WM: Who are the best international art critics/bloggers? Is the hierarchy of the art critic still in place or does social media make everyone an art critic?
P Elaine Sharpe:
My preference is for many-to-many communications as opposed to the one-to-many model espoused in traditional blogs or old-school media. Blogging in particular has lowered the bar for admission into the world of contemporary art criticism. However, being regarded as a critic in a global culture requires more than simply nominating one’s self as being critical or espousing criticality as a lifestyle and finding a snappy name for a blog. Those who are interested in the discourse of the art worlds we inhabit have acquired the burden of filtering out the merely opinionated from those who have significant knowledge to disseminate. Add social networks to the mix: readers and artists who are dissatisfied with the former status quo dictums are demanding more from their critics because when everybody is a critic, nobody is a critic. Although anything that breaks down the fortress walls is progress, it’s unfortunately still a turf war with the heroes yet to be determined.
My list embraces those critics whose viewpoints and writings are so fresh and original that I gasp at their historical and contemporary associations, connections that I had never even dreamed of. Like threads that seem to be capriciously tangled, they are sorted out in a style that is clear and luminously written stimulating me intellectually - a rare and exciting experience. I include bloggers and those who do not have blogs, but post on Facebook, as the distinctions between critic/blogger/writer/ at that level is inconsequential. I try to read what they write whatever the venue or their academic pedigree.
1. Matthew Collings
2. Olu Oguibe
3. Roberta Smith
4. Robert Storr
5. Barry Schwabsky
6. Berta Sichel
7. Holland Cotter
8. Eleanor Heartney
9. Stephen Pusey
10. Arthur Danto
11. Carl Hazlewood
12. Matthew Weinstein
13. Robert Mahoney
Deceased but I find their work still alive and revelatory:
14. Andre Malraux
15. Arlene Raven
Art critics are typically unpaid or underpaid, a damaging residue from the archaic notion that hierarchical status belongs to wealth. Art Critics are expected to already have money, belong to the leisure class, and are typically given token compensation for the work they do. Since many great thinkers are not independently wealthy, they end up having other jobs that actually feed themselves and their families. Hence the advent of social networking type art criticism. People want to state their opinions. Sometimes regular people are surprisingly right, sometimes idiotic. People count on critics to be tuned into that beautiful spark of light all the time, not just an occasional lightning bolt of wisdom from someone who does not bear that expectation.
Art critics will be able to maintain their status only if they can compete as singular, original, different, and more knowledgeable, and if people seek them out specifically. The academy needn't panic, yet. The cream will rise to the top naturally. We shall soon find out if the critics are the cream or not. In my opinion many types of people are the cream including critics. Unless people just get tired of other people telling them what to think and just want to write their own opinions all the time.
When it comes to art critics and bloggers I'll read just about anything by anybody. I always appreciate a political rant, a personal vendetta, an axe to grind, an ass to kiss; a 4,000 headed egalitarian facebook think tank or the thrilling operatic vicarious experience of a detailed description, an occasional indecipherable, detached theoretical analysis or even an indulgence in voyeurism, schadenfreude or just pure gossip. I especially like to read artists writing about art.
But when I really want to learn something, to compare and contrast my yet to be articulated impresssions of a challenging show or work of art, I gravitate towards writers and venues with whom I have established trust in as credible narrators. For the last word I go to Roberta Smith at the New York times because her observations are knowledge based, her pereptions reveal authenticity and self awareness, personal integrity, accessible cultural references as well as pure spunk. She named Dan Colen's "juvenile nastiness", and referred to Mardsden Hartley's "Maineness" and called him Dickensian. She can evoke the smell of musk and masculinity in describing Hartley's Smelt Brook Falls as "flattened muscular sinew of water" and create phrases that mirror the spirit of the artist. She described the Matisse show as "keeps your eyes on their toes" and Nara's Nobody's Fool as "user -friendly exhibit that can feel like a little piece from somewhere over the rainbow". And...there is always density in the space between the lines.
The world is flat. The barriers of physicality have been removed and information and discussion has opened up and widened creating a new landscape. In olden times art criticism was contained in magazines, newspapers and books. Accessing it meant purchasing a physical object, which made the critics and writers a select few. Information now is so easily acquired that experts are unconventionally made and everyone has a legitimate voice. Discrimination by the art community is what validates the writer, not the publication. A clear and honest voice is still highly valued especially in a highly educated art world. But who that voice belongs to is no longer relegated to traditional sources. Those sources and critics are still valid, but they have to stand in a field that is populated by new outlets of discourse. Widening the circle of critics is reflective of the many voices in a very diverse and international art world.
I would rather be offline meeting with my artist friends at Fine Art Stretcher Bars (LA's Cedar Tavern) or outside a gallery taking about shows or art in general/studio practice than having the illusion of being connected internationally to a global art scene through social media. Here in Los Angeles I like to read criticism by Doug Harvey (who is also an artist) and Christopher Knight. Many of my artist friends write reviews or blog about art and curate shows. i think what has actually brought down the art criticism hierarchy is the invasion of the "practicing artist"/critic/curator hybrid rather than the stand alone academic thinker critic that puts things into an art historical context. We need both. The more voices the better. The globalization of art criticism isnt as interesting to me as being able to eavesdrop on someone elses local scene. I think social media/FB/blogs are good for that.
In practical terms I often scan the art reviews in order to build my own must-see list, looking to the critics to bring my attention to exhibitions that I might otherwise have missed. If pressed to mention a few writers: I still admire the early art criticism of Leo Steinberg, which has held up well over more than forty years. Holland Cotter's reviews are always worth reading. Other writers whom I respect include: Robert C. Morgan, Barry Schwabsky, the blogs by John Haber and by the photographer Dawoud Bey. What these critics have in common is a wide-ranging intelligence and a lucid style. The social media have served to invigorate art criticism. The top-down hierarchy of traditional criticism has been supplemented by an active, ongoing dialog among artists, curators, historians, collectors and critics.
FROM THE EDITOR:
Art professionals around the world are talking about certain issues at length. It is our interest to continue this dialogue with a weekly series of articles called "Voice of Art". After some deliberation we've invited some of the most interesting art voices from the online community to participate.