THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Fifteen years ago, noted art writer James Elkins wrote a provocative pamphlet entitled, What Happened to Art Criticism? By then, evaluative criticism, the craft’s leading mode, had been in decline for decades, pummeled by a combination of insurgent art movements, the art journal October, and French literary theorists.
Elkins notes that a fellow critic, Hal Foster, pointed to the generation of mid-1970s art critics and those writing for Artforum in the post-Greenberg era as working against criticism’s identification of judgment. Conceptual art, minimalism and institutional critique also contributed to making art criticism inessential.
Elkins offered a useful taxonomy of the new standard: descriptive writing. Many critics adopted the strategy of avoiding judgments altogether in favor of evoking the art rather than talking about what they thought of it. He also offered Seven Unworkable Cures for reversing such a state of affairs.
One can’t deny that today’s real judges of value aren’t critics but auctions, art fairs, curators and mega-gallerists, like Larry Gagosian for one. The once-dominant custodians of artistic value have been left in the dust.
In the wake of descriptive criticism’s ascendance and the loss of the art beat at many newspapers nationwide, a plethora of new forms now exist that pass for the real thing: gallery cards and four-page brochures, artist commentaries on their work, and peripheral journals (such as Hyperallergic, Blouin Artinfo, and Flash Art). And one can’t forget all manner of opinion and dreaded listicles by so-called “critics” online. Such criticism only plays the art market’s game in the end. Art media’s standard must be higher and tougher.
While Elkins can’t see a resurgence of real criticism, some editorial shoots are blooming against the prevailing orthodoxy. MOMUS, an online publication out of Toronto, has as its motto, “a return to art criticism.” We feature an interview with its editor, Sky Goodden, in this issue. Such a cause is in order, she says, to “hold the contemporary moment up to the court of history and lay claim… for how we, and our time, will be understood.”
Two contributors, Richard Siegesmund and Buzz Spector, argue forcefully in favor of evaluation as criticism’s key value. Thus, our cover’s question is meant to stoke renewed examination of critical writing’s true purpose. Evaluation and judgment may be underdogs at present, but a spirited fight for the reoccupation of its historic place in art history has only just begun.
Tom Mullaney is the New Art Examiner’s Managing Editor
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