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By John Thomason
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By Ryan Pfeffer
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Last year, the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University contacted more than 200 art critics across the country, inviting them to participate in The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America.About 75 percent of those responded. I was one of them.
It was a lengthy, exhaustive survey, available online or in hard copy, that quizzed critics on our backgrounds, our aesthetics, our opinions of specific artists and even theorists and other art critics. I was glad to participate in the study and looked forward to seeing the results.
I finally received my copy of the report recently, a slender paperback that resembles a modest exhibition catalog and features a reproduction of Honoré Daumier's The Critics (Visitors in a Painter's Studio) (c. 1862). The drawing shows a handful of middle-aged-to-elderly white men peering intently at an unidentifiable work of art. Given Daumier's dim view of critics, it's not surprising that the ones shown here are made to look vaguely buffoonish.
In some respects, not much has changed in the nearly century and a half since Daumier's critics gathered, at least not in America. Artists, curators, and gallery owners still approach us warily, as if we might bite. And according to the survey report, which is full of pie charts, graphs, boxes, and sidebars, while art criticism may no longer be predominantly male territory -- about half of the survey respondents were women -- it's still an overwhelmingly white domain. Ninety percent of the critics who took the survey are Caucasian, with just two Asian-Americans, one African-American, and one Hispanic responding. The report characterizes "the statistically average art critic" as "a highly educated, Caucasian city-dweller in his or her late 40s (the median age is 48)." Am I squirming yet?
We also tend to be well to the left of center, politically speaking. Just over half of the critics surveyed characterized themselves as "Liberal," with another 20 percent calling themselves "Progressive" and another 16 percent weighing in as "Moderate." In other words, don't get us started on government arts funding, censorship, and freedom of speech in the Dubya era.
Critics at newspapers classified by the survey as alternative weeklies, the category New Times Broward-Palm Beach falls into, are even further to the left. Fully 85 percent of us are liberals or progressives. So why don't I get more hate mail?
Maybe, one outspoken critic of the survey suggests, it's because America's art critics aren't critical enough. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight, in a recent column on the report, complains, "By and large, journalistic art critics don't write art criticism." (Knight was invited to participate in the survey but was unable to because of Internet problems, although three of his colleagues responded.)
Knight marvels that a mere "27% of survey participants said they place a great deal of emphasis on forming and expressing... judgments. Twenty-seven percent!" Instead, he worries, we're too concerned with the other aspects of criticism ranked in the survey: accurately describing the art in question, providing historical background on the art and/or artist, creating a piece of writing with literary value, and theorizing about art. He begrudgingly acknowledges that these are "important but nonetheless routine concerns."
It seems especially irksome to Knight that an overwhelming majority of art critics agree with the statement "My job is to educate the public." Sixty-five percent strongly agree with that idea, and another 26 percent somewhat agree. Such an attitude, Knight frets, represents arrogance and elitism, condescension and superciliousness.
I don't recall my specific response, but I'm sure I sided, for once, with the majority. What surprises me is the vehemence of Knight's insistence that art criticism and art education are incompatible. Perhaps he forgets that the survey participants, as the study's subtitle indicates, write for general-interest news publications, not academic journals or art magazines. An inherent function of the "general-interest news publications" the survey focuses on is to share knowledge.
And I'm not just picking on Knight, by the way. Other critics have written about the survey, among them the New York Observer's cranky Hilton Kramer. He begins by calling the report "the silliest, most expensive, and least necessary 'research' folly ever devoted to the art scene in this country" and later refers to it as "a perfectly useless enterprise."
It's not until you're well into his tirade, however, that the reason for his ire becomes apparent. There's a section in The Visual Art Critic that asks critics to rate other critics (as well as specific artists), and Kramer seems none too happy about how influential he is on other critics. He's clearly pleased to be on a list that also includes his "critical idols" John Ruskin, Charles Baudelaire, and Roger Fry, even as it peeves him to be lumped with someone like Sister Wendy (whose intent to educate probably doesn't go over well with Knight either).
Admittedly, these rankings are among the survey's most meaningless, even baffling, sections. When confronted with a numbingly long list of "theorists" that includes the above-mentioned as well as Oscar Wilde, Immanuel Kant, and Roland Barthes, a critic is as likely to glaze over and go blank as to make intelligent distinctions. The questions asking critics to rank artists make a little more sense, but not much.
The report's critics might have spared themselves the bother of getting so worked up over it if they had paid more attention to the modest intentions expressed in the introduction by author/project director András Szántó: "The visual arts have experienced a period of dynamic growth and professionalization over the past two decades in the United States... The findings of this unprecedented survey suggest that although art critics have carved out an important role at many publications, on the whole criticism has been struggling to keep up with the swift evolution of the art world."
I came away from The Visual Art Critic with a better understanding of who writes about art in America and how we approach our work. But the best commentary in the report comes, I think, from people who aren't critics themselves, including curators and academics.
The University of California's Svetlana Alpers, a professor emeritus in art history, writes, for instance: "I read newspaper art criticism for essentially two reasons: 1) to find out what there is to go and look at; and 2) to get a considered take on what that art is like, what its nature and concerns are, and how good, or even bad, it is. The first reason is practical, the second is critical."
That's as concise a characterization of mainstream art criticism as anything else I've run across.