Call Yourself a Critic?

The untidy tradition of criticism

In 1976, Peter Schjeldahl resolved to abandon art criticism for good. He only lasted a couple of years, but when he quit he wrote a deeply ambivalent farewell. The result was ‘Dear Profession of Art Writing’, a long poem which ping-pongs between mea culpa and critique, as Schjeldahl – who would later join The Village Voice in 1980 then The New Yorker in 1998 – weighs up the life of a jobbing critic. It’s an odd piece, apologizing for over-hasty trashings while at the same time scattering barbs about peers and elders. Some of those mentioned include Hilton Kramer (‘makes art sound as appealing as a deodorant enema’), Harold Rosenberg (‘honey-tongued blowhard’), Rosalind Krauss (‘let me out of here!’) and Clement Greenberg (‘worm-eaten colossus’).

Towards the end of the poem, Schjeldahl decides that he has no regrets, referring with some affection to the ‘tidy guild’ of art writers. On first reading, this idea of an ordered community felt about right, even comforting, though when I recently came across the line again it seemed less accurate. For one thing, critics – more than artists and curators – tend to work alone; while there are professional bodies, it’s mostly a solo pursuit, a lot of which takes place before any conversation with an editor. And, of course, few critics are only critics: writing is typically supplemented by curating, teaching, freelance editing, assisting artists, bar-tending, or whatever other work is around. I’ve met art critics who moonlight as anything from cricket correspondents to cheesemongers.

While professional hybridizations may be the norm today – try finding an art journal by-line that lists only one activity and one city of residence – working ‘between’ has often been the common mode for the art critic. From poet-critics (Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Frank O’Hara), dealer-critics (Félix Fénéon, Daniel Kahnweiler) and artist-critics (Donald Judd, Robert Smithson), criticism is rarely the sole province of those who best practice it. This continues today: as artist Hito Steyerl notes in her collected essays, she writes during (and between) a string of residencies and teaching positions, a writing environment shaped by flexibility and interruption. Criticism is genetically untidy.

What does the way in which critics define themselves today tell us about how they conceive of their relationship to art and to writing? A recent panel discussion at the ICA in London, titled ‘The Trouble With Art Criticism’ (has there been a writing panel in the last decade that hasn’t alluded to some crisis? Surely any crisis isn’t limited to the domain of criticism?), included writers, editors and curators, but only one of the five participants was identified as a critic. Of course, disavowing the term gets around the thorny issue of whether or not it’s the critic’s business to be dealing in judgements, but with what should it be replaced?

In recent years various contenders have emerged. One popular handle is ‘art writer’, suggestive of creativity rather than sniping, opting for a stance – frictionless and mobile – over a critical position. This is not to be confused with the expanding field of ‘art writing’, usefully ambiguous about whether the subject or the writing is the ‘art’. More cynically, Boris Groys once wrote that after judgement has melted away all that is left is commentary: he favours the epithet ‘art commentator’ over ‘critic’, one who protects the modesty of the art with a ‘textual bikini’. The late Stuart Morgan had no problems with the term critic, but – in a wonderful lecture titled ‘Homage to the Half-Truth’ (1991) – suggested that criticism, or ‘the act of shifting an experience from one language to another’, was closer to translation than to commentary. He perhaps had in mind Susan Sontag’s well-known argument, in ‘Against Interpretation’ (1966), for the impossibility of adequately translating the art work, though I think she would have supported Morgan’s insistence on a continuing attentiveness to language – something for which Groys has little time.

More recently, John Kelsey offered another alternative. Kelsey occupies an unusually multi-hyphenated position, in that as well as producing criticism he is a gallerist (at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York), one who sells the work he produces as an artist (as part of Bernadette Corporation), and is also an editor and professor. There have been occasions when, in a single magazine, he is simultaneously advertiser, reviewer and reviewed, a degree of entanglement he signals by labelling himself a ‘hack’, with its connotations of Grub Street drudgery. This half-serious suggestion, which Kelsey made during a 2007 lecture at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, offers a replacement for the critic who is ‘not up to the task of reinventing himself to meet the conditions he’s working under today’ – call it critic 2.0. Tellingly, Kelsey’s strawman is referred to exclusively as a ‘he’, and the version of critical activity that he would rather do away with – dogmatic, predicated on good ‘taste’ – feels haunted by the masculine mandarins of the 1950s and ’60s. But when Rosenberg and Greenberg are invoked as emblematic of a certain kind of monolithic criticism, which they often are, it’s usually forgotten that the former started out as a poet and survived as a sometime ad man, and that the latter began as a customs official with a background in literature. They were both multi-taskers too.

Is there a connection between Schjeldahl’s farewell and Kelsey’s cheerful elegy? Whether implying a tidy guild or a critic who is impeccably disinterested, each account constructs a kind of figure that I’m not sure ever existed: one who is undistracted, part of a pure tradition and devoted to a single pursuit. But if criticism has often been characterized by a lack of codification, perhaps it’s better to think of it as a number of related practices with different goals rather than a uniform field of activity. This untidiness could be a virtue.

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer. 

Issue 145

First published in Issue 145

March 2012

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