Repository 106: A Case for the Critic | A Vital Tool in Art Ecology

Image of artists' Rosenclaire, "Invest in the Immaterial", neon

Image of artists’ Rosenclaire, “Invest in the Immaterial”, neon

Last night I went to a panel discussion of regional art institutions discussing various streams of support to artists. The talk was moderated by a 30-year veteran curator from the area. The net of the conversation was pretty safe, all parties from alternative artist-centered spaces, to larger and more endowed institutions agreed that artists are not receiving the funds that they need, and simply that it is hard to raise money for the arts.

One of the more ghastly moments of the event was when a head curator pronounced that it is “difficult to say why art is valuable”, and therefore it is not able to be funded. Gasp. She said this emphatically: David standing at Goliath’s feet, an artist and her relationship with money. She continued saying “value in the immaterial is impossible to prove.” While this may be a personal beef she has, it’s certainly not true. And to second that she is in a position of holding full court for art and artists, and representing her organization on the panel, why show a complete lack of faith in the validity or value-ness for that which you stand for? If the normal says it’s not possible, it’s the responsibility of arts administrators to subvert the normal thinking, and give people eyes into the fact that investing in the immaterial is critical for a humane society, not to mention the importance of arts on innovation and critical thinking. Period.

Another ghastly moment was when one of the directors of an artist space started to describe the replenishing that happens when artists give back to other artists. Really? Maybe Warhol/Rasuchenburg/Mitchell/Krasner stuff, but otherwise let’s seek out broader industries and individuals to replenish this anemic state of artist support, and stop assuming an incestuous cycle. Top secret advice for fundraisers seeking money and curators seeking new talent…it’s not who you know, but who you don’t know.

Enter the critic

One audience member made the point that while he’s lived here for a little over a year, he’s noticed there is no criticism, and that this is a vital element for the contemporary art in society. Well said! Just recently Hyperallergic made a list of the 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World. Among the “powerless” nominees “The Detroit Art Institute” and “Non-Celebrity Artists”, “Critics” were listed at the top of the list. “Negative Criticism” is separately listed as powerless spot 16. I wholeheartedly disagree – while there may not be an economic framework to dance in, they are indeed vital to a broader conversation about the arts. Critics hold tremendous power in not only the arts, but all other industries. Besides Jerry Saltz, there are few art critics who are confident enough to say something anti-establishment. Most reviews in Artforum are comfortable, mushy reviews of artist work – no boats are tipped, no feather ruffled and not too much straight talk.

It is possible to talk straight about contemporary artwork, even if it’s a piece of cardboard stapled to the wall – there is something to review and discuss. It’s the job of a critic to put that gesture in a framework that a broader audience might feel comfortable engaging in. Nowadays artist all speak in their own language: they are taught in school to create a visual language unique to them. Hence the need for a translator. A critic can most certainly outline a weak or powerful example of something while remaining neutral. Yes it’s difficult to flip off a diving board – always – art is difficult. However, some do it more gracefully than others, and it’s high time that people besides the artists and art world people, have the confidence to recognize it. And have the confidence to back up their findings that some artwork is simply gauche – your gut is right and here are some words to help you describe it (enter critic).

The confidence in recognition is crucial to supporting the arts, whether in discussing its value or purchasing the work. If a chef can’t explain to you the nuance that is foie gras, which they usually can’t as they are busy cooking prepping and planning, but you have been exposed to a critic writing about it, then you have far more confidence seeking it out and ordering it. Most serious culinary adventures start from reading from critics (thank you Ruth Reichl!). Chef shows are now popular I know – but chef shows are to Jeff Koons, as critic reviews are to Anselm Kiefer – one packs more depth then the other.

The curator at the SAM also told a story of a visit by acclaimed curator and critic Robert Storr to her museum. The conversation veered to funding, and one of Storr’s recommendations to them as an institution would be to endow an art critic position. Brilliant really. Another job an art critic could do for a city or nation for that matter, would be to help steer people out of regionalism and into the larger world, a guiding hand to seek the powers of art beyond the provincial. Also a critic could help to give feedback to artists and art organizations that are simply moving along according to their funding strategies (if we make a show about heritage, we get the federal grant…if I paint my paintings red they will more likely sell, etc).

I will ask my local paper and media outlet – why NOT have an art critic? They would not offend any sponsors, as artists don’t advertise and normally non-profit advertising is pro bono. With the right critic in place, a new expansive dialogue about art can occur. If Robert Storr says its a good idea, I think we should listen.

Lastly, in defense of the critic, if I had a nickel every time I heard an artist prefer to have a write up by a critic versus a gallery sale, I’d have about $1,500 in my pocket (average size of local grants for artists).

I hope they have another one of these supporting artists talks soon. Instead of having the institutions be the leaders of the discussion, let’s make a panel of collectors and critics, and let them have at it. The true ecology of the art system is neither regional, nor institutionally based.

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2 responses to “Repository 106: A Case for the Critic | A Vital Tool in Art Ecology

  1. Hey Catherine, I really enjoyed reading your post! As always you make some great points. Nice to see you and thanks again for the ride. I love the coloring book. Looking forward to coloring in and outside the lines. I

    xo diane

    Diane Jacobs http://www.dianejacobs.net

    • Thank you so much for reading Diane! And thank you SO much for coloring!! please send images of finished work for me for documentation, or the boys work if they feel like coloring – Dan too!! xox

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