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What's the difference between art criticism and journalism?


For all the talk about the “crisis in art criticism” and the radicalization of voice the internet has afforded writers, I think we’re missing a key point in conversation: the distinction between art criticism and journalism. I was recently watching a panel about the state of art criticism, and one of the panelists, the editor-in-chief of a respected art magazine, was asked if she had any concerns about the rapidly mutating function of print magazines amid the rise of art journalism websites. She replied, “But… what is exactly IS art journalism, anyway?” I was surprised by her response–isn’t the distinction between art criticism and art journalism obvious? After speaking to a few colleagues about the topic, it turns out not so much.

I would argue that a necessary component of criticism is the analysis of an artwork, whereas journalism necessitates factual reportage on the events of the art world and its denizens. While an art journalist could report on say, the opening of the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum, an art critic would review the work in its opening show, to include the clarity and worth of the exhibition’s curatorial premise. (Shouldn’t there be a third word for writers who report on what so-and-so wore to the opening? Or writing weird conversational texts about art criticism?) These distinctions have perhaps less to do with an online/print divide than they do with one between journalism and criticism–and, weirdly, with prestige. The edibility of the web, of course, dovetails with the rapidity of publishing characteristic of journalistic outlets. There’s also a wow-factor in getting published in print, since a publication cared enough to pay to make your writing into a physical object. As one could probably expect, art magazines are becoming more designed, assumably in order to make their physicality more appealing. As an extreme example, we could look to Kaleidoscope, whose over-the-top redesign was headed by Munich-based studio Mirko Borsche.

Kaleidoscope cover courtesy

The divide between art reportage and strict criticism, of course, was in place pre-internet. Here’s Renata Adler in the New York Review of Books in August 1980:

Normally, no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence, working flat out, on a quotidian basis. No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth.

At most publications, staff critics are cast up from elsewhere in the journalistic ranks—the copy desk, for instance, or regular reporting. What they provide is a necessary consumer service, which consists essentially of three parts: a notice that the work exists, and where it can be bought, found, or attended; a set of adjectives appearing to set forth an opinion of some sort, but amounting really to a yes vote or a no vote; and a somewhat nonjudgmental, factual description or account, which is usually inferior by any journalistic standard to reporting in all other sections of the paper. On the basis of these columns, the reader gets his information and, if he is an art consumer, forms his own judgment and makes his choice.

Serious publications, however, tend from time to time to hire talented people, educated, usually young, devoted to the craft of criticism, at least as it entails fidelity to an art and to a text under review. What usually happens is that such a critic writes for some time at his, highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately; incorporating in whatever is judgmental evidence for what he’s saying (a sign of integrity in a critic, as opposed to an opinion monger, is that he tries for evidence; in reviewing prose forms, for example, he will quote); and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite. What happens after a longer time is that he settles down.

The consumer service remains the professional basis for the staff reviewer’s job; fidelity, evidence, and so forth are still the measures of his value, but the high critical edge becomes misplaced, disproportionate when applied to most ordinary work. The staff critic is nonetheless obliged, and paid, to do more than simply mark time between rich periods and occasional masterpieces. The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable—is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale.

Adler brings up another issue: what happens when the job of being a staff critic is tantamount to artificially manufacture issues in art? Given that there are such few art critic staff positions on newspaper editorial teams today, I think this is becoming less of a category of critic that we often see. Rather, it seems more prevalent for some critics to “make an example” of an artist by writing an extremely negative–and extremely shareable–review, in hope of garnering attention for themselves.

Back to the question at hand: What do you think the distinctions are between art criticism and journalism? How are print art magazines evolving to compete or distance themselves from the exploding amount of art journalism online?

*Above image caption: “The Art Critic” (1955) by Norman Rockwell


The difference between criticism and reporting comes down to subjectivity versus objectivity, or at least the promise of it.

I think the landscape you are writing about draws heavily on the precedents set by the mainstream press alongside the historic role of specialist art magazines. Digital draws on both these things and is continuing its constant evolution.

The mainstream media’s reporting is entrenched in longstanding news values that inform everything. When art magazines try to incorporate these news values they get into trouble, because they don’t have the power to stand up to specialist advertisers. On the flipside, their criticism is better informed and has greater expertise, all the better to serve their audience.

In the mainstream press, criticism is often credited with a level of expertise, but this isn’t necessarily true. It depends on the publication. If criticism is just there to present the work and provide a descriptive account, as many believe, then anyone can do it.
Unfortunately, with regard to the mainstream press, your opinion might be heard because of your social background, your achievements elsewhere (I’m thinking Updike, Wolfe) and your understanding is less important, and this throws up all sorts of problematic social questions.
On a global level, just because it’s criticism doesn’t make it good criticism; but like art presumably you need to look at what the writer’s intentions were.

In arts reporting in the mainstream press you are bringing a set of preordained news values normally applied to politics, health, science, to the arts community. Unfortunately, the arts community is problematic to report on because it is highly served by PR and the bullshit “glamour” factor of openings, parties, etc is high. These exist to win over clients. Journalists quickly become part of this community and find it hard to maintain objectivity, or they overcompensate and become highly critical in the face of such a powerful machine trying to win them over.

I think there is clearly an elision between criticism and reporting going on digitally but is there also an entire rethinking of the news values that traditional reporters are trained to recognise? Does something need to be newly introduced into the public domain to be significant reporting? Does it need to challenge established orthodoxy? I think younger critics think about these questions, and how they marry with their visual art expertise, in a way that more established critics might not be familiar with.

Further to this, I would say much mainstream “reporting” is as much an adjunct of the institutions as mainstream art criticism is often credited as being. Oddly, in the UK’s climate of austerity, power shifts towards the institutions, away from the media, because art is seen as a soft option in the traditional news package. This further erodes objectivity and mirrors the elision effects seen in digital.


It is a lot easier to see the similarities and overlap between criticism and journalism, without the capitalist context of advertising media. They are ultimately both investigative processes with a different premise.

It may offend the sensibilities of those who think in binaries, but to think of journalism as objective and criticism as subjective is basic, particularly in today’s art world context. Both genres of writing are both of those things, always. The choice to write about a subject at all is subjective, and the editors who reach into a journalist’s copy and attach all the baggage of the publication’s business model are by no means working from an objective standpoint.

It is incumbent upon the critic and the journalist to be as honest and as objective about their own subjective biases. There are more ethical guidelines for this in journalism overall, but the business model of advertising will extinguish any dissenting objectivity. In criticism, the same will happen, even though it claims to be a wide open field for opinion. There is a less stringent relationship to the why question in criticism - what is the evidence for the cited subjectivity? - when there could be so much more beyond just ‘because I think so.’

Avatars for objectivity are not objective, but create a context that can be invisible to those who have no other reference. For example, many people assume newspapers and some magazines are objective reporters of information. They are not, they are selling a product and that goal is very subjective - they are reporting the information that best suits their product needs. Even PBS and NPR - the original native advertisers - create a context that is subjective now. I address this in my work, #becausecapitalism.

Overall the dialogue we have about art - whether criticism or journalism - is rooted in both objectivity and subjectivity and we need to apply them both, and strive for them responsibly. In my work The Subjective Objective, I equate subjectivity to a sort of cultural infinity: the sum of subjectivity realizes the objective. But like infinity, understanding and processing millions of bits into a whole is technologically ahead of us. For now, it seems like we’ll have to listen to the loudest (richest) voices in the room.


I understand that the stringent nature of the news pyramid oversimplifies whatever is being written about and clearly presents a highly biased view of whatever topic is being analysed. That frame is the same for everything and is the focus of constant, valued criticism. It is a pro forma that is in itself biased, whereas less rigid forms of writing may be personalised and therefore less insidious, but are equally subject to the writer’s prejudices and the demands of their publication.

However I do think the promise of objectivity, or at least scrutiny, is something that defines arts reporting. It is a mode of writing clearly aimed at a wider audience than most criticism. Whether or not it is truly objective is a different question and one I suspect we agree on.

Agree reporters and critics should be more open about their own bias, though trust in mainstream reporting’s objectivity among the public is presumably very low. I wonder whether this is mirrored within the art writing community. Is it possible to truly consider reviews outside capitalism? Who grants the reviewers access and why?

Perhaps overly simplistic to suggest news media with an advertising-based business model will always serve the cause of advertising. Many reporters, and critics, paddle against the current. Many publications still carry a breadth of content and give their writers more freedom than you suggest.


The “promise of objectivity” is exactly that and I agree this should be something to strive for, but I think the context of journalism’s objectivity for lay people is that objectivity infers a calculable science. Repetitive media marketing slogans about fairness and accuracy drive that home, even if on a subconscious level.

Agreed that, “trust in mainstream reporting’s objectivity among the public is presumably very low,” but I suspect that despite this, without any other national or international contexts to consider (unless one is a citizen journalist researching primary sources) the context for the conversation remains within mainstream reporting’s domain.

What media now knows is that people generally engage with negative emotions far more intensely and frequently than positive emotions, and so beyond the content of the objective/subjective information they are disseminating, are doing so to improve their engagement with the public, not in order to better inform the public. This could explain putting Kim Kardashian on the cover of Paper Magazine, a place where you might have previously learned about an outsider or emerging artist or musician.

“Many reporters, and critics, paddle against the current. Many publications still carry a breadth of content and give their writers more freedom than you suggest.”

I really want that to be the case, truly, I do. However, the context of working in a publication and paddling against the current has major limitations. First, the lone rogue’s power should not be overstated, it is mythical unless you are an institution in and of yourself (impossible for a young person). Most reporters are freelance and can be easily axed.

This informs what it means to be a journalist who has a staff position, as they know how easily they can be let go into the pool of unemployed people begging editors all day to write their stories. Those who survived recession layoffs are either clinging to jobs or content playing within the context of their bosses, maneuvering around unwanted topics. We can’t keep claiming the good journalists are still working in mainstream - many of them already took buyouts.

“Many publications still carry a breadth of content and give their writers more freedom than you suggest.”

Agreed! But there are many topics that are avoided, particularly when it comes to how we are building our media technology. What is the underlaying business model of these publications? They sell their reader’s demographic information and attention to a third party after collecting our information through digital surveillance. Media has created a stock market for diverting our attention in the form of clickable ad measurements that can be saturated by the wealthiest buyer, or alternatively, the best bots. These systems make the actual technology less secure by optimizing for network ad servers, rather than keeping information secure. In the digital age, the core business of media is driving attention, not objectivity or journalism.