklyn Rail, and sometimes looked at Hyperallergic, but that was all. It was as if I had asked them what they thought of Formula One racing or aquaponics; art criticism seemed nearly irrelevant to whatever it was they were doing. What a change, I thought, from the days when grappling with the latest critical positions was obligatory even for moderately ambitious art students, when art-school studios were filled with paint-splattered art magazines, when, in certain circles, names like Clement Greenberg and Dave Hickey were fighting words.
While we art critics have long been living with a sense of diminished influence, it was possible to imagine that at least among MFA students our work still mattered. To discover that this might be an illusion was a shock. It made me wonder if the readership for art criticism was in terminal decline, aging and dwindling like the audience for classical music. Certainly traditional print criticism is under pressure, as all but a few newspapers have fired their art critics, as art magazines confront falling circulation numbers, and as readers grow ever more accustomed to the bite-size, rapid-fire pace of online consumption. Of course, it’s not only art critics who are at risk—as Justin E.H. Smith recently pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the “click-swipe-and-rate economy has left everyone involved in cultural production dazed and stumbling.”1
Yet there are signs here and there that the audience for serious art criticism hasn’t entirely vanished, that critics may still matter. The last year, for instance, has seen the publication of collections of art writing by Gary Indiana (Vile Days, Semiotext(e)), Travis Jeppesen (Bad Writing, Sternberg Press), Jill Johnston (The Disintegration of a Critic, Semiotext(e)), Chris Kraus (Social Practices, Semiotext(e)), Peter Schjeldahl (Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, Abrams) and Ingrid Sischy (Nothing Is Lost, Knopf), as well as Jarrett Earnest’s 557-page collection of interviews with art critics (What It Means to Write About Art, David Zwirner Books). (More about some of these book in a moment.) There has also been an increasing investment by art galleries in publishing critical writing beyond the usual exhibition catalogue format: David Zwirner Books, founded in 2014, has been expanding its program, and both Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth produce ambitious periodicals (Gagosian Quarterly, launched in 2017, and Ursula, started in 2018). Add to this the many online publications and blogs, from e-flux journal to artcritical.com, plus the voluminous back-and-forth on social media, and the state of art criticism doesn’t look quite so dire. Maybe it’s just that art students have found better things to do with their time. After all, who wants to go into five- or six-figure debt for the sake of reading some exhibition reviews?
Still, even though a lot of art criticism is being published, it’s rare for any single piece of writing to have the kind of impact that certain texts did in previous decades. Think of Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” in ARTnews in 1971, or Rosalind Krauss’s 1974 exposé in Art in America of how Clement Greenberg had David Smith’s sculptures altered (arguably Greenberg’s reputation never recovered), or Douglas Crimp’s 1979 essay “Pictures” in October, or Thomas McEvilley’s 1984 Artforum article “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief,” which, in opening up debate on the exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, helped lay the foundation for a globalized art world. Not only was each of these statements of position widely read, they also substantially influenced the subsequent direction of art and its discourse. There are compelling pieces of writing that have garnered attention since—I think, for instance, of Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009), Ben Davis’s “9.5 Theses on Art and Class” (2010), Andrea Fraser’s “Le 1% C’est Moi” (2011), Jerry Saltz’s “My Life as a Failed Artist” (2017), and Aruna D’Souza’s provocative book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (2018)—but none of these has shifted the paradigm the way Crimp’s or McEvilley’s text did. Perhaps this is simply because, for better or worse, critics today don’t wield the kind of influence and authority that prevailed until the 1990s. It could also be because the art world is now as fractured and niche-ridden as the rest of the culture; not everyone reads the same pieces of art criticism, just as not everyone watches the same TV programs.
A striking aspect of recently published collections of art criticism is how far back in time many of them are anchored: Vile Days is devoted to Indiana’s Village Voice columns from the mid- to late 1980s; Johnston’s collection of Voice columns goes back even further, to the 1960s and 1970s; Schjeldahl’s book, which was edited by Earnest, begins in 1988. This suggests, among other things, that there are people who enjoy reading old exhibition reviews. As the author of many reviews myself, I’m happy to learn that such readers exist (or at least that some publishers believe they do), but I wonder what attracts them to this material. Why would anyone who isn’t an art historian wish to spend time catching up on the ghosts of art criticism past? I can imagine someone perhaps being interested in the early reception of a now-famous artist (such as Indiana’s reviews of Jeff Koons or Richard Prince) but not in reading about artists who have long since slipped out of the spotlight, or perhaps were never in it. (While the selection in Schjeldahl’s collection concentrates on the well-known, Indiana’s columns teem with names that will be unfamiliar to most contemporary readers, names like David True, John Wilkins, Georgia Marsh, Michele Zalopany, Richard Milani, Maura Sheehan). There’s no obvious reason for a nonspecialist to dip into an old exhibition review unless it contains some insight into a particular moment in art history and is written in a distinctive and pleasurable style.
Ultimately, it may be the question of style that explains the apparent longevity of some art criticism. Schjeldahl, for instance, is such a wizard with words that one could conceivably read him with enjoyment even if one cared little for his subject matter, somewhat the way one reads the great sportswriters of yesteryear. But Schjeldahl has much more to offer than style. In every one of his reviews there’s at least one sentence in which he encapsulates not just the work and the life, but also how both these things are perceived by viewers. Take, for instance, this sentence from a 2018 New Yorker review of a Peter Hujar show: “His personal glamour consorts so awkwardly with his artistic discipline that trying to keep both in mind at once can hurt your brain.” He is also great on giving advice on how to look. In 1988, he counseled Elizabeth Murray viewers: “Stand close when you look at the paintings. The experience is like a full-body massage from a beautiful Swede on the verge of forgetting his or her professional detachment.” This sentence, in which Schjeldahl’s gift for the unexpected analogy is on bold display, forever changed how I viewed Murray’s work.
Indiana wields a blunter prose style and doesn’t possess anything like Schjeldahl’s deep understanding of art and artists, but the persona he creates can be riveting. More of a columnist than a critic, he sprinkles his pieces with art world gossip, glimpses of street life, boundless rancor, angry politics, and constant self-reference. If Schjeldahl comes across like someone who has found his dream job, Indiana often seems to hate art and art criticism in equal measure. Maybe that’s why his stint as full-time art critic was so short (1985–88). But it’s also what allowed him to dispense with the usual politesse in favor of responses that can, at their worst, sound like schoolyard taunts. In his review of the 1987 Whitney Biennial his sole comment on the paintings of Donald Sultan was “Yech. Give it up. Go home,” and after seeing a group of Tina Barney’s photographs, he wrote, “I won’t say whoever picked these things out should be shot because I am opposed to capital punishment.”
While their sensibilities couldn’t be more different, Indiana and Schjeldahl both schooled themselves to be writers (novelist and poet, respectively) rather than critics, and it’s this literary foundation on which they built their durable temples of style. Ingrid Sischy’s writings, many of which were first published in Vanity Fair, don’t attain that level of inherent stylistic interest. A brilliant editor during her years at Artforum, and later occupying the same post at Interview, Sischy, who died in 2015, didn’t employ a recognizable writerly voice or offer any particular critical perspective. If Indiana teeters on the border between columnist and critic, Sischy veers away from criticism into arts journalism, and the afterlife of arts journalism tends to be even briefer than that of art criticism.
If you ask critics themselves whether their work has any shelf life, you get interesting answers. Saltz once observed that art critics are “very here, then very gone.”2 In her interview in What It Means to Write About Art, Roberta Smith confesses to Earnest that she has very little interest in collections of art criticism, either her own (she’s never published her reviews in book form and the idea of having to reread them all gives her “the willies”) or others’. She emphasizes that she writes for a daily newspaper (the New York Times), a medium that was long defined by its immediacy. “Until digitalization,” Smith says, “I saw reviews as very ephemeral, written to be read quickly and tossed.” Some of Earnest’s subjects are deeply pessimistic about the present and future of art criticism. Jed Perl worries that “the scale of the art world—and the outrageous amounts of money now involved—has become oppressive.” Even worse, he fears that “a great period of cultural expansion and enlightenment may be ending.” Barbara Rose asserts that “the relative importance of criticism now is minimal. Nobody cares. They figure, If I’m that rich I must be smart. Who needs experience or years of study? Criticism is not how values are formed today.” Hal Foster pines for the old days, when, as he sees it, great critics were also serious intellectuals. “When I was young you could pick up The New Yorker and read Sontag, or pick up The New York Review of Books and read Didion. Now you pick up magazines and you get . . . Peter Schjeldahl? Jed Perl? David Salle? I admire Peter and David as writers, but they aren’t critics.” Unlike Rose, who holds the know-nothing rich responsible for the decline in values, Foster blames . . . editors. As he sees it, the editors of those estimable publications have “given up on the critical part of the old public sphere; they’ve given up on criticism.”
A recurring theme in What It Means to Write About Art is how much the interviewees feel they owe to their editors of an earlier day. One recipient of repeated shout-outs—from Foster, Smith, Saltz, Holland Cotter, and the late Crimp—is Elizabeth (Betsy) Baker, editor of Art in America for many years and the person I happily credit with whatever skill I have as an art critic. What writers got from Baker was her amazing fund of knowledge, her great critical acuity, her sensitivity to language, and her patience to keep working on a piece until it was as good as it could possibly be. Open to all sorts of art forms and theories, she has always been an appreciative first reader who, once committed, holds writers to the high critical standard her readers deserve.
I don’t know if, as Foster contends, the editors of the New Yorker and the NYRB have abandoned serious criticism, but it’s certainly true that many online publications have given up on editing, or maybe never embraced it in the first place. I suspect that the limitations of much online criticism result from the lack of editorial input: in the world of “do-more-with-less,” few editors can afford the many hours needed to coax better writing and clearer thinking from writers.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare the largely unedited style of online writing with the artisanal practice of writing for print. The web, especially in social media outlets, prizes immediacy over eloquence and succinctness over structure. Ironically, the interviewee in Earnest’s book who discourses at greatest length about the mechanics of prose writing, Dave Hickey, is also a champion of social media as a platform for art criticism. In 2016 he published Wasted Words. Here’s how this 586-page book, which was edited by art historian and curator Julia Friedman, is described on places like Google Books and Amazon: “Between June 2014 and April 2015, Dave Hickey posted almost 3,000 digital comments on social media, prompting nearly 700,000 words in response from art lovers, acolytes, and skeptics. Wasted Words is an unedited comprehensive transcript of these exchanges.” Although unlikely to have been read in its entirety by anyone other than its editor, Wasted Words is a milestone in the history of art criticism, an acknowledgment that the days of top-down authority are over, though not everyone agrees this is a good thing. In the introduction to Vile Days, Indiana insists that he has “never discovered a single worthwhile item in the comment threads attached to online stories.”
Hickey’s bold experiment raises some crucial questions. Can the authority of the art critic survive in a multi-voice universe? Will individual responses be drowned in a flood of consensus? And what about the economics of online writing? (Rose points out that “now the writers are treated as slaves, unpaid serfs, faceless bloggers.”) Recently I’ve had the feeling—and I suspect I’m not alone—that the structure that was born with and sustained art since the birth of modernism in nineteenth-century France, that is, the system of art galleries, art magazines, and art critics, is breaking apart before our eyes. Gallery-going has lost its appeal; most art business is now done at fairs and auction houses, or online; art magazines are withering like other print periodicals; art criticism faces increasing marginalization. What to do?
“Criticism is pretty much after the fact,” Donald Judd once observed.3 Whatever a critic writes is dependent on some artist’s prior activities; however brilliant a piece of criticism might be, it will always be secondary to that art that inspired it. Another way of putting this is to say that all criticism is occasional. And yet, there are moments when criticism is not an afterthought, not a response to some preexisting effort, but, rather, an attempt to shape the future of art. This is a much rarer form of critical writing, as it should be. The main task of criticism, after all, is to respond to artworks, not to get ahead of them. But what we might call agenda criticism can offer a feeling of urgency, a sense of purpose, that occasional criticism finds harder to achieve.
There has long been, with good reason, a suspicion of criticism that is driven more by the critic’s idées fixes than by the impact of a specific artwork. It’s no compliment to say that someone “has an agenda.” And, yet, many of the most influential pieces of art criticism propose some kind of program, engage in polemics, have an ax to grind (like those classic examples mentioned above). Of course, reformist zeal can result in spectacular blindness, from Judd’s conviction that nearly all postwar European art was bad to Robert Hughes’s nasty dismissal of Jean-Michel Basquiat to the decades-long campaign against painting waged by writers associated with the journal October. Even so, the critic as angry prophet can be a welcome relief from the blandness that afflicts so much contemporary art writing, which all too often simply paraphrases the artist’s own interpretation of the work.
Are there any alternatives to these modes of art criticism, some other kind of writing about art that is neither occasional nor agenda-driven nor anodyne? I believe that other options exist, but to find them one must look outside the usual places. In recent years, some of the most interesting responses to contemporary art have come from the world of literature: I think of the role of Christian Marclay’s The Clock in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014); the oblique contemporary-art allegories in Valeria Luiselli’s novel The Story of My Teeth (2015), which began as an essay commissioned by the Museo Jumex in Mexico City; Mónica de la Torre’s The Happy End/All Welcome (2017), a book of poems inspired by a Martin Kippenberger installation; the accounts of work by Catherine Opie and A.L. Steiner in Maggie Nelson’s lapidary memoir-essay The Argonauts (2015); and Catherine Cusset’s recent riveting bio-novel Life of David Hockney (2019). One might add to this list literary experiments by art writers such as Travis Jeppesen, who believes that unorthodox writing can help restore lost vitality to art criticism. In his preface to Bad Writing, Jeppesen, whose influences include Gertrude Stein and Ryan Trecartin, explains the motivation behind his fiction-criticism hybrids such as “Reading Capital in Venice” (first published in Art in America in 2015). These experiments are, he says, intentionally “Bad” due to “their willful defiance of the commodification of art criticism—a commodification that has enveloped every sphere of art, from the museum to the magazine—that has led to the gradual extinguishment of its life force.”
In the relatively uncommodified world of poetry, Claudia Rankine brilliantly weaves works by Glenn Ligon and Hennessy Youngman (the YouTube identity of painter Jayson Musson) into her much-celebrated, groundbreaking prose poem, Citizen (2014). As a prelude to a passionate account of the racism faced on- and off-court by Serena Williams, Rankine describes one of Youngman’s YouTube videos in which he satirizes the art world under the guise of offering tutorials for young artists. At once hilarious and wise, the episodes comprising Youngman’s “Art Thoughtz,” which he posted from 2010 to 2012, have also been extremely popular—the last time I looked, his video about Damien Hirst had garnered 235,000 views, and his takes on Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman are familiar to most of the MFA students I encounter, which I can’t say about any single piece of art criticism.
And this brings me to my last, and possibly most important point. I’ve never understood why more art critics, especially younger ones, aren’t making use of video. Nearly a half century after John Berger’s innovative BBC series “Ways of Seeing,” surprisingly few commentators have embraced the potential of film and video as vehicles for criticism. Combining documentary footage of everyday life, images of artworks, talking-head commentary, filmed conversations, film clips, and staged situations, Berger essentially invented filmic art criticism. You can find plenty of videos about contemporary art online, but they tend to be either straightforward documentaries or shots of critics pontificating during exhibition walkthroughs or chatting in artist studios. None of them take advantage of the potential of video to interweave commentary and visuals in ways that go far beyond print’s staid text-and-illustration format.
The failure of art critics to venture beyond the written word is all the more puzzling given how accessible video technology has become. Currently, film criticism is being recharged by young cineastes who marry the legacy of Chris Marker and Alexander Kluge with the immediacy of digital technology. Watching recent video essays like Kyle Kallgren’s 2018 Nostalghia Critique (about a scene in an Andrei Tarkovsky film) or Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee’s 2018 Reading//Binging//Benning (a “desktop cinema” meditation on the films of James Benning) or, going back a little further, Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-part Histoire(s) du Cinema from 1988, I dream about what could be done in the realm of art criticism by someone with a sharp mind and a good grasp of Final Cut Pro. Given the profound changes we have witnessed in society and art over the last twenty years, it seems time for art critics to experiment with new mediums. If nothing else, inventive video essays about contemporary art might garner a larger audience than writing-based criticism. They might even capture the attention of those many criticism-averse MFA students.
This article appears under the title “The Ghosts of Art Criticism” in the October 2019 issue, pp. 26–30.