Why Criticism is Not Bad

Brent Owens, This Better Be Fuckin Good, 2010. Oak, enamel, paint, auto lacquer.

I was taught in art school that criticism was not only the most useful tool in art, but that it was also the most highly-desired outcome of any form of creative production. Without criticism, our work exists in a vacuum and lacks meaning and impact. Criticism confirms out work’s significance for the larger society and culture to which we are trying to contribute. Plainly, it makes us better artists and writers.

I was very surprised to find that this was up for debate.

I have recently encountered innumerable examples of my colleagues, especially in Brooklyn, reacting very badly to criticism, both negative and positive. Not just to me, either, but to anyone writing about their work, or writing about their writing. They take it personally, they don’t listen, and worst of all, they’re not even interested. Any attempt at disagreement, or an actually negative review of a show is met with harsh, and usually public, outcry from the artist/curator/writer themselves. Even posing an alternative point of view reaps backlash!

What used to have been sifted through and edited by whoever was responsible for the “Letters to the Editors” section is now instantaneous on comment threads on blogs, and even faster on social networks. The same — if not larger — public attention is paid to negative reactions written in 140 characters on Twitter, or on the Facebook pages of critics like Jerry Saltz or Loren Monk, or long-form in comments sections on Hyperallergic or ArtFagCity. To be clear, while I think these are useful tools, I personally wish that these were more constructed/ researched/ better arguments instead of the one-liner ad hominem attacks they tend to be.

Art is — more than anything else — a social enterprise. Eliminate the image from your minds of the ruminant artist furiously working alone in his studio eagerly awaiting the day MoMA calls to offer him a retrospective, and the Met offers to purchase his estate post-mortem. The enormous surplus of artists in the market now require the artist to take a significantly more proactive stance than he did before Modernism, or postmodernism. While I am 100% behind artists being public figures, speaking up for themselves, and defending themselves to their publics, it should be done very, very carefully.

Artists and critics have a symbiotic relationship; it is naive to think otherwise. Neither one would have a job without the other. We’re definitely beyond the “any press is good press” days, but at the same time, consider how many artists are out there receiving no attention at all.

I agree that social media has to some degree democratized the art world. It has  allowed new young emerging artists to garner more critical attention and fame than ever before, and respond to their critics instantly, generating sometimes intelligent conversation. However, this should not lessen our standards or our requirement to make our arguments well-researched, well-measured, and well-written. This would be the equivalent of comparing a blog to a published piece of scholarly writing; both are valid forms of production, its just that one is edited (by an impartial, unbiased professional).

I would propose to you — particularly in a subject that is so rooted in personal opinion and conjecture, like art — that you should consider every opinion brought to your attention seriously.  You should be exercising an enormous amount of care and scholarly distance in your writing on developments in contemporary art.

You, as an artist, writer, critic, curator, etc., have a responsibility to be accurate, critically distant, and measured. Considering how universally important Brooklyn has become as a major producer in the global contemporary art world, you should treat any publication with the respect of publishing something that is clearly-written, well-researched, and thought through.

Another platitude from art school: The real work of writing is thinking.

For the record, the artist pictured above doesn’t mind criticism.

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