Rembrandt, "Satire on Art Criticism" (1644), Pen and brown ink corrected with white, 6 1/8 x 7 15/16 in. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The agenda for a 1979 general meeting of the American section of the International Association of Art Critics, signed by then-president John Perreault, includes reference to a “heated and lively discussion” at the meeting prior. The subject of debate was a proposal by member Corinne Robins (the pen name of Connie Robins Romano) that the association produce guidelines delineating the ethical obligations of art critics. Robins was tasked with penning a statement which the membership could decide whether to formally adopt. It is worth reproducing in its entirety here:

Because as art critics we are in the middle between the artists, the gallery dealers and the public, and subject to pressures from all of the fore-going, it is important for our organization to set forth in writing a series of ethical guidelines for members of our profession. The following are suggestions to this effect:

  1. A critic should not try to interfere with or influence artists’ sales by discussing art prices or market values in print, but rather should confine him or herself to aesthetic issues.
  2. The critic should not solicit or accept monies offered by artists or gallery dealers for the writing of articles for which said critic receives payment from magazines, newspapers, etc.
  3. To preserve the critic’s integrity, he or she should not allow his or her judgement to be swayed by artists or dealers. In the event a critic accepts a gallery or artist’s invitation to write a catalog essay or introduction to an exhibition (on an agreed upon fee), the critic should not allow his or her writings to be edited or altered in any way if the understanding is he or she is producing a piece of signed criticism rather than writing a press release.
  4. It is hoped that critics should recognize their obligation to familiarize themselves with as wide a spectrum of work as possible as part of their responsibility in appraising the current conditions and climate of the art world.

These precepts may seem anachronistic at a time when those who sell art significantly influence its press: Major galleries are launching their own magazines as independent arts publications flounder and public relations firms manage relationships between galleries, writers, and editors to ensure high visibility placements for exhibition reviews and artist profiles. While press remains an important part of dealers’ marketing strategies, critics themselves — let’s be real — have little if any influence on the sale and pricing of artworks. Instead, the primary directions of the art market are influenced by private consultants and by the relationships between wealthy collectors and institutions. Furthermore, audiences are more interested in hearing about art directly from the artist than secondhand, filtered through the critic. Critics no longer have the power to make or break an artist’s career. Rather, art critics depend more and more on maintaining friendly relationships with artists, galleries, and publicists in order to consistently secure paid work. In other words, art critics today seem less “in the middle” between artists, dealers, and public than tailing all three.

To foreground the differences between then and now, consider the art critic’s responsibilities as outlined above: attention to aesthetic issues and to the current conditions and climate of the art world. Point four in particular presents a somewhat utopian vision for art criticism — instead of staking writerly claim to a niche set of concerns or narrowly focusing on a particular subgenre of art, the art critic is obligated to appraise the situation of art more broadly, and so must make an effort to seek out artworks that might otherwise evade her notice as a matter of course. While we might take issue with a mandated avoidance of addressing market dynamics from a critical standpoint, the prohibitions in the statement aim to protect the writer’s freedom of expression and capacity for independent judgement, both necessary preconditions for genuine critique. The project of detailing ethical obligations for art critics also eliminates the necessity of intuiting “unspoken rules” so frequently at play in professional relationships, especially where significant financial interests are concerned.

Another document of the same era envisions art critics and their professional relationships quite differently. In her 1983 essay “Power Relations Within Existing Art Institutions,” Adrian Piper laments divisions of labor in the arts, which she believes is one cause among others of the artist’s alienation from her work and the world. She imagines an interdependent art world, a blurring of boundaries in regard to professional roles that would produce the conditions for an art adequate to its moment. In her words,

[A] mutual exchange of roles and skills might engender both more artists who are critically adept and socially responsible, and more critics, dealers, and curators whose interests in art are personal and social as well as professional…. Although artists would have less time to produce art, the art they produced would be more fully their own. For they would collectively determine its meaning, value, price, public dissemination, and material fate.

Piper’s analysis of the conditions of possibility for creative freedom through interdependence seems at first to conflict with Robins’s proposal. But both projects are motivated by ethical questions. For Piper, multidisciplinarity makes generative collaboration and creative authenticity possible. In contrast, for Robins, the threat of blurred boundaries in art world relationships puts the integrity of art criticism at risk.

Artist Brad Troemel critiques art-world power relationships via the satirical language of memes, such as these art-critic archetypes featured in an Instagram post of October 10, 2019 (courtesy Brad Troemel)

However, both projects share a utopian kernel that stands in stark contrast to the contemporary situation of the adjunct, non-salaried, and independently contracted workers in the hustle-centric gig economy upon which the production and distribution of art rests. Though motivated by material necessity, Piper’s multidisciplinary artist doesn’t starve. Rather, she develops autonomous creative expression through meaningful collaboration. In reality, the donning of multiple hats by artists and art critics, most often borne of necessity, further constrains the possibility for a free, genuine, and critical practice. All of this rings true in a time when livelihood is emphatically never ensured. Far from provoking ingenuity, ruthless competition in the wake of failing print publications and a dearth of paid writing opportunities leads to compromise: listicles, puff pieces placed by PR firms, and regurgitated press releases become a means to the very real end of paying rent for many writers with otherwise critical inclinations.

Robins’s ethical guidelines hinge on a conception of art criticism as a culturally transformative and, hence, a necessary activity. Why else should the critic’s free expression and capacity for judgement be protected from undue influence? The statement speaks to a time when art critics were recognized as arbiters of art and culture in a way that few art writers, if any, are today. If we take up both Robins’s recognition of the necessity of critique and Piper’s vision of generative collaboration — if we invite these promises to make good on themselves through collective organization and rigorous appraisal of current conditions, adequate to, but not beholden to our moment, we might find ourselves in a less vulnerable position where transformative critique becomes possible.

Jamie Keesling is a writer and college educator based in Brooklyn, NY.