Friday, February 26, 2010

The so-called death of art criticism


For reasons that will become obvious there are two oft repeated statements that really get on my tits. What irritates me about these phrases is not so much that they are true but that people unthinkingly and glibly repeat them without any real understanding of their cultural significance and do so thinking that it demonstrates that they have their finger on the pulse of what is happening in our fluctuating society.

These two sentences are:

1) Print media is dead
2) Art criticism is dead

I believe that these statements are both true and false. Let me explain: people might be preparing its coffin but the print media is not dead. Yet. There are millions of newspapers, magazines et al that are being printed, bought and read. I do not live under the illusion that this state of affairs will continue: it won’t and in fact I believe a shift away from printed media will benefit the likes of me. For you see while printed products might become a thing of the past, content and the need for well-written content will never die. So when people (smugly) turn to me and declare that the print media is dead, I respond with a warm, but patronising smile for they do not know of what they speak. They do not understand that it is of no consequence to me and that ultimately I shall be a beneficiary of this transformation.

As for those, which often include art critics, who declare that art criticism is dead, I would agree, that yes, a dated notion of what art criticism entails has come to end. In fact I would go so far to say that their observation has come fifty or so decades after the fact. Though I am in two minds as to whether Arthur Danto’s declaration that art ended somewhere in the sixties when that cheeky art prankster Andy Warhol exhibited his Brillo box, I do believe that it was around this time, or perhaps earlier, when Duchamp exhibited his urinal (has anyone noticed how that any discourse on contemporary art can never get beyond these two events?) that it became inevitable that art criticism would experience a seismic shift – after all, it does not operate independently from art-making.  For once attention shifted away from the art object and towards the ideas that underpinned its status as an art object, obviously a formalist assessment of art was rendered obsolete. Albeit that some so-called art critics in this country engage with art via the personality of the artist, shifts in critical thinking around authorship, where the society as a whole has become the de facto author, have also seen a kind of criticism centred around the artist’s personality (and one that I would like to point out dates back to the days of Vasari) become irrelevant.  In literary circles a move away from this brand of criticism is appropriately titled: New Criticism.