what do critics do?

28/2/2021   (ZM)

This is a text that sounds like an existential crisis:

 

What is a critic? What do critics do? What is the limit of their role, what’s the job description saying, what’s their purpose, what function do they perform in the wider arts ecosystem? 

 

I have been rotting away in my bedroom for too long now, the art world and London have ceased to exist. The only things that feel real are: the flies that haunt my pot plants, the sky bloodshot orange and pink at sunrise, and the mud I track in to the hallway when I come back from the park. Art doesn’t exist; it feels like a fever dream, a fairytale, a mysterious lie you conjure up for boys in the club when you hope to never see them again. I’ve been writing on auto-pilot because I’m worried that if I ask questions about what’s going on, what it all means, it’ll just dissolve in my hands. Someone will look at me askance and say, ‘Art died 50 years ago, you’ve been talking to its ghost this entire time’.

 

I am roasting away under it all; existential crisis, tripping over object permanence. I have often wondered about what to write, how to write; I have never questioned why I should write, what’s the point in writing. 

 

1: Critics are a kind of expert; they have the authority to presume that their experience of an artwork will predict yours. They are judges, presiding over an undulating landscape that falls under the territory of their jurisdiction ——

 

2: Critics exist to write. Their writing makes manifest a canon; the body of what we all mutually agree upon as worthy of being written about. That canon exists primarily for the purpose of art history, or the market, and often those two purposes are intertwined, bleeding into each other like birds singing into each otherʼs beaks, deafening pitch, flattening the fields as they sing —— 

 

3: The job of the critic is to interpret; they are translators, bridging the distance between heaven and public. Art is lofty and transient, and must be mediated by this figure of the wise sage, magician. It needs to be conditioned so it is consumable for the ordinary public. The space between divine celestial artwork, and debased human body must be collapsed - and it is art critics that do that collapsing. The public are in need of this service, for they cannot be trusted alone with the rare objects of fine art —— 

 

In my third year of university I had to write my dissertation. Hyped up by my dissertation tutor (a weird guy with silver capped molars and East End mannerisms) and his advice that I could write in whatever form I saw fit (an opera, a manifesto, a diary), I started writing a treatise for equality of interpretation. I wrote about author function, Barthes & Foucault, and how singular truth is meaningless in the face of the crowd, because the crowd does not exist; it is made up of individuals with their own subjective impulses, their own complex inner lives that throb with heavy intent. Postmodernism, etc. Art cannot be viably truthfully interpreted in singularity; artist, critic or curator; we are all critics and none of us are critics. Singular authority has been dissolved by the rush of post-post-modernity; I was trying to write across that jump from the death of the author, to the wisdom of the crowd. My studio tutor read it at its soft mid-point; he said, in so many words, that I was wrong. He made a defence of expertise - this was 2016, Michael Gove would go on to say ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’ - that if there was completely horizontal equality of interpretation, then the guy down the pub or the bloke that runs the corner shop have as important an opinion on Turner as Ruskin. Expertise matters, specialism matters, I was flattening the work of lifetimes into a kind of digital soup. He was making a case that singular knowledge can exist, that it is the job of certain people to be containers for that knowledge, and forget about equality. We just have to trust in the systems that exist to distribute that knowledge, and hope that it will be preserved, transmitted, interpreted into different forms that make it trickle down digestible to mere mortals. I didn’t know how to articulate that… If I really had to talk about Turner, I’d rather talk to the guy down the pub n the bloke that runs the corner shop, than talk to Ruskin. 

 

4: In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment ——

 

 

5: Critics should be positioned similarly to public servants, because criticism is best viewed as a kind of civic duty —— 

 

6: Critics are an extension of gallery marketing departments. Their job is incredibly easy; they copy their homework from the press release. Often, the most busy critics, will have already written most of their review by the time they arrive at the opening. They go back home and fill in the few blanks; and file for publication in a prompt and efficient manner —— 

 

The mouth of this existential crisis opened up at the end of January, when Jerry Saltz tweeted: ‘A good critic always puts more into writing about art work than the artist put into making it. The artist only creates. The critic must plumb that creation & also write creatively enough to deliver the full volume of the art while also creating a thing of beauty & clarity itself’. And then the timeline exploded with The Discourse. In the frenzy of being ratioed, he followed up to clarify: ‘A good critic DOES create! We do not "surpass" the work. We create a thing in itself that is adjacent to another thing in itself’ and ‘criticism is very very different from art in one respect: Criticism is very here today but very gone tomorrow. Good criticism has a much shorter possible life- span as good art. A critic really exists in the present. Art is in the present but possibly time, too. Not criticism.’ I donʼt rly have a hot take about this; I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know what I mean when I enter a room, introduce myself by saying ‘hello, yes, I am an art critic’. What do I literally do when I sit down and write? What regulates art criticism as a genre, what counts as knowledge within it, and what does that mean to me? 

 

I have asked around, because if I don’t know, then hopefully someone else will. I asked Morgan Quaintance, ‘what do critics do?’. He said, ‘In the beginning I saw what I did as spending the effort to properly uncover the richness and depth of a given artist's work, and also getting an audience to understand and see that richness and complexity too… I genuinely feel the most important thing you can do for an artist (aside from giving them a load of no strings attached cash), is take the time and effort to really research, think about and explore their work; the context it comes from, where it sits in relation to the history of cultural production, the formal and aesthetic risks and innovations it makes and so on and so on.’ This makes a lot of sense, and it also feels like a really good, kind answer. It’s a model of criticism that moves from a position of generosity and care; taking the time, making the effort and doing the research. For Morgan, acting as a conductor for critical feedback plays a vital role in the wider arts ecosystem: ‘in places where there are no critics the artists really feel it. I've been doing this series of city focused documentary films since 2014 and in places like New Orleans, Derry and Cape Town artists all said the same thing. It really annoyed them that the only people writing about stuff in their cities was their friends. They felt that it was hard to get real feedback and coverage, whether positive or negative about their work and the scene in general, and without stuff to feed off or push back against, they felt something was missing.’ 

 

This position of generosity is, across the board, kind of universally agreed upon. I asked Jerry Saltz, and he said: ‘A critic’s job is to get very very quiet within themselves, listen very closely to the voices in your head, even those who say the things you do not want to hear - and deliver that in the most direct way possible to the reader. A critic’s job, then, is to notice things and then say what they notice in the most readable, honest way possible - in order that readers/viewers may get a handle on a cosmic bundle.’ Critics provide feedback for more than just the artist, it can be a dialogue between more than just two players; you can be generous and caring to viewers too. Reviews can act as guide rope round an exhibition; when you think about it, exhibitions are weird spaces, with weird conventions rituals and precedents that can alienate the people dropped inside them. Reviews can be stimulus, starting point, interpretive feedback; a turn down service for the tightly wrapped sheets of contemporary art. Jerry describes it as process of transcribing that small voice inside your head, that inner truth that we call ~opinion~, but is really just a collection of thoughts and responses. ‘I want to be like a goal-keeper; it better be pretty good to get by me. A critic should see nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ It sounds like meditation, practice in transcending the ego. Unlike disembodied academic objectivity, that is still a bodily thing. Criticism can represent the process of transfiguring the opaque corporeal into a scrutable substance, of language n text. 

 

But that idea of the critic as intermediary between artwork and viewer has always been a tense one for me. Because, frankly, who the fuck am I and why should people care about what I think about Fra Angelico or Petra Collins. Even I don’t care about my opinions on either of them, because I literally know nothing of value to distinguish my opinion from anyone else’s. So, then, secretly, deep down underneath it all, I must care about expertise! By acknowledging that I have no expertise on them both as subjects, and by concluding that I have nothing to say of value about them, somewhere on that journey from beginning to end, is my old tutor’s argument for the value of expertise. When I asked Waldemar Januszczak, he seemed to have a clearer understanding of this particular tangle. ‘I’m just a writer whose subject is art’; critics don’t have to exist in this rarified space of Expert and Egghead, they can just be people who make a living by writing at the interface of this very specific thing. He continued, ‘it’s never been important to me to be right about anything… [But] I have seen a zillion exhibitions, I must have built up a bank of experience that others have not built up. I certainly believe in the importance of knowledge. Otherwise it’s just opinion, and that’s too easy. But it’s all about the writing. People either get something out of reading you, or they don’t. It’s really important to me to earn their attention, and not to expect it on a plate. No one owes you their attention. If you’re good, they read you. If you’re not good, they don’t.’ Waldemar’s reply made me realise that the wisdom of the crowd figures into this dynamic eventually. You can’t just declare yourself an expert in something because you’ve spent a lot of time doing it; I am not an expert in biting off my split ends, despite how much time I spend doing it. Expertise isn’t just accumulative, it isn’t just about logging in the hours; people have to agree that your opinion is worth listening to. If those people are the wider public, rather than a select group of insiders and gatekeepers; it can be traced back to a democratic place, and to something that might look a little more like equality of opinion. 

 

7: In a theoretical paper world, governments are held to account by a free and morally righteous media, who are tasked with ~speaking truth to power. If all is as it should be, and if institutions are held to account by the power of words, then art critics - as the peddlers of words - are tasked with this weighty responsibility; of manufacturing accountability, weaving it in between the lines —— 

 

8: Critical feedback? for the artist! the institution! the public!

 

Then, can the critic’s position as mediator be understood as collaboratively constructed? Authority can be soft. It can be a tool. It doesn’t have to be something I shrink from, just because it repulses the first touch from my outstretched hand. I can grab authority and press it into a shape of my own making. This is what Rianna Jade Parker confirmed, ‘I remember writing something similar to this question a few years ago: Art writers, critics and curators help to make an artist’s work more visible, intelligible and to give it a context. They play a hand in shaping the way we look at art, talk about art, and experience art. Every new voice and pen publishing their work is adding to the canon.’ Rianna’s work with Thicker Black Lines is grounded within this framing; the critic’s interpretive or intermediary role can be utilised towards a political end-goal, authority can be used to construct a canon that didn’t previously exist, citation can be a kind of conjuring and remembrance. The constructive role of a critic can be historical - documenting current works for the canon, or facilitating our interactions with works from the past; but it can also be one that’s concerned with futurity and imagining a better world, the steps we would need to work towards it. The critic then fills a role that holds on to thinking and movement in both of those directions. 

 

This constructive role towards the future and potential then extends beyond just the closed loop of artist, critic and viewer. Institutions exist, unfortunately, and so critics are also responsible for voicing curatorial feedback. Morgan continues: while he began thinking about his role as a writer within that closed interface between himself and the artist, ‘later on it became less about what was 'on the walls', so to speak, and more about what was going on behind them… when it comes to institutional stuff and interpersonal relations, some of us (who have the guts) are there to keep a check on the sector's bullshit.’ That critics act as check and balance in a system like the art world is sometimes a bit of a sticky one. But Morgan identifies the importance of the critic’s professional responsibility: to tell the truth, to ask the right questions, to make clear the things that are left intentionally foggy. This doesn’t have to be a pessimistic slog through the ills of our industry, though often that can feel like the only course. Critic doesn’t have to be a passive, impotent profession, purely concerned with the theoretical or the abstract; critics can have agency, they can have flesh and blood. Rianna pointed me towards a quote I have often heard paraphrased, ‘I often refer to Toni Cade Bambara's "The Writers Forum”… ‘what role can, should, or must the film practitioner, for example, play in producing a desirable vision of the future?’ Also from Toni, ‘The Job of the Writer is to Make Revolution Irresistible’’. 


9: Critics… produce… criticism…

 

And now I am going to talk about my insecurities: 

 

I have felt like I can’t be an art critic, because: I don’t care about critical theory or French post-structuralism, I only do it part time, I am slapdash, bored, I have a hazy focus and I have at times forgotten to talk about the art entirely. I do not have the will or the ability to become an expert in anything but myself - and even I, myself, am a mystery to me. Sometimes people call the white pube a blog, and they call us bloggers; and it feels like an insult (it’s not) or a falsehood (it’s not necessarily). But I still feel equally tense about calling myself a critic, even 5 years in, even after I have poured the entire contents of my interior into a handblown glass decanter, swirled it round to see if it’s got legs, and served it on a plate of my own making. 

 

A few months after I had handed in my dissertation - which had been hastily re-written into something far more conventional and boring - the New Inquiry published a text by Mal Ahern, called Naked Criticism. It was half a review of Rebekah Rutkoff’s book, The Irresponsible Magician, half an argument towards a soft subjective liquid criticism that peels away from you as you try to grab it, contain it. The tagline reads: ‘Critics should get to the point and tell us their dreams’, third paragraph in begins ‘But is it possible to write criticism—or even to write critically—while at the same time refusing the critic’s authority?’ Around that same time, I was still stretching out the limits of what writing meant. I wanted to print that text out and stitch the pages into the lining of my favourite jacket; it changed the way I felt about the criticism I was writing, and it guided me through what had started to feel like uncharted territory. Mal weaves through this dense smog of genre and form, the way criticism exists as a category, and its potential away from those confines: ‘Some of us waste whole paragraphs and/or lives squeezing into the clothes of art critics and sociologists and psychoanalysts, fumbling with all those expensive, complicated buttons…’ ‘The modes in which we write determine what we’re able say. Even the art critic lacks permission to dream.’ ‘Authority produces blind spots and excesses. As such, it’s a form of eccentricity.’ ‘…you could just get to the point and tell us your dreams, trusting the images you conjure to transmit their enigmatic message.’

 

10: Criticism is a kind of fiction.

 

This constructive power can be a kind of magic; you can create something from nothing, you can spirit things away, but you can also conjure things into being. ‘The Job of the Writer is to Make Revolution Irresistible’. Those words are sticky; I can’t scrape them off the surface of myself, and they haunt me gladly. They sit there, right next to Lola Olufemi’s words: ‘Art is threatening because when produced under the right conditions, it cannot be controlled.’ And they match each other’s rhythm. The critic, as a writer, is tasked with the role of stretching the expanse of our political imaginations, towards the production of something autonomous, that cannot be controlled or contained by the logic of capital, category or institution. 

 

I want to write sticky words. I want to tell you about my dreams and my fears and my insecurities. I want to write a kind of criticism that functions like fiction, because in fiction we suspend our disbelief and exercise our imaginations beyond the limits of what we immediately know exists. I want to be your best friend. I never want you to touch me. I want to be capable of magic. I want us to be hurtling through this brilliant sky together, hand in hand, screaming.

 

Mal ends with a quote from Foucault (i know, I know), from an anonymous interview he did under the pseudonym of the ~Masked Philosopher~: ‘I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep… Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.’ 

 

Jerry signed off his email: ‘I can’t write if writing is without you. No critic is an island. I love my job.’ Ay Jerry, me too. 

 
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