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Wednesday 05.23.07

« Exit 07 | Main | Dinh Q. Le at Elizabeth Leach Gallery »

Withering Criticism

Ahhh, David Row over at the O blogs has yet another insecurity filled diatribe on criticism and bloggers... which is generally spot on in theory, though needlessly reactionary towards democratic expression. Look, people with little worth as critics don't attract audiences and have little opinion shaping authority. Yes, newspapers are full of near useless critics, they also have some good ones (the O's Shawn Levy is good and Randy Gragg recently left).... elsewhere The LA Times Christopher Knight is superb as are Roberta Smith and Regina Hackett at the Seattle PI (who should be lured to Portland... it will take more than breadcrumbs).

Sure, everyone is capable of being critical but a critic is someone who develops a critical practice with an awareness and responsiblity to the relevance of the words (even when the critic is just wrong, real critics risk it). I'm trained as a critic/historian and I remember the 600 level writing course in grad school as a kind of relentless hypercritical boot camp, but the truth was I was always thinking, "what does this mean?" Having been raised Lutheran didn't hurt either, but I ultimately liked the critical part more than the religious elements.

It is true, good critics are really hard to find and when PORT hires someone I usually end up with these strange moments where I try to look at the gestalt of the potential critic and I think, "do they have it in them to do this month in month out?" The secret is they always have to care about the subject deeply, then back it up with knowledge... not just a reaction. There is a place for tour guide wordsmiths but they arent as influential as the critics with teeth. A critic who isn't into their subject isn't an effective critic.

I'm amadant that PORT's critics have strong art backgrounds but that is just the starting criteria.

Gursky at Matthew Marks this month

For example of the real deal, read Jerry Saltz's latest here. I think he's wrong about Gursky's post 9/11 importance, but I can see how this show looks out of touch. Is Gursky just whistling past the graveyard? Well maybe, but it reflects the way power and amnesia inducing commerce do act these days.

Did 9/11 change consumer's appetite for Soma? No.

For example there are the Global Warming Ready Diesel ads, a kind of reverse psychology ad campaign aimed at youth's ability to ignore the obvious while not being ignorant. One that Ive seen in Rolling Stone etc. sports a young, good looking couple cavorting atop a skyscraper. Below them it appears the ocean has covered the cityscape in a kind of Neroesque catastrophe (have the polar ice caps melted?) One can clearly make out that the rich have survived the deluge in party yachts sailing the ruined civilization. Is Gursky out of touch? not so much as he is in touch with the out of touch. Saltz is right that it might be getting old and watered down, but when does a lie that tells the truth really get old? As a true critic Saltz gets it wrong for the right reasons. As a fan I would like Gurksy to kick it up a notch because he's gotten a little too close to the Diesel ads so Jerry's kinda right.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on May 23, 2007 at 13:23 | Comments (11)


One might consider "tour guide wordsmiths" (that's probably me) more influential than others because their style of writing is accessible to the vast audience in town that is not well-read in art history or criticism, and cannot keep up with all of the various "names" and esoteric (and please don't read that as a demeaning term) references that pepper the articles written at this venerable site. Tour guide wordsmiths wouldn't put themselves in your category or Jerry Saltz's category either. The audience, purpose, and values are completely different. I firmly believe that both can coexist, possibly in a productive manner...

I think there might be something to learn from that peice you referenced in the opening statement of your article.

Posted by: graves [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 08:26 PM

First of all, I'm a rather accessible (for an art writer) but I pepper things with some postgrad terms for those who might find use for it. Besides dumbing down things for an audience just isn't my style.... for more generalist publications it's necessary and there is nothing wrong with it, but that isn't PORT's mission.

For example, I understood everything Rosalind Krauss said at PAM last weekend but to all but a few that kind of academicism is code and more akin what you are referencing. I choose not to write in code, but I dont try to keep things simple just for simplicity's sake.

Also, the discussion in this post centered around criticism. Being a tour guide is fine and good but it isn't criticism. Also, I generally agreed with what David wrote. None of it is anything new to anybody who has has studied/practiced the various forms of art writing. Re-read it closer and youll see this truth... not everyone is a critic.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 10:59 PM

Being an astute reader is also of import, and it should be noted that the DK Row blog entry in question is not actually written by Row but clearly attributed to Time magazine critic Richard Schickel. The insecurity (if present) is first Schickel's, then by dint of his reproducing it, Row's.

Posted by: stateparks [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2007 09:26 PM

JJ- It may be the "tour guides" that actually make academic writers more accessible. And careful... I'm probably not the only person who would object to the phrase "dumbing down."

stateparks - I didn't notice that until I went back to read it a second time. Definitely important to note.

Posted by: graves [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2007 09:35 PM

I thought that was obvious... I mean Shickel's piece is clearly attributed. It's the latest in a long series of pieces DK's DJ'd, all have a similar tone regarding critical authority... all are a little defensive in a newspaper-y way. Completely understandable, but still insecure by proxy and the position become clear though looking at the recurring themes he serves up, whether he states them directly or not.

Graves, no need to take offense, once again I'm only speaking on criticism... the tour guide stuff is exempted from the different demands of criticism (though how much effect does one really have with a more lay audence when discussing an esoteric subject like art?). Still it is apples and oranges, they co-exist though criticism is very scarce so I dislike it when tour guide arts writing replaces criticism.

It all depends on the writer's goals, broad audience or focused. Thus, the "no dumbing down" issue is key to cultivating an audience for critical writing, whereas an outright literary tour of an art exhibition usually foregrounds the need for accessibility. However useful that accesssible tour might be for a lay or casual audience, it isnt criticism.

Of course reviews can be acessible and I prefer them so, but only to a point. Most who enjoy critical writing are looking to be immersed in somewhat idiomatic arguements which necessitates going down some rabbit holes.

The fact is critical discussion is shrinking in dead tree media and I'm committed to providing an alternative.

You can do whatever you want of course. Long ago we decided that when PORT needed to take on the tour guide role we would just photoblog, a picture is worth a thousand words. Thats just a decision not an indictment.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2007 12:50 AM

Re: attribution.

It is obvious when you read Row's blog, but if you don't click that link your opening sentence "David Row over at the O blogs has yet another insecurity filled diatribe on criticism and bloggers" one would understandably think your post referred to Row's thoughts and not someone else's. Given your clear anti-DK 'Death' Row stance it seems a good distinction to make for your less cllicky readers. Yeah, I know I'm being snarky ... however, I read Row's blog twice wondering when his insecurity filled diatribe started, since I was eager to read into his insecurities and not someone else's.

Posted by: stateparks [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2007 11:36 AM

Point taken, I guess its the programmer in me... a linked reference is attribution in that world. Also, his diatribe started years ago... its related to his homilies on "Journalism."

Lastly "anti" is too strong a tag... simply illuminating something which has been going on for a while. It's a completely understandable stance since he's a newspaper guy and I respect it even if I cant support it. The fact that he didn't offer anything direct to indicate his take makes it tough to suss out but if youve read him for long its pretty easy to see.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2007 11:59 AM

The article might not be against all blogs, but is saying the consistent quality of information isn't there. Print journalism has an inherit safeguard of investment in print and delay to copy (...editors) that potentailly makes it more reflective.

Does any one have any advise for someone that doesn't have experience in the field of writing about art, but would like to?

Posted by: elle4 [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2007 12:44 PM

Newspapers may have safegaurds but in a lot of dead tree media what does get put out isnt all that good either. Even the New York Times seems less toothy these days.

Art writing is hard, it pays terrible and provokes a lot of paranoia. The upshot is it gives feedback and traction to artists.

My suggestion is to write something, have a few experienced art writers critique it. When you feel ready shop it around to a few publications. Every publication is different so try to match your style to the publication's goals and publishing history.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2007 01:00 PM

No offense taken, although I reassert that some might get a little pissed about the term "dumbing down" when it comes to describing the difference between critical writing and review writing. It's a continuum not a hierarchy.

Additionally, Art doesn't have to be inherently or neccessarily esoteric, whether one chooses to write about it in an esoteric manner or not.

Posted by: graves [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2007 07:39 PM

If a review doesnt have a critical element it isnt really a review... its more of an expose. Heirarchies always exist, especially in the arts.

Does that make a cake decorator less of an artist than Tom Sachs? No. Does the cake decorator expect to be represented in museums 200 years from now? probably not. Will a really good cake decorator have an easier time attracting an appreciative audience, hell yes!

Expectations define outcomes, so I'm not interested in dumbing things down. If contemorary art could exist as a hugely popular public past time in the US that would change the dynamic ... but the facts are voters dont support it and it falls to those more interested in esoteric persuits to make, fund and consume it. I think a much larger cultural shift would have to occur in the US to make challenging contemporary art a national pastime... it would have to start with better education.

Unless the improbable happens, serious contemporary art will be an esoteric persuit best served by challenging those that find their way to its small but interesting niche in civilization.

That's the audience PORT serves, we even make it acessible without "dumbing it down." Ill never apologize for refusing to write at an 8th grade level. Generalist publications have that unenviable task... I even respect it.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 26, 2007 12:39 PM

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