What it Means to Write About Art: Interviews with art critics by Jarrett Earnest

The marvelous compendium What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics by Jarrett Earnest (David Zwirner Books, 2018) presents 30 very lively personalities. We learn how much the art world has changed in the past 50 years, why people become art critics, and how these critics understand contemporary art.

Barbara Rose describes her life in the 1960s with Frank Stella and Michael Fried, Lucy Lippard talks about her relationship with Eva Hesse, and Fried tells of supporting himself in London by writing a column for Arts Magazine for 75 dollars a month.

In that era, Clement Greenberg was still very influential. And Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Lippard, and Rose all had contentious relationships with him. No one has his status today. Indeed, as Barry Schwabsky notes, apart maybe from Roberta Smith at The New York Times, nowadays no critic has any direct effect on the art market.

The role of the critic has changed dramatically. Artists, collectors, curators, and dealers are all needed for the system to function. But the role of critics is up for grabs. Partly the problem is that writing criticism has never been well paid. And gentrification has made the traditional role of an independent intellectual all but impossible.

But also there are serious questions about what critics actually do. In his introduction, Jarrett Earnest calls criticism “a kind of speculative fiction,” a statement that does justice to the varied nature of this kind of writing but doesn’t resolve this crucial methodological question: If critics disagree, how are we to choose between their claims?

Art history is an academic discipline. To teach and to publish, it’s almost mandatory that you have a PhD. And so even the most original scholars have to conform to professional guidelines. But art critics are self-taught, which means that they have more freedom to write in novel, untraditional ways. If you can find some editor who will publish you, then you too can be an art critic.

In the 1980s, when I made my way from academic philosophy into art criticism, I was fascinated by this bold experimentation. Going from an academic publication The Journal of Philosophy to Artforum was like taking your first drink, or smoking your first joint. And then, like many of the critics interviewed here, I benefitted from the support of Richard Martin at Arts Magazine, who gave his writers liberating freedom, without excessive editing. As Siri Hustvedt rightly notes, art historians are territorial. But critics are often highly judgmental, and very unwilling to accept divergent points of view, though they usually have less ability to enforce their ways of thinking.

These interviews reveal the intense academic interest in contemporary art, which is a very recent development. Hal Foster and Michael Fried are just two of the senior critics who have moved into art history departments. Another important change is the fascination with French-style theorizing. Yve-Alain Bois tells how he studied with Roland Barthes in Paris and then, inspired by reading Greenberg and meeting Krauss, moved to New York.

A number of these critics teach in English departments; Lynne Tillman and Michele Wallace tell that story. And many of them were inspired by John Ashbery’s poetry. He is interviewed, and Holland Cotter and Hyperallergic Weekend’s John Yau explain how much they learned from him.

A number of African-American critics have entered the art world. Hilton Als, Darby English, and Fred Moten tell how varied the writing careers of these black writers were. There were numerous female writers. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, Molly Nesbit, and Michele Wallace present that story.

And of course many of these critics were involved with gay culture. Douglas Crimp is one key figure. Cotter is another. But if this determinedly multicultural volume presents a number of figures I now look forward to reading, it is a completely New York-centric commentary. There’s no one whose writing focuses on art from Chicago or California, and no one from outside the United States.

What unites all of these critics is a fascination with the challenging, pleasurable activity of writing about visual art. Jed Perl, Jerry Saltz (whose interview is by miles the funniest one), and Peter Schjeldahl, who certainly have very diverse sensibilities, share this passion. A successful critic needs to be ready to improvise in response to novel art. When Goodeve speaks of wanting “to feel like an outsider, a newbie to the art world, even though I’ve been writing for twenty-five years,” she captures perfectly this sense of things.

Can critics truly be critical when the funding for their publications depends upon the art market? In the late 1970s, under the editorship of Joseph Masheck, who was not interviewed, Artforum was very critical and very slim. Then in the 1980s, when the advertising picked up, truly critical reviews became rare. No ethical editor will tell a writer what to say, but too much negative criticism will alienate the advertisers. More exactly, while Artforum does publish the very critical Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who also was not interviewed, most of its writers have broader tastes than previously, making their writing more inclusive if not more critical.

I understand Foster’s complaint that Hyperallergic and Brooklyn Rail are not “critical projects.” But I think he’s wrong to complain that online reviews have “watered criticism down.” And it seems illogical to link this complaint to their status as online reviews, for in fact they are financed very differently. In any event, whether hard copy or online, every publication needs to support itself. This massive, surprisingly inexpensive book depends upon Zwirner, one of our grandest art dealers. And October, which has played an important role in Foster’s career, is funded by a major university press. Crimp’s account of how he was pushed out of his editorship at October deserves to be set alongside Perl’s discussion of his uneasy relationship with Hilton Kramer at The New Criterion.

I find value in both October and The New Criterion, but their withdrawal from the commercial art world does limit their appeal. How then should art writing be financed? No one, so far as I can see, has any original ideas about how to deal with that question. But as Earnest wisely notes, it’s tedious to speak of a present day crisis when in fact we are a terrifically loquacious visual culture – and have so many gifted art writers. His tight editing, a masterpiece of tact, gracefully brings together very varied, often contentious critics. As Molly Nesbit nicely says: “Nobody thinks all by themselves.” We all need all the help we can get.

What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics by Jarrett Earnest (2018), published by David Zwirner Books, is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

David Carrier

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s...

2 replies on “What Do Art Critics Actually Do?”

  1. Looking forward to reading this volume. The issue of how to articulate an understanding of culture is critical to the development and maturity of society. Artist and critic serve as material manifestation of this process. They organically expose the workings of social development to new and creative reservoirs of human experience. Depending on their perspective they define the question challenging social development for an era. They either expose the myth of the ruling class, that further development is unnecessary because the optimum social order is manifest in their leadership or they articulate the truth that an authentic struggle exists creating a more just and responsible alternative to the present ruling class. This agency of artistic and critical discipline deserves intellectual acknowledgement and is in fact cultivated by the spokespeople of each of the respective classes struggling for supremacy, the working class, steeped in the experience of a creative process manufacturing the material of a new world and the ruling class mired in the throes of reaction, desperate to prevent further development from displacing its material hegemony.
    Perhaps this work illuminates how art criticism functions in this dynamic, it surely will come down on one side or the other.

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