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 magculture.com
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