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Ben Davis Sez Art Criticism Isn’t Dead, Just Maimed

by Kyle Chayka on January 6, 2011

‘Tis only a flesh wound! Newly-crowned Artinfo deputy editor Ben Davis (Artnet) posts a rant about the State of Art Criticism, pointing out that even though serious criticism may look dead, it’s actually just become increasingly eclipsed by the more hit-friendly version of art writing he deems “art news.” Davis conflates this new world of web-based art criticism with a drop in quality, but I think serious criticism is actually more relevant now than ever. While we may not have journals full of October-style criticism, we do have an engaged community of artists, curators, reporters and critics who all contribute to a group dialogue that is a composite of so-called art criticism and art news.

The distinction Davis makes between art criticism and art news is that art news is essentially gossip about the art scene rather than serious engagement with art. Reporting on the latest “institutional scandals” and “celebrity art sightings,” Davis says, have swallowed more theoretical dialogues about aesthetics. Yet reporting on the art scene also fulfills a critical role: with an ever-larger art scene and art media have come greater levels of transparency which, while limited, have helped to clarify some of the kabuki dances of the art world that remained insider-only under the dominion of “theory-crit” whose absence Davis mourns.

Criticism isn’t dead, it’s just changing into a new, more populist form that threatens to undermine the overwhelming authority of old-school critics like Ben Davis. Where Davis is scared of blogging (it “draws its strength from attitude and outrage”), the art community turns to blogging to create an actual exchange that isn’t only directed by those encased in ivory towers. The New York Times’ recent essay by Stephen Burns on why criticism matters makes the point that while the general quality of “criticism” may decrease, what is driving changes in criticism is actually a more active, aggressive audience:

Though online reviews inevitably vary in quality and insight, their very existence no longer makes it possible to imagine that there is not an engaged general-interest audience out there consuming and thinking about literary works. The audience now talks to itself.

In other words, critics are no longer able to say that “the audience doesn’t know what it wants.” I have learned from experience that what an art audience wants is not always a dry, theoretical screed, especially when content is flowing from writer to reader multiple times daily. We no longer have the luxury of being authoritative; to me, criticism is daily reporting, and providing for an audience means also publishing some pop culture crossovers and internet memes. Even critics are allowed to have fun.

Davis acknowledges the changes in art writing with a reflection that maybe dry theory isn’t what our contemporary art world calls for. He writes,

Criticism’s loss of luster has less to do with some terminal death spiral for serious thought than it does with some weaknesses internal to the old theories people used to make art seem important.

That seems right to me. New media has destabilized the authority of the old critic. It has become more and more important that art news and art criticism and art audiences coexist, learning and feeding off each other. Art news isn’t going to kill art criticism, but what it can do is supplement theory-crit and create interest in more scholarly writing previously considered inaccessible. And that’s a good thing.

Below, check out some tweets from this morning’s conversation between our favorite art world pundits about Davis’ article:

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  • fylompa

    I am confused. Ben Davis was born “Artnet”? That seems like a VERY odd thing for a parent to name a child. To each his and her own, I guess, though. It’s better than Apple or Brooklyn.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Better than Artforum “Scott” Rothkopf. Also fixed the né.

  • fylompa

    Also, Ben Davis is a female? (Males would take a single e, i.e. “né.” Which would still mean “born.” Which would still mean his (her?) parents named him (her?) Artnet. Maybe that was a prescient move on their part.

  • Rob Myers

    “While we may not have journals full of October-style criticism”

    Thank goodness. I wouldn’t mind more Art-Language style criticism though.

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  • http://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/ Artstuffmatters

    Thanks for this response to Davis’ essay. It seems like Davis is basically conservative in his views about art writing. However, he attempts to acknowledge some merits in what he terms “art news.” Subsequently, the overall tone of the article is one of mournful ambivalence.
    In some ways his stance reminds me of the conventional viewpoints expressed in the recent essays by New York Times critic Edward Rothstein on what he terms “identity museums” and Arianna Huffington’s attack on the use of 2.0 applications in art museums.
    Thank you for addressing Davis’ claim that “art news” is just gossip. This assertion is definitely inaccurate. Internet based art writing is diverse. It consists of a wide range of content and approaches to art.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      It definitely feels like there’s this collision between ‘serious’ writing and thought and then ‘gossip’ writing and thought that shouldn’t actually exist. Oh well, it’s getting better. The diversity is the important part.

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