Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dishing it out (art criticism that is)... by Danielle Hurd

...and we're back! I apologize for our two week hiatus from art-related witticisms and criticisms. I have only one explanation to offer: midterms. But now that's over and it's back to business! Speaking of art criticism...

John Ruskin, famous art critic and writer of Modern Painters

In his article, "An Artistic Tradition in the Making: Looking at American Art in French Nineteenth-Century Criticism," Veerle Thielemans says, "Art criticism is a special genre. It requires audacity in the pronouncement of aesthetic judgements, original insight in the artist's particular project, a connoisseur's eye, and an interest in the environment in which the work was created. Good art criticism is also nourished by art historical knowledge." (The article proceeds to give an insightful critique of French-American art exchanges and expectations at the end of the 19th century. It is a great lens for understanding the development of American art, check it out!)

We (the AHA) want to reiterate that this blog is a place where we hope you (artists, art educators, art historians, and most importantly art enthusiasts) will feel free to discuss and critique what you are hearing in class, seeing in local museums and galleries, reading for research/pleasure, and noticing in art news. Be a critic!

This post, for example was inspired by my reading of Thielemans' essay for my Transnationalism seminar. As I thought about Thielemans' assertion I wondered: What is the role of art criticism in the current art market, and in our own art historical practice? All of us are critics to some degree; we are constantly making assessments about the artist we study, what is "worth" our attention and what is not (Renoir). However, it also seems that while many critics garner fame for their assessments, they also become the whipping boys of the larger art historical community. Vasari is revered, but also questioned; Ruskin saw the genius in Turner, but not in Whistler; Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried decided the direction of much of Modernism and Post-Modernism, but now their ideas are being fundamentally questioned; Rosalind Kraus had a big hit with David Smith and is one of the great Post-Modernist thinkers, but many of her "favorites" have failed to catch on.

Art criticism is a problematic practice, to say the least. Who is your favorite critic? Do you agree with Thielemans' assessment of what it takes to be a good critic? Do you feel that they reflect the skills we  cultivate as students of the arts?


  1. Interesting post! Considering different ways art historical knowledge is used, and their merits, is always interesting and valuable ...

    My favorite critic at the moment is Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes - he is bold with his assertions and quite knowledgeable, thought to tell you the truth, I am not really up in the art criticism world. I don't know if I could name 5 art critics.

    I agree with Thielemans' assessment - but add that it takes courage. It takes a lot of courage to take a decisive stand on an artist, artwork, or museum - and then back it up. Because, as an art critic - you need the artists, instituions, and historians to see you as legitimate and qualified, to keep listening to what your saying, and to be a successful art critic - and I think there are SO many opportunities to offend, or be wrong with art criticism - that it is risky and takes a lot of courage.

    I think good art critics do have skills that we cultivate as students of the arts - analytical eyes and reasoning, but, for me I don't think art criticism is as a rewarding scholarly activity, as research and writing more traditionally art historical things.

    Anyways, probably a much longer comment than you wanted - but my two cents.

  2. Congratulations! Your post was nominated to be included in the November issue of the Art History Carnival.

    Keep up the good work! I enjoyed reading this post very much, and you've brought up some good issues to consider - I had never given much thought to how Krauss' "favorites" have not caught on. Perhaps sometimes critics are only respected/read for their theoretical opinions, and not for the art that they prefer?

    On a side note, you may find it interesting that Johnny Depp was inspired by art critic Brian Sewell when developing his character for the Mad Hatter. If you're not familiar with Sewell's persona, you can watch a video clip (and find a link to a Johnny Depp article) in this post. I wonder what parallels could be drawn, then, if Sewell provides inspiration for an insane character from Alice in Wonderland! (Are all art critics crazy? Or just Brian Sewell?) :)

    Here is the November issue of the art history carnival:

  3. Thanks M! I had heard about the Brian Sewell connection, unfortunately, I still have not seen the new Alice in Wonderland (I was in Brazil when it came out, and I have a hard time justifying the luxury of movie watching; I will have to take a film history class so that it becomes a necessity).

    As a side note to that side note, I think it is interesting to see the reinvention of an art critic in pop culture. I sometimes wonder if art criticism does more to drive the public away than direct its interest with its esotericism (not that art history is much better). I think that perhaps the finest line the art critic must walk is between the banal and the obtuse. I would argue that the best art is neither mundane nor inaccessible, but manges to be both avant garde and "retro" so that audiences are simultaneously surprised and vaguely familiar with the work. A good critic, then, is able to lead the public to these progressive bodies of work.

    So, I suppose that I would add to Thielemans' "a degree of sensitivity to public opinion, demand, and popular cultural concerns. I do not believe that art should bow to public opinion, but that it should be more concerned with responding to cultural concerns than to the aesthetic predilections of a single critic or theory. I realize my assessment is fraught with problems and that this could be debated ad nauseam but I wonder if there is a way to reconcile pop culture and art criticism . . . blogs?