A New Golden Age?
Abraham Ritchie. Photo by Anna Wolak
Like a ship heading towards open ocean, progressive art is constantly moving away from us. Culture does not slow down or stop when visual art is cut from school curricula or when art critics are fired from major newspapers. Rather it is the community that suffers, as the public becomes distanced from its own culture. Unaware of the innovations that are going on and why, the community can become alienated from art. The artists can also suffer, though they are still fundamentally connected to culture in ways that the public is not. Without critics, artists can pursue unproductive or backwards paths.
The art critic is crucial to both the public and to artists. The art critic must connect new art to the public, providing a platform for understanding and appreciation. Logically, the critic must also give critical feedback to the artists who are focused on innovation in their work. This allows the artist to improve their practice or reject the critic’s assessment. Rather than invalidating the critic’s point, this will build complexity into the conception of an artwork. After all, once a point has been made it cannot be forgotten, though it can be ignored.
Increasingly, however, mainstream art criticism is merely being used as a public relations outlet for the arts industry. This is the real danger to art and to culture; that it is used as a tourist attraction rather than understood as meaningful culture. This is damaging to artists and the public alike as both are given a superficial understanding of culture. Artists are not given real input about their work, which can allow them to become complacent, and their work to become irrelevant or pandering. The public is merely told the “where” and “when” of art, but not the “why.”
Art criticism isn’t easy and it should not be. It is an activity that requires both a deep and broad range of knowledge, as art can connect to science, philosophy, politics, history, and technology, among many other fields and disciplines. My approach has always been that writing about art requires a deep knowledge of art and a strong awareness of what’s happening in art now. It’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s not always a mandate for those that write about art.
I truly hope that there will be increasingly democratic coverage of the arts. I hope that many more people will demand art coverage from their local media, or feel compelled to start writing about art on their own. That is how I started as an art critic: recognizing that art was not really being covered consistently, I began writing about it online. The divisions and silly prejudices between online and print writing should be broken down, in favor of looking at the content. Good writing is good writing no matter where it appears, and there’s just as much bad writing in print as online. Regrettably, I haven’t seen as many new art blogs starting up in recent years. Let’s hope it is because those in media are doing their job well.
It is important, though, not to lose sight of what one should be doing as a critic, which is writing about the best art rather than the most popular. This is not to say that writing about popular art should be forbidden. Quite the opposite, covering popular art can broaden the audience and understanding for art. But it should be done in the most intelligent and challenging way possible.
With new technology, never before has a critic been able to reach so many people all over the world and engage directly with an audience. Critics can now gauge their own writing: with social media and online metrics, we can see what the art community is really interested in and what the public wants to read. This can lead to increased opportunities for discussion and exchange in the best situations.
It is an exciting time to write about art. I hope that it is the beginning of a new golden age for art and art criticism and not a missed opportunity.
Abraham Ritchie is an independent art critic, the senior editor of ArtSlant: Chicago, and the author of the Chicago Art Blog.