Sunday, March 25, 2007

A First Person on Art Critiques - Does Indianapolis Really Want Arts Criticism?

By Mary Lee Pappas
NUVO art critic
spring 2005

Should an art critic write about artists whose work they collect? Should an art critic fraternize with artists they write about? Should they accept gifts from artists they’ve written about, be an exhibition consultant, sit on boards of visual arts organizations, or exhibit their own artworks?

According to “The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America” by Columbia University’s Journalism Program in 2002, there was no consensus among the 169 art critics surveyed (myself the only Indianapolis representative) regarding blanket ethical conduct within the American art world. This perhaps resulting from the public’s equally as uneven expectations of what art criticism ought and ought not to be.

An opinionated bunch to begin with, participating art critics had to have written at least twelve ”evaluative” pieces the previous year to qualify for the survey. Those are reviews that make judgments regarding quality, purport, and context based on the work, the artist, the venue, the curatorial competence, and sometimes funding. It’s gauging art instead of strictly spouting anthems of advocacy, subjective explanations, and taking strict emotions into account.

Critics, predominantly employed as part-timers or freelance at both daily and alternative weekly papers, were actually found to be “intimately connected” to their local arts communities. Is this conflict of interest, or fundamental for the role? 24% of us had worked in museums, 18% in commercial galleries, while nearly half of us were artists – 70% of whom exhibit or have exhibited their works. 14% were employed in art-related industries. Four out of five newspaper critics and three out of four alternative weekly critics collect art.

Though 90% of the critics were curiously Caucasian when multiculturalism in visual art is ever present, well preparedness for their work varied greatly. The majority of practicing art critics had on average 13 years of journalism/art writing experience. 20% of art critics had no formal training in art or art history, while only 26% of us actually had a B.A., M.A. or Ph.D. in art history. But, apparently it doesn’t really matter who’s writing about art anymore.

Some artists should, “Park their paints,” and let go of ego, pride and fickleness local painter, art historian, and gallery owner Doris Vlasek Hails said to me once. But there has been an increasing trend for artists and arts organizations across the country to steer clear of uncompromising critics and seek-out positive press thereby creating their own undeserving derivative art stars. Some buy it.

As our local visual arts community flourishes so too do the proliferating and, more often than not, only moderately talented artists who Indianapolis audiences so anxiously and sometimes bafflingly accept. Can anyone who can afford rent at a trendy studio be an artist? Are gallery owners and proprietors actually qualified to choose quality art to present to the public just because they can fund their venues? Who is drawing the line between hobby and excellence? Should critics simply relinquish themselves to this laissez-fare intellect regarding the fine art process and art history thereby giving artists and venues the praise they ultimately fancy? Where does criticism fit in and who really wants it anymore?

Indianapolis appears to be succeeding at placing novelty (or propaganda at times) above discrimination. The survey makes an example of our city by stating, “Citizens of significant urban agglomerations, including Indianapolis and Las Vegas…do not have the benefit of hearing from an art critic who might qualify for inclusion in this survey,” from a daily paper.

This perhaps in part because formal criticism doesn’t serve the city’s desires to make Indianapolis a cultural destination overnight. However, celebrating the mundane won’t make it happen either.

Though art critics across the board thought they were writing for a “lukewarm audience that is not too well steeped in the arts,” nearly two-thirds unfortunately write strictly positive reviews, with “rendering a personal judgement” about the artwork being “the least important factor in reviewing art.” It’s a sorry commentary that’s ultimately destructive of the arts evolution (like Indianapolis’ visual art growth spurt), and the art itself. So are gallery openings where the art plays second fiddle to the party.

Are arts writers accepting expenses on press junkets? Are papers merely supposed to conform, jump on the promotional bandwagon, and be another form of advertising?

Perhaps this is an indication that some “critics” should park their pens or thicken their skin. Perhaps local media should give more space and credence to the visual arts cultures of their communities, and artists should challenge themselves to create more than attractive formula paintings accompanied by contrived statements of purpose.

Local eagerness to be exceptional in the visual arts has created levels of administrative and artistic inferiority that can be remedied by demanding quality and education from those that serve the arts community, critics alike. Inferring that arts audiences and potential arts audiences are un or under educated (as is the rhetoric from artists and arts orgs.) only serves to insult and estrange audiences…as does substandard art.

Everybody's an Art Critic by Michael Mills - February 6, 2003 New Times

Everybody's an Art Critic by Michael Mills Feb. 6, 2003 New Times
Everybody's an Art Critic
If they're college-educated, city-dwelling, 40-something white people, that is

By Michael Mills
Article Published Feb 6, 2003


Last year, the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University contacted more than 200 art critics across the country, inviting them to participate in The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America. About 75 percent of those responded. I was one of them.

It was a lengthy, exhaustive survey, available online or in hard copy, that quizzed critics on our backgrounds, our aesthetics, our opinions of specific artists and even theorists and other art critics. I was glad to participate in the study and looked forward to seeing the results.

I finally received my copy of the report recently, a slender paperback that resembles a modest exhibition catalog and features a reproduction of Honoré Daumier's The Critics (Visitors in a Painter's Studio) (c. 1862). The drawing shows a handful of middle-aged-to-elderly white men peering intently at an unidentifiable work of art. Given Daumier's dim view of critics, it's not surprising that the ones shown here are made to look vaguely buffoonish.

In some respects, not much has changed in the nearly century and a half since Daumier's critics gathered, at least not in America. Artists, curators, and gallery owners still approach us warily, as if we might bite. And according to the survey report, which is full of pie charts, graphs, boxes, and sidebars, while art criticism may no longer be predominantly male territory -- about half of the survey respondents were women -- it's still an overwhelmingly white domain. Ninety percent of the critics who took the survey are Caucasian, with just two Asian-Americans, one African-American, and one Hispanic responding. The report characterizes "the statistically average art critic" as "a highly educated, Caucasian city-dweller in his or her late 40s (the median age is 48)." Am I squirming yet?

We also tend to be well to the left of center, politically speaking. Just over half of the critics surveyed characterized themselves as "Liberal," with another 20 percent calling themselves "Progressive" and another 16 percent weighing in as "Moderate." In other words, don't get us started on government arts funding, censorship, and freedom of speech in the Dubya era.

Critics at newspapers classified by the survey as alternative weeklies, the category New Times Broward-Palm Beach falls into, are even further to the left. Fully 85 percent of us are liberals or progressives. So why don't I get more hate mail?

Maybe, one outspoken critic of the survey suggests, it's because America's art critics aren't critical enough. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight, in a recent column on the report, complains, "By and large, journalistic art critics don't write art criticism." (Knight was invited to participate in the survey but was unable to because of Internet problems, although three of his colleagues responded.)

Knight marvels that a mere "27% of survey participants said they place a great deal of emphasis on forming and expressing... judgments. Twenty-seven percent!" Instead, he worries, we're too concerned with the other aspects of criticism ranked in the survey: accurately describing the art in question, providing historical background on the art and/or artist, creating a piece of writing with literary value, and theorizing about art. He begrudgingly acknowledges that these are "important but nonetheless routine concerns."

It seems especially irksome to Knight that an overwhelming majority of art critics agree with the statement "My job is to educate the public." Sixty-five percent strongly agree with that idea, and another 26 percent somewhat agree. Such an attitude, Knight frets, represents arrogance and elitism, condescension and superciliousness.

I don't recall my specific response, but I'm sure I sided, for once, with the majority. What surprises me is the vehemence of Knight's insistence that art criticism and art education are incompatible. Perhaps he forgets that the survey participants, as the study's subtitle indicates, write for general-interest news publications, not academic journals or art magazines. An inherent function of the "general-interest news publications" the survey focuses on is to share knowledge.

And I'm not just picking on Knight, by the way. Other critics have written about the survey, among them the New York Observer's cranky Hilton Kramer. He begins by calling the report "the silliest, most expensive, and least necessary 'research' folly ever devoted to the art scene in this country" and later refers to it as "a perfectly useless enterprise."

THE VISUAL ART CRITIC A Survey of Visual Arts Critics at General-Interest Publications in America

THE VISUAL ARTS IN THE UNITED STATES have recently experienced a period of dynamic growth and professionalization, prompting the timely question: Do the news media provide sufficient exposure for art, artists and art institutions?

In early 2002, the National Arts Journalism Program set out to answer this question, inviting art critics at general-interest news publications around the country to complete an online questionnaire about their backgrounds, educational credentials, work habits, tastes and opinions on issues concerning art in America today. The survey's 169 critics—drawn from 96 daily newspapers, 34 alternative weeklies and 3 national newsmagazines—write for a combined audience of approximately 60 million readers. The findings suggest that although art critics have carved out important roles at many publications, criticism is struggling to keep up with the swift evolution of the art world.

The Visual Art Critic draws a portrait of a profession that is deeply committed to advancing the national discussion about art, yet hampered by job insecurity, vagueness of ethical standards and uncertainty of mission. Accompanied by insightful comments from artists, art-world professionals and the surveyed critics themselves, the findings of this report call attention to the need within newsrooms for continued investment and support for the enterprise of art criticism, especially in smaller communities, where some of the most noteworthy artistic developments are taking root.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Quotes about Critique

"I learned a long time ago that you can't control what people think. Do I have a mission of what I want to accomplish with this? I've already accomplished it. There it is. There's the song. There's the painting. That's the accomplishment, not what people think about it. If you do things because of what people think, man, you're crippled." - John Mellencamp (catalog for his exhibition at Herron School of Art and Design, Indianapolis, IN, Nov. 18, 2005 - Jan. 7, 2006)

“The highest aim of the aesthetic being is to find the Divine through beauty,” – Sri Aurobindo (Gems from Sri Aurobindo V1. by M.P. Pendit)

"I have always been grateful for press. Even if a review is negative, reading it helps me better understand what exactly it is I think I'm doing in dance...critical attention has helped me put my work into a larger perspective." - Twyla Tharp, NUVO (Indianapolis, IN)