What is the purpose of art criticism? Do art critics have a point anymore? Can they contribute anything to the development of art? Harsh words, descriptive and critical analysis of pieces of art had long been an integral part of the art world. Art criticism likely originated with the origins of art itself, as evidenced by texts found in the works of Plato, Vitruvius or St. Augustine among others. It can be broadly defined as a discussion and interpretation of art and its value, in the pursuit of a rational basis for art appreciation. In 1932, the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry defined art criticism as “a form of literature which condenses or amplified, emphasizes or arranges or attempts to bring into harmony all the ideas that come to the mind when it is confronted by artistic phenomena”, with a domain extending “from metaphysics to invective”. Interpretative analysis and aesthetical judgments dominated the discourse of art criticism for a long period of time, and art criticism has been an inevitable part of contemporary art dynamics. The criticism has an important role in developing and deepening the work of artists, but also in helping viewers perceive, and interpret works of art. Yet, in 2005, the art critic Dave Hickey stated: “Criticism, at its most serious, tries to channel change, and when nothing is changing, when no one is dissenting, who needs criticism?” His voice joins an ongoing discussion about a crisis in contemporary art criticism.
For a long time, art criticism has been perceived as a form of privileged consciousness that provided an insight into the art that required a special eye for it. Art critics served a regulatory, introspective and proscriptive function for the circulation and reception of art, and artists often saw their opinions as useful, insightful, or instructive. In this way, art practice and art criticism are supposed to be in a dialectical relationship – to complement each other. In his 2003 book What Happened to Art Criticism?, the art historian James Elkins contemplated about its decline: “In worldwide crisis … dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural crisis … [art criticism is] dying … massively produced, and massively ignored.” Many experts have proclaimed an end to art criticism. They argue that, in the last two decades, art criticism has become boring, unprofessional, and that it has lost its purpose. Many claim that art critics have become PR agents for contemporary artists, galleries, and the art market, becoming an integral element of the contemporary art machinery whose main aim is to make money. More significantly, the support for criticality and critical thinking appears dismal in the wider culture, with a fearful caricature of criticism as the meddling antagonists. Rather than a crisis in criticism, we are currently suffering a crisis of relative values that could be treated with criticism. Without criticism, the only measure of value in art becomes money – a measure both fickle and stultifying.
The contemporary art market is mainly about the breeding of money, not the fertility of art. Thus, commercially high-priced works of art exist to increase the power of money to fertilize itself, not the value of art. Money has no value in itself, it is valuable for what one can exchange it for. Yet, in the capitalist society, it presents itself as the quintessence of value. With the commercial value of art usurping its spiritual value, art’s aesthetic, cognitive, emotional, moral and other values of the dialectical varieties of critical consciousness has been subsumed by the value of money. Once it is exhibited and sold, every artwork becomes the product intended to be consummated just like any other mass-produced object. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, art and culture became co-opted and intended to suit capitalist interests where conditions of mass production and reproduction of art strip it of its function as an individual unit. It seems that the art itself has become a commodity to be bought and sold. Just like any other enterprise, art has been absorbed by money, and it is the market rather than the critics that decides who are the outstanding artists of the age. In this light, the market is substituted for criticism as the only means by which a work of art is evaluated. When hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in celebrity artists such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, it makes little difference if a critic gives them a bad review. A few years ago, the art critic Dore Ashton wrote that “if art criticism is hostage to the marketplace, and if the destiny of an artist’s work is to be evaluated on an eternal abacus, something vital has been lost—that is, good conversation among artists and their viewers.” This situation of artists being rated only by price results from a devaluation of criticism. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song. Art criticism is important because it creates a place for a work of art to mean, irrelevant of market forces.
As the art critic David Levi Strauss argues, art “needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world”. One of the issues central to criticism should be how we make and understand the connection to the real, to the social. Art speaks directly to all of us and piques our intuitive critical sensibilities. We’re entitled to hold both informed and uninformed opinions, since once the art is out in the world, it belongs equally to everyone. In order to engage, art needs criticism. Grounded in the art object, art criticism provides political and social analysis, history, theory, and storytelling. Art criticism engages the world through a work of art. Even art reviews that seem to disparage the quality of an artwork are an attempt to extrapolate a work of art’s implication and relation to the larger world. A review that argues that a particular work of art does not adequately or effectively bear relation or significance to society, often dubbed as "negative", is positive in that elucidates those shortcomings both for the viewer and the artist. In his 1983 essay The Production of the World, the art critic John Berger argued that "reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held - I am tempted to say salvaged". Arguing that reality was controlled by mainstream culture and those in power, he believed that good art brought reality back into focus, and in that sense could be revolutionary. For him, the job of an art critic was to distill and understand how and why an artist accomplished this, and why their work resonates.
In terms of criticism’s role in connecting a work of art to public discourse, there is always a need for more and more varied perspectives on this relationship. Thus, the art world always needs more art critics. With the rise of creative industries, the work of art is often treated as a creative phenomenon rather than the starting point of critical dialogue. The creativity is often celebrated as an end in itself, rather than examining the conversations that are inspired by interactions with artworks, and which exist within artworks. The attitude that implicitly suggests that critical friction is a negative force on forward progress is a rejection of one of the very intentions and consequences of the artistic practice. As Baudelaire argued, “it is from the womb of art that criticism was born”. The development of art requires more and more academic theory so that the criticism must become an indispensable part of the theoretical system of art.
In the vast volume and range of art that we’re fed in a culture obsessed with galleries and a staggering volume of mediocre art, the critic’s task is to identify what is good and honestly denounce the bad. The evaluation of works of art and the feedback to the artistic creation can help artists to sum up their experience of creation and constantly improve themselves. While in the past art criticism’s main focus was quality control, today, a good art critic must also be mindful of educating the public, promoting discussion and persuading the audience to engage in the art, good or bad, and cause them to think for themselves. There is a certain ethos to practicing art criticism, and Michael Foucault has described it best:
“A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest…Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.”
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