Robert Storr: Art Writers Are “Bottom Feeders”

Saul Steinberg, “Untitled” (1944) (image via frieze.com)

In his final column for Frieze, writer, painter and star curator Robert Storr calls art writers (himself included) “bottom feeders,” and constructs an elaborate metaphor for writers as the “squid” of the art world — swimming in their own ink. This is the “cruel, Darwinian truth,” says Storr, yet the goodbye column is also a note of support for writers and writing.

Storr has worked in part as an art writer for the past 30 years, and has written his Frieze column since 2004. In a consideration of the place of art writing in the art world ecosystem, he writes, “in the hierarchies of power, critics – like squid – are agile bottom feeders.” His reasoning for the description? Art writing has been squeezed top and bottom from two sources, namely pretentious academic writing on high, and commercial PR babble at the low end. The few spots in between are mercilessly protected while resulting in only that most “ephemeral” of rewards: influence, or getting a word in to the overall conversation.

Storr writes,

Being part of the dialogue is what drives us; figuring out how to give our ideas weight and our words bounce is the political, intellectual and literary challenge confronting us whenever we set to work.

Though art writers might be bottom feeders in a sense, scuttling around for tidbits falling from higher up the food chain, I’d prefer to think of it like muck-raking — continuously thinking, looking and investigating into the changing idea of art, from the bottom up. I think Storr understands this too, otherwise, I don’t expect he’d bother to write about art.

It’s worth thinking about, though. Considering the ever-weakening power of critics in an era of artist branding and massive blue-chip gallery markets, what role does the art critic or the art writer play? It’s clear that critics and writers no longer hold the responsibility of interpreting art for the unwashed masses. Jerry Saltz, probably the most visible contemporary art critic today, is a kind of cheerleader for artistic experience, like Anthony Bourdain is for food. Peter Schjeldahl is a mandarin who preaches from a pulpit. Storr is a whole other animal, a polymath who creates shows as much as he writes about them.

So do writers need to be art world dynamos? Or art reporters? Or cheerleaders? These are the questions art writers have to ask themselves. I’m not sure where I stand yet, but it’s good to hear Storr’s take.

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