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January 2, 2011

A Few Thoughts Prompted by Critics on Criticism in the NYTBR

1. A bunch of critics touting criticism. Quelle surprise. Conspicuous by their absence were novelists, short-story writers, poets, and most of all, plain ol' book-buying readers saying how much they needed it and begging critics to stick with it. The whole ensemble seemed to me like Sports Illustrated running a suite of short essays on the need for sportswriting.

2. Not exactly a great range in race, age, class and, at least to a non-specialist in literature like me, set of touchstones.

3. Nothing much critical, especially of other critics. (Or are literary critics an all-for-one, one-for-all band of musketeers fighting off--not to put too fine a point on it--amateurs who blog?) The tone was pretty much commencement-address, and kind of a snore, really.

4. This "crisis in criticism" stuff--implied to the point of declaration by the very existence of this set of essays--has been blowing big in the art world long enough now that it's a kind of cottage industry. An art historian at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Elkins, has been giving papers, writing articles, amassing anthologies (yes, I've contributed) and holding conferences (that's what got me to Beijing last summer) for several years now. Basically, he says, more and more and more art criticism is being written and it's actually read by fewer and fewer people.

5. The economics of the kind of art I deal with as a critic is different from that of all the other arts, except maybe architecture. With books and music and movies, economic success comes from selling a million things for a dollar each. With contemporary gallery art, it comes from selling one thing for a million dollars. The viewing audience for art functions in a different way than the audiences for those other arts: They just look, they don't buy. Only "collectors" buy, and they're a tiny, tiny percentage of the people who cruise art galleries and museums. So, art critics' relationship to their readers is different from that of, say, a movie critic's to his or hers.

6. In the early days of my own career, I caught the tail end of the era when art critics--or at least a select few--had some palpable effect on collectors' buying decisions. The way it worked was that a prescient and passionate critic championed an artist who was too far-out for most collectors of modern art, and those collectors--or some new, more adventuresome ones--first read about that artist, then ventured into an edgy gallery to see the artist's work, and finally bought something. The artist was then off and running. The classic example is Clement Greenberg / Jackson Pollock. Nowadays, collectors lead the critics. Collectors rack up hundreds of thousands of frequent-flier miles going from artists' studios in Central Europe and Korea to biennials in Athens and South Africa, and have their own scouts/advisors/curators troll the galleries in Chelsea and Culver City. What they buy then becomes newsworthy enough for critics to write about.

7. There are almost no popular-press art critics left: Peter Schjeldahl, Jerry Saltz, and Richard Lacayo in the mass magazines (maybe Jed Perl, if you consider The New Republic a mass magazine), and staff critics in a few major dailies (with the Timeses of New York and L.A. being the only ones, I think, to have several people writing reviews), and that's it. Most everybody's a freelancer who also does something else for a living and, at times, operates under a different kind of patronage. A couple of years ago, I wrote one of two essays (Klauss Kertess did the other) for the hardbound catalogue of the public collection of Martin Margulies in Miami. (Margulies has his own museum open to the public, as is the style in Miami.) And, true to (6), above, about half the artists I wrote about in that essay were new to me.

8. In case you're wondering about my writing to flatter Margulies instead of issuing my own fearless, unvarnished opinions about the art: a) It was more an expository essay about the nature of collection than a review of it, b) I've known Margulies and his collecting attitudes for years, and don't do this sort of essay for just anybody, and c) one always has to pick one's way through the minefields of personal relationships and possible conflicts-of-interest. Though it's not infallible, the proof of integrity is generally in the text. Although those lit critics in the NYT gathering didn't go much into it, I'll bet their entanglements of same-publisher/same-agent, back-scratching reviews and blurbs of each other's books, having gone to the same schools, etc., are pretty difficult to navigate, too.

January 2, 2011 5:36 PM | | Comments (0)

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