Never use your sales pitch on your peers – save it for the clients – Dave Hickey.
Having attended the Donald Kuspit lecture the other night (see Deborah Fisher) entitled Why Do Artists Hate Critics, I decided to add a different angle to the lecture discussion and what DF covers on her blog. I will say that I found my self interested in most of what was covered in the lecture but also felt a little bored. I guess for me I understand the historic binary of the critic and the cultural producer and the artist vs. artist mentality and was disappointed that we didn’t go beyond these things which frankly feel like a preamble to where we are today. I had hoped to get into the emerging role of artists speaking for themselves and filling some critical gaps in the contemporary landscape we find ourselves. I also wanted to get into why artists and critics are very similar animals in the end and what the critic means to the cycle of life in the artworld. Criticism seems to me to be a bit of a lonely practice not so indifferent from many studio practices. I’ve always felt some consternation as to why so many artists feel directly threatened by what ultimately is simply a larger discussion on meaning that can change and turn at any point by a myriad of varied catalysts. I can understand the raw feelings from a negative review (as if these even happen now) but ultimately these are tests to the practitioner to get out of their own skin from time to time and see how their works operate within the larger sphere of public engagement.
I was glad to find some thoughts on the role of the critic “these days” coming on the heels of this lecture. The Sept. issue of Modern Painters has a great little piece by Jerry Saltz that touches on this somewhat. It’s a great commentary on the role of the critic in a time where the market is so strong and global -frankly dictating more than most artists even comprehend. Saltz begins his respectful discussion with some of the sales pitch motifs he encounters from gallerists all the time. He cites that now the artist being exhibited is always described in terms of big name artists as if the work being viewed can not stand on its own without an associative qualifier. The current fashion is to say that this work is related to Warhol, Richter, Nauman, Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Mike Kelley or Jeff Wall (regarding emerging male artists). Or the trick is to say a famous artist “loves” this work, As in, “Well Kiki Smith really loves this work”. The reality of such assertions is that Kiki Smith probably said something along the lines of “congrats” on the show which ultimately gets spun into a celebrity endorsement. Saltz backs this up with an anecdote of such a case as told by Elizabeth Murray. The other slamdunk pitch is to say Saatchi is “interested”. I think we’ve all heard that! Or this piece is significant because Saatchi is buying it. I’ve heard this a few times as a pitch by the gallerist and the artist as well. My gut response is congrats on the sale but who cares abut the Saatchi part – it’s just as easy to view that as a negative. He buys every young artist and just for that reason – young. It’s a real estate speculation. If you own all the property you’re bound to make a profit – its basic monopoly not curatorial vision.
But back to the plight of the critic! Saltz continues with horror stories of dealers trying to hustle him and ultimately prevent him from seeing the actual art. He feels demoralized because in the current aggressive climate he is being told what to think. This should sound familiar to most artists. He continues that curators are now in the same act, pimping, pushing and plugging as if every interaction is a sales opportunity.
To look at art you need to get very, very quiet inside yourself. You must be able to hear your reactions. You can’t do this while someone is telling you what your reactions should be.So what about the market and the role of the dealer, critic and artist? At no time in the last 50 years has what an art critic written had less of an effect on the market than now.
Many have hailed this as the death of criticism and that can be true, especially of the new breed of reviewer which seems more about networking and association into a preferred clique than critical engagement with art. Saltz wisely sights that it is really about the power of the market – the market is “smart” and is moving at its own momentum so no matter what anyone writes it doesn’t have a real monetary impact on what is collected.
This can be viewed as horrible but I’m willing to wager along with Saltz that it could actually free criticism to do what it needs to do – critique, and draw conclusions for the larger art equation that needs constant stewardship and rigorous review while being outside the market. It also frees artists to do what they need to do – their work, in terms of practice but also in terms of engaging criticism. The artist and the critic need each other now because the market is so forceful that without this reciprocal relationship of the “serious”, things may very well be reduced to hyped product and redundant drivel so associated with Chelsea and London right now - which ultimately insults Art.