In support of arts criticism

I’ve had a few recent conversations with friends in San Francisco about arts criticism, in which I invariably find myself having to rush to the defense — rather passionately, I might add — of criticism as a discipline. I quit my technology-related teaching job recently, choosing to focus, once more, on the quixotic quest of being a journalist and writing more books on obscure subjects.

San Francisco is not a town that’s overflowing with critics, the way that New York City always seemed to be. The news outlets that are still solvent in the Bay Area seem to focus on tech reporting. The big fish around these parts are hometown heroes like Yelp and Twitter (their headquarters are just down the street from me), Facebook, and Google (an hour’s drive away, in pleasantly sterile Mountain View.)

In comparison, arts criticism seems like small change, both literally and figuratively. There’s nothing more humbling than having to defend your chosen profession to your friends on a regular basis. According to some of the software engineers I know, reviews are something that can be automated by recommendation engines; music criticism is a charming anachronism ready to be supplanted by playlists on social networking sites. Among the “hard news” journalists I know who still have jobs — from the embittered City Hall reporters to the elite foreign correspondents — arts criticism is considered fluff, an ethereal sort of candy-floss hardly worthy of its own seminar at a journalism school. Many of the humanities academics I’m acquainted with don’t take criticism in the popular press very seriously either. They’re likely to tell me that the grasp of theory is weak, if there is any theory to begin with; that it’s too commercial; that the argumentation lacks rigor and depth. To cap it all off, the artists I know, by and large, hate art critics, evincing only a grudging, vestigial respect for larger-than-life figures (mostly dead) like Clement Greenberg. Critics don’t get much love these days from anybody, which is part of the reason why I love criticism.

It’s hard for me to understand how critics could be supplanted by recommendation engines. I’m 29 going on 30 now. The Village Voice meant the world to me when I was a teen, growing up in the Jersey suburbs under New York City’s very long shadow. Writing for the Voice in my early-to-mid-20s was like the fulfillment of a childhood goal. I learned about art and film and music by reading criticism. My best friend had a subscription to Melody Maker in junior high; we got every issue by mail-order subscription from the UK. Each issue would materialize one or two months late in our New Jersey mailbox, via the byzantine Royal Mail system (it’s a miracle the issues ever arrived at all.) We devoured each issue, treating the reviews like dispatches from some exotic alternate universe. I got interested in punk and bought zines after reading about them in Factsheet Five. I learned about music by reading about it, because the record-store clerks were usually too taciturn to talk.

In college, I read Greenberg and Kael and Sontag, back issues of the P. Adams Sitney-edited Film Culture, old issues of The Wire and ancient issues of NME. I fancied myself a musician, and at age 19, I briefly starred in a short-lived, and very awful, band called “Throbbing Puppy” (we imagined ourselves as a cross between Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy). I did a second degree in film studies, escaping the grim confines of my M.I.T. science coursework with classes on ’60s avant-garde filmmaking and German Expressionist cinema. I watched tons of short films; Maya Deren, Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka were all touchstones. I shot short movies in super8 because it was more fun than clunky Hi8 video and expensive 16mm, and collected old analog projectors and cameras and reels in varying states of disrepair. My friends and I ran protests, rented time on public-access TV, and made our own zines and distributed them through campus. I drew inspiration from Dadaist sound poetry and Futurist missives. We repurposed old Russian Constructivist posters and used them for our own goofy causes. I got accepted to film grad school at Tisch and couldn’t afford it, so I became a journalist instead. Art and music and film and criticism saved my life. And so it was easy to get a little weepy when Michelle Obama told a crowd at the Met that “the arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it.” It was a nice, convenient sentiment for a First Lady to deliver at one of America’s top art museums, sure, but it sounded genuine to me.

While waiting for Washington’s bailout plan for the nation’s music critics, I sought solace in this recent interview I read with A.O. Scott, published in the Ithaca Journal:

“A lot of people think that critics are snobs or are always negative — that our job is to trash things that people like. Or that critics are failed artists…

“I’m not speaking about “why my job is great and everyone should listen to me,” but about why criticism is an intelligent and lively form of discipline. About why having a critical perspective on the arts you care about is important and worthwhile and necessary. If criticism were to cease as an activity, a lot would go with it.”

7 thoughts on “In support of arts criticism

  1. Blake

    Artists need critics to be the people who represent their audience, the authority/boss figure missing from the life of a free agent. The critic is the one who has to step up to tell the artist when they are not producing work that lives up to their potential. In terms of what work makes it into the cultural consciousness, the critic is at least as important as the artist.

  2. Ben

    Oh Geeta, I hope we find time to talk about this during your going away party (since it seems likely to be the only occasion I’ll see you before you leave.) If only we’d been able to go to some screenings together.

  3. Kirsten Gronberg

    I have found that criticism in general, not just about art, is increasingly poorly received. The norm is to applaud ideas, accomplishments, art works, etc. and change the subject. To critique someone’s work or project, to refuse to use the words “interesting” and “nice” to describe it, is an offensive and negative act.
    When we choose not to define a problem (and then seek to solve or at least to explain it) with the things we enjoy, we slow progress. Without critique, without expressed opinion, creativity is lost.

  4. Yoshi

    I agree completely. I think neither the crowd-sourced (e.g. Yelp, IMDB) nor the quantitative aggregate model of criticism (e.g. Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes) can offer the same degree of depth or complexity as a single intellectually engaged critic. I also think there’s a place for a more popular kind of criticism than what’s offered by the ivory tower, which tends, consciously or unconsciously, to use criticism as a means to regenerate the conditions of its own exclusivity. “Theoretical” jargon grows like kudzu in the humanities not really out of necessity, but rather because it consolidates symbolic capital in the hands of a highly specialized intellectual priesthood.

    For me Peter Schjeldahl is an example of a critic writing for a mainstream venue who evinces an obvious familiarity with “theory” without letting it encumber or determine his criticism. Personally I like that he doesn’t let some mirage of intellectual propriety subvert the subjective aspect of his judgments.

  5. ZSTC

    The problem with many quantitative aggregator models is summed up by that sidebar on Pitchfork that shows ‘Most Read’ – it’s not a neutral register of reader interest, because people click through *purely because* an item has previously been heavily read, thus perpetuating its high ranking.

    Criticism will never die off completely, and we should aggressively fight its corner. One way is to reconceive it: everybody is a critic. Criticism is simply the application of criteria; critical thinking is something that every artist engages in while recording / writing / painting / editing, it’s something that everyone does everyday. It’s part of everyone’s mental furniture, and as such is deserving of the closest attention, study, explication, and dedicated pursuit.

  6. mike

    i want critics to teach me – help me see the good in a piece that i way otherwise reject – not necessarily change my mind – or point out that which i may miss in what i love – help me understand…

  7. dan

    while the artist and audience is permanently confined to being part of a piece, the critics carve for themselves a place outside of it looking in. i think it is true that, like the empty space in a sliding tile puzzle, a trusted critic helps both the artist and the audience to slip around and see works in new ways. The critic is also, these days, a voice on the waters, constantly helping in the fight against drowning.


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