The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America garnered a few mentions from fellow art bloggers this past week.
First, Sharon Butler on her blog Two Coats of Paint linked to my previous post about Artists Falling Through the Cracks. I’ve linked to Sharon’s writing in the past, as I’m an admirer of her writing on art-world issues, so I appreciate the return gesture.
Then, Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett, whose work as a daily art critic I’ve read and admire, picked up on the buzz. In a post called Down In Lovely Muck I’ve Lain, she suggested that readers looking for a “gloomy start to the New Year” might find CAFA interesting. Now, I won’t repeat my self-justification about how looking at artistic failure is really a hopeful, forward-looking, and optimistic exercise (because it supposes that once enough art-world people know exactly how art is failing in this country they’ll be able to make positive changes). Instead, I’ll point out to you that as good a writer on and observer of art as Regina Hackett is, she is also, sadly, one of a dying breed: the everyday art critic.
Yes, art critics are dying off. Whereas every moderate-sized newspaper in every middling city in this country once had art critics on staff, and often took occasional submissions from critical stringers, now it is the rare newspaper—even in the largest metropolitan areas—that even deigns to publish any local arts writing at all. According to studies numerous city papers have, over the past ten years, cut their arts critical writing staff and curtailed arts coverage. The Twin Cities very nearly lost their last remaining critic a few months ago in the recent round of layoffs at the Star Tribune, and the Strib’s sister paper—the Saint Paul Pioneer Press—stopped publishing any sort of local art critical writing several years ago. Last year, I spoke with the long-time art critic at the Chicago Tribune, Alan Artner, and he said he had never seen, in thirty or so years of working for papers, arts coverage at such a low point. “I have a stack of press releases on my desk that goes to chest high,” he said, “and I have no hope of writing about a single one of these things. The editors don’t want any of it. It’s just that bad these days.”
Why does the culture care so little about art criticism now? Every answer to this question that I’ve considered or heard mentioned in recent years, and some I never thought of, are collected in a 2006 collection of essays edited by Raphael Rubinstein called Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice. Some of the essays in this volume blame the decline on the various sins of modern artists—from their tendency to shift styles weekly and avoid creating work that is meaningful to the wider society to their enthrallment to the entertainment industry. Other essays blame larger forces—recent deep shifts in the art market and the art “power structure,” the globalization and rampant commercialization of art, the rise of authority granted to curators and museum professionals (and resulting loss of authority granted to critics), and the disappearance of critical publications and their committed readership. Still others blame problems that are internal to contemporary criticism. In particular, they point to the tendency among critics to resist passing actual judgment or any sort of discriminating appraisal when they write about art.
The wide range of notions about what’s wrong with art criticism today reveals that, just as no one has figured out how to keep art from failing in this country, no one really has any idea what to do to keep art criticism from fading away either.