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Question:

“How does an art critic obtain the credentials to be one? At the end of the day, isn’t a critic merely an opinionated arbiter of taste with his or her own preferences? What checks and balances are in place to ensure that a critic’s commentary will be fair, informative and actually constructive to artists?”

Answer:

There are credentials, and there is credibility. For most practising art critics, I’d wager that it’s the latter that matters more. As someone who’s been writing criticism for a quarter of a century, naturally, it’s something I care a lot about, and today’s question cut close to home.

So let’s get started. First, credentials. For quite some time, various intellectual activities have been regulated and credentialed, by convention if not by law. If you want to become an art historian, then you get your PhD from a university art history department. It’s a great thing that today our great minds come from places other than the privileged classes.

But higher education is far from universal, more expensive than it should be, and there aren’t enough scholarships to go around. What’s worse, these days, too many universities act too much like businesses and factories rather than educational institutions, being all too happy to pump out dodgy degrees – badly researched or argued PhDs and MAs, but paid for and passed nonetheless. Moreover, academics themselves have sometimes criticised the academy for being overly regimented and for stifling creativity and genuine intellectual achievement.

All this to say that the process of getting a degree in one’s respective field is not a guarantee of true worthiness. But complications and caveats aside, I’m not suggesting that we become cynical about credentials, just skeptical (hey, I’m a critic, I advocate skepticism about almost everything).

You may have noticed that there are virtually no PhD programmes or university departments for art criticism. There are courses, to be sure, but art criticism is not what we call an academic discipline. That’s because it has been, and continues to be, a mongrel practice. Each critic has his or her own mix of influences and training, drawing from philosophy, theory, art history, literary criticism, cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, journalism, poetry, fiction and so on.

There is no standard preparation for practising criticism, and I think that’s a good thing. But if critics shouldn’t have to go through a credentialing process like getting a PhD, it’s still important that we find ways to establish credibility.

Art critic Jerry Saltz, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, only started writing about art at age 40. He had previously attended (and dropped out of) art school and briefly ran a gallery. Image credit: New York Magazine.

Let’s step back a bit. How does one become a critic? Actually, it’s rather simple: start writing criticism. Say a person is very interested in art, maybe even attended a few art history lectures during university. But this person isn’t an arts professional – let’s say she currently works as a dental hygienist. She decides one day to start a blog writing reviews about the shows she sees in town, and when she travels, which she does regularly, she makes the effort to visit galleries and museums, and writes about those exhibitions too.

Let’s say she’s a talented and prolific writer, and it’s been four years since she’s started the blog, which has a good number of readers. Not only does she write reviews, when she can make the connection she also does interviews with artists, curators and art historians as well. Once in a while, she posts a longform essay. And all this as an “amateur”, since she’s dedicated to her day job. How does she find the time and energy! Sometimes she wonders if she should make a career switch, and go back to school, get a degree in art history, maybe eventually a PhD, and become an academic.

I could tell a similar story, but this time instead of writing about art, our dental hygienist decides to start drawing, and she exhibits these on her Instagram profile, which now has many followers. She reads voraciously about art history and theory and everything else. Her drawings often make social commentary as well as satirise the artworld. She is talented and has thought about one day making a career switch and going to art school …

We tend to compare critics with art historians, because they both write about art. But what about seeing the kinship between critics and artists. Both a critic and an artist can decide to become what they want to be by virtue of practising the craft. While going to school is often what ends up happening, that is not necessary, just recommended. I emphasise this kinship, because I detected an assumption of antagonism in today’s question, pitting critic against artist, viewing the former as “merely an opinionated arbiter of taste.”

Some artists make all sorts of commentary, explicitly or implicitly, about social values and taste. They don’t need to be credentialed for us to take them seriously, they just need to be good – howsoever one defines that. A good novelist, painter, filmmaker – they can be very opinionated, but generally, audiences accept an artist’s right to her opinions, even if they don’t always agree.

But once in a while, I notice someone questioning the rights of critics to have their own opinions. Why? Why do we value individuality and independence in an artist, but not in a critic?

Somehow the critic’s opinion becomes “mere” opinion, and her independent perspective, self-appointed. When we challenge a critic’s opinions, are we saying that she doesn’t have the requisite legitimacy or expertise to make her arguments, or that we disagree with her?

Let’s get back to our hypothetical dental hygienist art critic. One thing that is missing in her writing career is the continual interaction with editors, as well as a more intense engagement, beyond the occasional interview, with artists, art historians, curators and other art writers, and a full immersion into local, regional and international arts communities. Together, these multi-level engagements with arts professionals provide the “checks and balances” that today’s questioner asks about.

Lorenzo Quinn’s monumental sculpture, Support, at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

To wrap up, let me share a real-world story about “checks and balances” and “mere opinions”. When Singapore set up its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, the local media were giddy with pronouncements of how the country had arrived at the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event.

A couple of years later, a local newspaper sent a food critic to cover the following Venice Biennale. The journalist defiantly and proudly proclaimed that she was an “arts idiot”. Baffled by a good deal of what she saw in Venice, she was dismissive of it; she even ended her piece by suggesting some art stunt that she might do, if ever she was invited to participate in the Biennale. It was her version of knowing nothing about abstract painting, looking at a Jackson Pollock, and scoffing, “my child could do that.”

The blame lies mostly with the editors. First of all, they shouldn’t have given the assignment to someone without credentials or credibility. The media has a responsibility to cover the Biennale – which they had touted as being of such major importance – and to cover it in good faith. You wouldn’t send a sports writer to a summit of world leaders.

But even if the editors did grant the Venice assignment to a food critic, which could have been a brave editorial choice, then they should have worked closely with her to produce a text that made a virtue of the art novice’s perspective, one that endeavoured to make different and difficult encounters more accessible to the general audience. Instead of allowing the writer to entrench her own prejudices, the editors should have helped her realise the occasion was an opportunity to be curious.

 

 

 

 



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