Essays

Should We Kill the Traditional Art Review? [UPDATED w tweets]

by Hrag Vartanian on March 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, I ran into artist William Powhida who started to tease me that I don’t really write many art reviews anymore. I got a little defensive but after thinking about it, I realized he was right. The reason? I have lost faith in the art review as the best way to communicate ideas in and about art.

I’m not saying that the literary form doesn’t still have life in it — and there are certainly some fantastic practitioners of the craft — but I do think it is an antiquated form, and the traditional art review (you know the type, it has a few photos and discusses an exhibition as a solitary experience) is better suited to group shows and surveys, maybe even thematic exhibitions, but it doesn’t work as successfully for solo shows, where it feels reduced to a sales vehicle for people trying to move merchandise. As a writer, I find the form of little interest, and the general reader has little interest in it unless they have heard of the artist or are on their way to see the show.

Speaking to art history, art reviews may be an important record of people’s perceptions of a show or art work, but in the now the form feels less relevant.

The art review format we see today was really born in the early twentieth century with the proliferation of journals and newspapers that wrote about art and could reproduce an image of the work itself (almost always in black and white). Only during the last quarter of the century did color reproduction become commonplace, and until then artists and others predominantly saw works in more muffled, one-color versions. Even today, the problem of exact color reproduction is still an issue for many. In the 1990s I had a professor who advocated that all art should be reproduced only in black and white since color never does it justice.

My point? The art review needs an upgrade, but what will that be? More ambient conversations about art that involve pop culture or synergy with mass media? Should we be looking for ways to insert art into everyday life?

A view of “Index,” an exhibition of the work of Mark Lombardi at Pierogi Gallery (click to enlarge)

All of these issues swirled in my head when I visited the excellent Mark Lombardi exhibition at Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery. An obsessive artist, Lombardi’s work charted the interconnectedness of the shadowy worlds of finance, wealth and politics — essentially the “uses and abuses of power.”

A detail of Mark Lombardi’s “George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens c.1979-90, 5th version” (1999) drawing on view now at Pierogi Gallery (click to enlarge)

In the 1990s, Lombardi researched the world’s extensive power networks and rendered them into art. It was as if he was trying to make permanent what he worried would be lost in the information flood zone we all live in.

In retrospect, his work is prescient. The artist was trying to make us see how the conflation of all of these worlds created a global disaster that we’re still recovering from. Lombardi didn’t simply post information for us to gawk at, but he composes his research into informational structures that can be as beautiful as a Takashi Murakami design or delicate latticework.

One drawing in particular “George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens c.1979-90, 5th version” (1999) is shockingly relevant to our century, as Lombardi connects former US president George W. Bush with Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden through James R. Bath, a Bush family friend and a close associate of the bin Ladens. The US prez and the mastermind of 9/11 are three degrees of separation apart. When I spotted this I looked around the room like I had just discovered a secret, though obviously it wasn’t.

I thought about Lombardi’s work and how the solo art review could never capture the power of his ideas and work. How can you collapse all his research into 800 words (or less) and a few images? Hyperallergic’s Kyle Chayka did a good job of tackling the show a few weeks ago but the write up doesn’t capture the richness of these objects and their stories; I don’t think any art review could.

A month after 9/11, the FBI contacted the Whitney Museum wishing to study Lombardi’s piece on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which makes visible “‘irregular’ financial transactions.”

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote this about the Lombardi show at The Drawing Center in 2003:

I happened to be in the Drawing Center when the Lombardi show was being installed, and several consultants to the Department of Homeland Security came in to take a look. They said they found the work revelatory, not because the financial and political connections he mapped were new to them, but because Lombardi showed them an elegant way to array disparate information and make sense of things, which they thought might be useful to their security efforts. I didn’t know whether to find that response comforting or alarming, but I saw exactly what they meant.

An art review is read only by people in the art world, but the work of artists like Mark Lombardi go beyond aesthetic conversations and the fishbowl of the art world. He should’ve been on CNN during his time — or nowadays Al Jazeera — discussing these networks and his perspective on them. And Lombardi is not unique, there are other artists today, like William Powhida, who are trying to challenge the boundaries of the art ghetto and create conversations in other spheres of our culture.

The solo art review format confies artists to their relationship to the art world. What we need is to go beyond that and explore new possibilities. I don’t have the answers but I want to pose this question, how do we upgrade the traditional art review? I haven’t figured it out yet.

Also of interest, there are more photos of Lombardi’s exhibition here.

There has been a lot of discussion about this post and topic on Twitter so I wanted to post some of the highlights here for those who may not be following them:

http://twitter.com/#!/rwetzler/statuses/48812362630823937

http://twitter.com/#!/artbystander/statuses/48814259097968640

http://artwhirled.wordpress.com/2010/02/28/twitter-reviews-january-2010/

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

    An editor once told me that they published reviews, but they weren’t the significant part of the publication. “We just have them because you’re not an art magazine without them.” Is the solo exhibition review form just a dead signifier for a certain slice of the art world? Like you’re not classy enough without them?

  • Lynn Maliszewski

    Although the form tends to be overshadowed, I do think the review still has a place. Certain reviews kill me in their tendency toward summation or repetitive points already out in the sphere. I like the idea that an artist can have 3 different 500-word interpretations that shouldn’t necessarily pull from the same information, sources, or insight. It’s an idealized position. Those who write reviews, usually more emergent writers or leisurely artist/writers, just need to put the same effort, research and thought into them rather than viewing them as a selling point. The review has been beaten to a pulp with mediocrity but can be brought back! Yes, they may not be as thoroughly inventive as a feature given the usual maximum word count but i do think they have a place in history. Who says a 500 word piece definitely can’t connect to the reader?

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

      Reviews are totally an art form for the writer and a 500 word piece can be really great, but it is a challenge online at least to separate “blurbing” a show vs. totally reviewing it. I think I tend to write shows up without enough analysis or context, just presenting it for an online audience.

      My Bye Bye Kitty!!! photo essay wasn’t a “review” per se but it still had opinion, is that more or less effective? I tend to see it as more, for a general audience. Also see the buzz over Art Fag City’s recommending of Nate Hill’s month retrospective…

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I absolutely agree they have a historical value but I think in the now less so.

  • Victornyc01

    I don’t know that it’s a matter of revisiting the format of the art review within the art world context. Might be a case of introducing this content to a new/different context that appreciates what practitioners of a body of work might deliver. The example of the FBI/Homeland Security is really great because on a certain level it does likely further the craft and logic of what Lombardi is working towards, if in fact he had any collaborative interaction with those officials.
    If there is this kind of articulation of intrinsic intellectual value from the critic side, I think it really facilitates more valuable dialogue with those outside the flock.

  • Lee

    Why don’t you ask artists if they care about them any more, and if so, why? They’ve already suffered through years of critiques in art school….and they want more?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think artists find them important but I’m more concerned as a writer in a general audience and readership, less so about the artist. Let’s work together to reinvent the form!

  • http://twitter.com/lyra_k lyra k

    If you’re highlighting Lombardi because his work reached beyond the “fishbowl” of the art world, the problem doesn’t seem to be the limits of the solo art review (which, if written by a good writer, can certainly capture the complexity of Lombardi’s work), but instead, artwork that is irrelevant to anyone outside of the fishbowl. Lombardi had the desire and talent to discuss larger matters, and did so with deft elegance. Not a lot of artists can achieve that, and thus they do stay in the fishbowl, making the same small circle for years (fueled by cheap wine in plastic cups).

    If permitted (by word count and a smart editor), a traditional art review can and often does discuss the larger context at work, but only if the art itself possesses it. The work of Lombardi, or Trevor Paglen or Andrea Bowers for example, all necessitate social contextualization, and they could be on CNN (or Al Jazeera).

    You write “The solo art review format confines artists to their relationship to the art world.” But who is to blame? The writer or the artist? Or the CNN journalist who feels instantly alienated when she steps into a Chelsea gallery with some snippy bitch at the desk?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I actually think a work like Lombardi’s need more than a review. Perhaps the problem is that the review is the main currency of art world discourse while it should only be a small part of it.

      As an aside, I’m also disgusted by your disdain for cheap wine in plastic cups, have you no respect for relational aesthetics?!

      • http://twitter.com/lyra_k lyra k

        Ok fine, I’m a total sucker for free wine too!

        I suppose I want to defend the review because at least it can call someone out, and pose questions about WHY certain work succeeds or fails (unlike the cover story puff piece on why a famous artist is so awesome. zzz.)
        I read a good review recently on Uta Barth in X-Tra magazine, and the writer brought in several references that I hadn’t even thought about when I viewed the same show. It deepened and enriched my thoughts about Barth’s work. This ‘reminds me of A, B, and C’ style is one way to keep reviews relevant to everyday life, widening and expanding the artwork to link it to literature, music, politics, pop culture, etc. Or I respond to it well, at least.
        The most forgettable reviews are the formula of “Here is some stuff in a room. Describe, describe. No opinion.” And that is, sadly, what the majority of reviews are, and why the whole endeavor can end up feeling like part of a machine to add lines to an artist’s CV. Viva le resistance!

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          I guess the question is how accessible the form is. I agree that it has a value for art world peeps and academic but I’m not so sure for the general audience, who feels alienated from the art world (yes, this is a generalization but I think it is true).

  • http://twitter.com/criticismism Mark Sheerin

    In the early days of the review, which you mention, it might be said art was more newsworthy. Manifestos could, for exmaple, once make front pages. Information was limited and globally dispersed readers were perhaps more interested. Now it seems art is a subset of entertainment news. Press releases are on gallery websites and it’s very easy to get information. Opinions are plentiful thanks to social media. So reviews need to provide something else, perhaps more engagement. Surely writing 500 words of appraisal and indeed reading them is still one of the best ways to engage with an artist, group, movement or theme.

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

      I think the problem with this discussion is that it’s not the writing that’s in question. We all think the act of writing and analysis is valuable, otherwise we wouldn’t have a blog. The questions is, what is the most successful format of that writing for a general, out-of-fishbowl audience?

      No one seems to be attacking that side of it.

  • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

    Hmmmm. It seems like you’re holding a particular form responsible for a history of bad writing and weak reporting. I think a well-written and well-reported review can be invaluable. (Amy Taubin’s review of the Warhol: Motion Pictures show in the March issue of Artforum is a case in point. She knows the work intimately. She knows film. She knows the technology — and, most significantly, she picked up the phone and got her questions answered on why some of his films looked janky.) The problem is that a lot of reviews don’t contain much in the way of this type of information gathering. They’re a description of the works on view decorated with a few biographic facts.

    As for the fact that many art writers are so art-world-inside-baseball in their writing, I think it may get back to the fact that criticism is really difficult. It’s much easier to rattle off a list of artists or movements that a particular artist is influenced by than to look critically at what currents in art and society might be shaping the work. That requires a much broader view and immersion in many areas of culture, not just visual art. I also think there are few people that know how to do this complex multilayered format really well — blending reporting with critical perspective and good writing that can be directed at a broad audience — which is why it’s hard to find. (A coupla my faves: Seth Schiesel at the NYT and Christopher Hawthorne at the LAT.)

    As for word count, you can say plenty in 800 words. It may mean that you focus on one or two salient points rather than everything, but it’s probably more room than anyone thinks. I don’t want anyone to take this to mean I’m against long form writing. But it just might mean prioritizing ideas and tightening loose language.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I agree that the review has value but I am not convinced it has a mass interest. I want to find ways to engage a general public. I think the review should be only one type of writing about art … next up, my attempt at reviewing art review using word-based animated GIFs … kidding, kinda.

      • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

        Agreed. It shouldn’t only be one type of writing about art. Synthetic, reported pieces that organize information about the history of a movement and/or artist are crucial. As for GIFs, DO IT.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          I was thinking more infographics, but yours works, too I guess.

          • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

            LOL. What the art world really needs is more pie charts and odd data visualizations!!!!!! Plus: Cheetos. Openings could really use Cheetos.

  • http://burak-arikan.com arikan

    the answer is in Lombardi’s work.

    “The diagrammatic or abstract machine does not function to represent even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality.”
    –Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari

  • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

    Maybe what we really need to do is kill art writers. Discuss.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Hmmm…what are you doing later, Carolina. I want to “give” you something.

      • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

        Bring it. I’m putting on my Mexican wrestler outfit on as I type this.

  • http://twitter.com/righteoustrans ART!

    I never read art reviews because I am more interested in my own unadulterated response to the work than I am in pre-filtering my perceptions through someone else’s lens (which I usually disagree with anyway). A recent case in point, though not art-related per se: went to see the movie Blue Valentine with a review ringing in my head that said it was about a woman who had outgrown her husband, and the subsequent disintegration of their marriage. Watching the movie all the way through, I did not actually think that was the case, it was much more complex than that, and I was pissed that my mind had been skewed in a certain direction by some strangely biased reviewer.

    I fully realize however, that I am taking the position of someone who is steeped in the arts for a living. I actually think the traditional review is most helpful to people who are not as familiar with art, who are looking for some guidance before they go to see shows. I’ve also heard others in my position say that they like to hear different takes on a show than their own.

    In a recent issue of Artillery magazine (based here in LA), the artist Zak Smith wrote a very confrontational essay proposing that all written reviews should be eliminated because they are no longer relevant. He said that historically, reviews were a dissemination tool for art in a time when travel was not as widely available and photo reproductions were primitive. While a bit histrionic, he does make a lot of good points, also hitting on the discursive biases that have been generated by the dominance of the 300-word blurb.

    On my own blog (http://anotherrighteoustransfer.wordpress.com/) I write “reviews” of performance events. This is kind of a different animal and comes with its own set of debates, issues, problems. First of all, performance has historically been under-critiqued. More urgently, many performances are one-time events, so if they go undocumented they disappear into the canonical ether. A painting will theoretically always be there, but a performance exists only in the moment. For that reason, I call my blog “documenting LA’s performance art scene” – it’s an effort to preserve the life of what I feel to be a very dynamic, compelling scene, and bring it to the attention of others. I usually try to capture as many details of the performance as possible, but of course, the reviews are always informed by my own subjective choices and perspectives. I supplement the review texts with photos, videos where possible, links to artist websites, interviews with artists, and the occasional longer essay.

    Having said all of that…. Hrag, I think my basic position is that the conventional “review” of object-oriented shows–while played out and irrelevant to many of us in the community–remains a popular resource for many, both in and out of the art world. A simple means of just getting the word out re: a show’s basic qualities, I guess. A marketplace necessity? Maybe instead of eliminating the short review altogether, we need to keep supplementing it with writing that expands the dialogue…. artist interviews, dialogues, longer essays, background essays. I for one really enjoy reading the thoughts of artists, and also the expanded thoughts of writers and curators who are thinking more deeply about issues in the arts, not just getting the word out.

    Re: the Lombardi question you pose. See Taryn Simon for an artist who has successfully infiltrated the larger media dialogue. (I think she rocks….)

    Sorry for the length,
    Carol Cheh

  • http://twitter.com/rwetzler Rachel Wetzler

    Obviously as a critic (for this site, no less) and an academic, I’m biased in favor of reviews: they’re invaluable for my academic work in terms of getting a sense of how a work was originally received and I’d like to think that I’m not just wasting my time when I review an exhibition. That said, Hrag, I think you’re mixing up two very different questions–asking whether the art review is a stagnant, useless form isn’t the same as asking if it’s accessible to a general audience. I don’t think you can make a general statement about “art criticism” because there are so many different types of publications reporting on art–and so many different critics. As Carolina pointed out, we shouldn’t condemn the entire exercise of critical writing just because there are a lot of lazy critics out there who simply describe what they see rather than asking pointed questions about the work and its significance. I also don’t think that everything needs to be widely accessible; as I said on twitter, I don’t expect tech journals (or science, medicine, any other discipline I’m not well-versed in) to cater to me as a non-specialist, so why do we expect an art journal to do it? A review in a newspaper on general audience magazine is different than a review in Artforum or another specialist publication. Further, I’m not totally sure you’re giving the general public enough credit: I know lots of non-art people who read art reviews in the Times or the New Yorker, so I’m not entirely sure what you mean when you say that it’s inaccessible or irrelevant. In bringing up Lombardi, you said that he’s an artist who should’ve been interviewed on CNN because his work makes a broadly relevant statement about the world we live in, but isn’t that more of a condemnation of the news media than of art critics?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Great points, Rachel. Part of the problem is that we don’t really have an arts media, just an academic arts media. The Arts Newspaper is the closest thing we have to a visual art media. The NY Times is one of the only newspapers in America left with full-time arts critics and writers (and maybe one of only two or three with more than one?).

      I also don’t see the material in the New York Times visual arts section being talked about or quoted elsewhere other than arts journals. I’m just not committed to the form like I once was. I want to explore new possibilities.

      The art review started as a chatty journal-like entry in 18th C. France (think Diderot’s Salon reviews), it evolved and I think it should continue to change. I’m wondering what we can do to update the form. I think the review will survive but the form we have today (800 words with a photo or two) should change. Any ideas how?

      • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

        “I also don’t see the material in the New York Times visual arts section being talked about or quoted elsewhere other than arts journals.”
        — I think you’re conflating more than one point here, Hrag. One the one hand, you’re saying that reviews need to better cater to a general public and on the other, you’re saying the Times visual arts section isn’t being quoted in arts journals. Not sure what one has to do with the other. Why would it be important that the Times be quoted in arts journals? Especially if they are trying to reach a broader audience?

        • Victornyc01

          I’d say there is definitely a need for a (yet-unexplored) middle space between the colloquial NYT and the super-literary academic journal that is more inclusive. What I mean is that as more artists hybridize their practice (and work product) with content from other specialized fields, there comes the need to address this ‘other’ thing on its own terms, i.e not through the lens of the paradigm of the commercial gallery system, or any other specialized field system that would discuss it only on its terms. Someone else mentioned Taryn Simon recently: a great example of someone whose work could always be discussed in formal terms, but also poetically with other spaces in mind.

          Perhaps it’s just a matter of looking to the critic to connect work to a larger context than simply historically, and art-categorically. For example in T. Simon’s case, a reader interested primarily in her photography would find enough there but would additionally get insight in other fields (surveillance, reportage, infiltration etc) and take away a more interesting reading. This of course requires that kind of reader too. So I guess it is time for a space that is more encouraging of lateral thinking, rather than specialized/drill-down kind of thinking—for both reader and writer.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Actually, I was talking about non-arts journals. I feel book reviews and other reviews are more quoted than those. I feel like those arts reviews are a dead-end.

    • http://twitter.com/lttlrdhn Barb

      > I don’t expect tech journals (or science, medicine, any other discipline I’m not well-versed in) to cater to me as a non-specialist, so why do we expect an art journal to do it?

      Because art *isn’t* science or medicine. The making of art may well be specialised but art that only communicates to other artists is disappearing up its own arse.

  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings The_real_jd_hastings

    I think this summed up the central thesis of the article better than I understood it from the article: “I agree that the review has value but I am not convinced it has a mass interest. I want to find ways to engage a general public. I think the review should be only one type of writing about art … next up, my attempt at reviewing art review using word-based animated GIFs … kidding, kinda”

    That makes sense to me, where “Killing” a format of writing doesn’t. Art reviews still help me, a potential viewer, to know what is going on where. Columns that expound on the context of a show feels like something else, and something that “engages the mass public” may be something yet different. Rather than requiring an act of destruction against one format, I feel like what’s being called for are additional access to reach non-artworld types with both articles and art. I feel that is a bigger issue.

  • Wat Tyler

    Personally I’d like to see more video walkthroughs of exhibitions posted up. for those people who will never get to see a show in person due to distance or time constraints. That way the observer (remote viewer?) can formulate their own impression, rather than having to experience it solely through someone else’s opinion and a couple of small pictures, which can often feel analogous to listening to sport on the radio. The blog post a few days ago on here about exhibition trailers offered a glimpse of what I’d like to see…but without the deliberately frustrating rapid-fire teaser edits and withholding of content.

  • Will Brand

    Firstly, while I agree that descriptive reviews are largely useless – I’ve never, ever said to myself, “Oh, strangely organic forms! The color red! I’ve gotta see this!” – I think you’re making too much out of their inaccessibility, Hrag. Two years ago, I wasn’t an art person; I didn’t have an art class or an art book or anything at all under my belt, and the Times was where I started. It was accessible enough, in the sense that I could understand what I read even if I was not particularly driven by the form to read more, and I think it did okay by me. Of course, the plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘data’.

    More generally, I think the piece you’re missing is time. I spend a huge amount of time just trying to keep up with the art world, and that’s when I’m pretty well in the middle of it: I have a job where reading Tweets for hours on end is encouraged, I live in New York, I talk to other art people all day. This is the only way I can understand the vast majority of what’s being talked about or published relating to art, and it’s not an investment anybody outside the art world is going to make. People outside the art world, if they read art criticism at all, are (at least on the internet) very likely going to read it after it’s been made useless to them. They’re going to be in the wrong city, or maybe it was a one-night event, or maybe the link they clicked wasn’t created in the last month and so the show’s gone off. This especially holds true for second-tastings: if I’m an ordinary Joe and find an artist I like, searching for them on Google is mostly going to bring up a list of shows I should have seen and places I should have been, had I been cool enough to know about them a year ago. That’s a huge blow to my interest, and a brutal form of elitism.

    Anything at all ephemeral is necessarily going to fall flat to a general audience. You can pretty well sort what’s been discussed here and on Twitter using that as a guideline: descriptive reviews aren’t useful when a show’s over and are bad, but interviews and more historical pieces last forever and are good; et cetera.

    Moreover, I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine the member of the general public who thinks to himself that he would like to see some art today, reads a few thousand words of the Times (an enormous investiture of time and effort already), sorts the reviews by positive or negative, and then makes an excursion specifically to those shows which got good reviews. That doesn’t happen. If Joe Schmoe wants to see art, he goes to MoMA. If he’s a level above that, he goes to the New Museum or the Whitney or PS1. If he’s a borderline art person, he wanders around Chelsea or the LES. The cost of seeing art – at least, in a gallery – is so low that there’s no reason to pay any attention to the critic’s judgment in a review, and certainly no reason to privilege that judgment over simple convenience or the weight of the institution. Movie or music reviews can at least save me ten bucks.

    In short: the descriptive half of the average review is useless both for its ephemerality and, now, the ubiquity of exhibition images on the internet, and the criticism half is useless to everyone but artist, curator, and dealer – for whom it’s nothing more than a selling point – because of the inconsequential cost of consuming art. All that’s left are the rare reviews that actually delve into some historical or theoretical content.

    I’m not saying, as an alternative, that everything has to be a full introductory course to contemporary art of timeless perfection. We can have dialogues and Twitter and so on and that’s fine, we just need to do a better job of ensuring there’s some lasting take-away at the end. That sounds a lot like plain old writing well. The solution is clear: stop writing about your parties and start writing about your ideas. If you don’t have ideas, find another job.

    P.S.: reading this back, I think it’s pretty clear what a good job Paddy does as my editor.

  • http://twitter.com/lttlrdhn Barb

    I like the idea of a ‘reading’ as opposed to a ‘review’, and I really really like the idea of killing any stupidesque art-review language, which gives me the shits.

  • http://twitter.com/QUELBEAST QUEL BEAST

    TLDR

    but i love how everyone has an opinion on art REVIEWS.
    (shoots self in head)

  • http://www.lovelake.org Eva

    What’s missing from this conversation? How about what the artist thinks? rRviews make a huge difference. Not that they are right. That might not even matter. But try making art for decades without reviews.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Thanks for commenting, Eva. We know artists appreciate them but I think artists would appreciate it even come if we, as writers, found a way to engage a more broad audience for their art. When I say “Kill the traditional art review” I’m not saying all reviews, just the one that has come to be the standard format (800 words, one or two pics). I just don’t know if that format is as useful as it once was.

  • http://www.lovelake.org Eva

    Well, the format has a different impact than it used to. I think this is because online now everyone is a critic. There’s so much more accessible conversation too. It was so easy to dismiss art reviews when I started out (first show, 1980). But I’ve hung plenty of shows which never received reviews. Of course a lot of that was due to the fact that my early career ran without a press release!…. But whole bodies of work came and went … your friends, a few strangers, the same … and in many ways it’s like it all never happened. Of course it is still essential to make and show all that work. You can’t get better without it. But yes, I greatly appreciate the review. Not just the blog conversation, but the review. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/johnpyper John Pyper

    Hrag, I finally had time to read this today. I like where you are going, but I have to disagree on some level. First, you are saying that they are not vital currently, then how can you kill them? If they’re already dead, don’t shoot.

    Second, I believe in the free market of art writing. Reviews are meant to reach anyone who cares enough to search out the review. They are public spaces where the profoundly brave are allowed to be wrong about what makes art interesting. A worthy reviewer is trying to try to form a context and give you one way of many of seeing the work– one can be very wrong and one can be very boring, but it’s not the review format that makes the content useless, it’s the body of text and the lack of editorial insight. It’s obvious when someone puts in the work, and those people are rewarded.

    Plus, you’re fighting against a group of people who are getting paid if they are lucky. Why bother taking the handful of peanuts away from the brave souls that try to understand the paintings that haven’t dried yet?

  • http://twitter.com/righteoustrans ART!

    Went to this panel today: http://www.artslant.com/la/articles/show/22190. Thought I’d relay a bit of it for the sake of this discussion.

    Both Andrew and Sarah are frustrated with the formulaic/market-driven/academic nature of arts writing and trying to push new forms that are more closely aligned to literary and artistic endeavors. Examples of some of their efforts include an Erik Frydenborg review that Andrew wrote which was completely fictional up until the last paragraph; and Sarah’s Borges-inspired ArtSlant column in which she critiques exhibitions that do not exist. Both are uninterested in journalistic writing, which they consider “reactionary,” and harbor no concern for the audience. Stacey, as editor of the new online CalArts-affiliated publication East of Borneo, encourages a multitude of voices, makes available an array of reading resources, and seeks writers who are outside of the art world but nonetheless bring strong perspectives to their subject matter. Ed is totally old school; doesn’t want to tweak anything and believes in simply being true to the work, and to one’s own viewpoint.

    Probably best if you google some of the above and check out the writing for yourself. I have my own opinions on the quality/relevance/appeal of each panelist’s projects. But it’s good to see that experimental arts reviews/writings are already happening out there, and of course, they are happening in LA.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      It’s been happening in New York too, perhaps you’re not aware of it.

      • http://twitter.com/righteoustrans ART!

        No I’m not, point me to some links.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          The art blogosphere is much more developed in New York, whether it’s
          Mira Schor’s blog: http://ayearofpositivethinking.com/
          Art Fag City: http://artfagcity.com/
          Raphael Rubinstein’s The Silo: http://thesilo.raphaelrubinstein.com/
          Gene McHugh’s Post-Internet: http://122909a.com/
          These are just the first one’s that come to mind in the vein you’re talking about.

          • http://twitter.com/righteoustrans ART!

            But I wasn’t talking about just blogs, I was talking specifically about screwing with the art review format. The “fake review” Andrew wrote was published in either Art Review or Art Lies, can’t remember which. Yes the NY blogosphere is very visible and convivial (and self-congratulating). And yes, I was already aware of all the blogs you list, and to be quite honest, there is nothing particularly innovative about any of them. Although I don’t care for the work of the more experimentally inclined people on the aforementioned panel, at least they are trying something genuinely new. And FYI LA also has a collection of blogs, which is much more dispersed and eccentric, and the bloggers don’t really talk to each other constantly like you guys do. See my links at http://anotherrighteoustransfer.wordpress.com/.
            Frankly, each set of blogs very accurately reflects the communities from whence they originate.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            You are certainly free to read what you like, but you may want to know that the fake review isn’t new. One of the most recent was done by Miami’s Artlurker (I think it was years ago) and that got a lot of press. You may have heard of it, it was called the Rape Tunnel. There’s a long history here and you seem to be very anti-NY. Like I said, to each their own.

          • http://twitter.com/righteoustrans ART!

            I’m not anti-New York, I find many things of value that come out of there. I am however, against the superior attitudes that many New Yorkers espouse toward LA. They are based on a very superficial assessment of the place, which is much more complex than most people realize. Case in point: I was talking about experimental writing, and you responded by saying that NY’s “art blogsphere” is “much more developed,” and then you went on to list a bunch of very traditional, standard-issue blogs. Like you said, to each their own.

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

          Lol.

  • Dave O.

    Why should one of the goals of an art review be to generate mass interest?

    The form of the traditional art review comes from a journalistic modes of writing. Are you really asking for a new form of journalism?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kirby.i.andersen Kirby Ian Andersen

    Here’s a way to have the general public get interested in an art review: have Charlie Sheen rant it.

    In any case, hasn’t the traditional art review already died and been reborn via the interweb? If the print review has an online component that allows comments… one can read the review, and get a broader perspective by then reading the comments & tweets by the public, which could include soccer moms, professors, the artist themselves, trolls etc, with hyperlinks to more information, images, youtube walkthroughs, etc. — that certainly didn’t exist until relatively recently (but maybe we have to wait longer for hardcopy to die off completely to engage more than insiders/trainspotters.)

    Part of the problem is, I assume, is also meagre pay for the writer for time involved. It’s far easier to “describe” the work, lift some ideas off the artist’s press release, and if the artist is playing the quirky personality game, and a bio bit or two and call it a review (and then get back to writing one’s novel, or curating a show, or writing a catalogue intro,) than it is to compress a thesis into plain, engaging 800 words or less. (“If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter”.)

    And maybe… there’s nothing wrong with that. A description of the works has led me to go see a show (and has had some come to mine.) Quoting the artist’s press release… well, horse’s mouth and all that, sometimes intriguing. Images of the work has certainly have led to my attendance… stuff about the artist’s life (quirky or not) on the other hand, has never motivated me to see a show…

    It does come down to the quality of the writing– I will often read a certain critic’s reviews of band/music I don’t even like, simply because his reviews are so well-written and engaging. (I might say the same of Christopher Hitchens writing.)

    Is the traditional review as useful as it once was? Useful to the artist, certainly, as it helps build consensus and the public/collectors/dealer/directors/other writers always take that into account. To those already interested in art, of course it’s useful; that’s why they are reading the review. To the public at large… I think both traditional and online and 3D versions of art reviews (or whatever’s next) will only reach more of the long tail (touching many more niche readers, but no large block of the public)… there’s simply to much “everything” now (the same reason for the decreasing impact/importance of music culturally.)

    So: all empathy to the critics, cuz even this off-the-cuff post took too damn long to write… (and it would have been much shorter if I had had more time.)

  • J Braun

    I’ve never felt it was important for art to try to reach a broader mass audience. It seems fine that art, and the writing and thinking and talking around it, exists for those drawn to that mysterious realm of human activity….. and reviews are just part of what keeps the whole thing in motion. Of course I like the writing to be done with the kind of serious consideration that the art itself is made with.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Thanks for your thoughts, Judith. But as a writer I want to engage different audiences and writing simply for the art world die-hards is less interesting than it used to be. I’m not saying kill all reviews but the form we’ve come to rely on (800 words, a pic or two) needs an upgrade. It seems better suited for galleries and artists than writers.

      • J Braun

        I “think” you may want to write a book? It sounds similar to any artist who is feeling limited by their own form in some way. The review, in its variations, mainly functions within the art world…and logically so…. but you personally sound like you want to stretch or change your own form…and a book of some kind seems like a next step?

    • Wat Tyler

      Depends what type of art. It’s important for protest art to reach a broad mass audience.

  • Guest

    Art Reviews? Just Like the sports pages, they only appeal to those who are the followers of those fields of human endeavour. Yes I read them to keep the finger on the proverbial pulse and to see what the critical reviewer has to say, then I do my homework and see if I agree. Its so much easier with the internet than it once was. Art is a dying industry promoted by artists who are supported by the art-materials market. Artists are sold the dream that there are buyers out there and all it needs is for you to be found…get promoted…and reviewed. No the world will not fall at your feet just because you got a review.

  • http://www.halosheaven.com Mat Gleason

    the problem for the critic is what the hell do you get out of it? The artist gets “A REVIEW” The gallery “GETS REVIEWED” and the critic gets nothing after doing all the heavy lifting. And heaven forbid that there be a conflict of interest (unlike the curatorial mafias in museums on both coasts that flip discounted paintings after pumping careers, oops did I say too much on your polite blog).

  • Tiran

    Hrag, I am doing everything I can to kill the art review. :)

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Hurry up, Tiran!

  • Kazzara31

    I am going to try working my way through all the comments above. For now let me say that, despite a master’s in art history, I can’t stand art reviews. Not just for the fact that they cater only to those in the know but that it has become something of a self-congratulatory practice. There is that debate about professionals in and around art keep writing and speaking as a means to justify their careers writing and speaking about art — and making money because the in-crowd allows them a false authority on the subject.

    There is also the debate that art or artists are “made” by the reviews that laud them. Which again only perpetuates the thing of justifying one’s career as a critic. It seems ironic to me that there are far more artists who struggle to earn a living than critics and writers who earn a check for talking about the work of artists who don’t get paid for their work often.

    The in-crowd thing doesn’t necessarily bother me until it becomes about being special because you’re in the crowd. Which is bullshit because when I look around at all the art out there, most artists now aren’t making art that caters to the in crowd. Why should reviews and writings be insular?

  • Kazzara31

    Point of clarity, you’re entitled to earn a living. But in the art critic realm it should be useful stuff with a meaningful appeal. Most reviews aren’t.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    Some of us are writers and not only critics.

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