Why Art Criticism Is Important
Art critics are often dismissed as pretentious, or for looking at things “too deeply.” There is an existing cliché of the self-proclaimed expert overthinking a minimalist artwork, and this parody has been used as an attempt to undermine both contemporary art and art theory. It can seem easy to view art and its consumption as frivolous. And sure, there may be existing self-important critics that may purposefully complicate their ideas or make art seem inaccessible. But, these types of people exist in most spheres of society, and that should not undermine an entire practice.
An art critics’ main goal is simply to observe the aesthetics, concepts, and/or context of an artwork in order to form an opinion and/or come to a conclusion. There is no official definition or qualifications, but art can technically be defined as an entity created for the purpose of making a statement or expressing something. Art is also often presented and shared with others, who then form opinions on it. Art criticism is an important facet in the process of creating, sharing, and understanding art.
What makes art so important is its ability to evoke a variety of responses. Sometimes the artist’s intent and a viewer’s perception of a work of art do not match. But these are the instances in which internal and external dialogue begin. Art criticism is the practice of presenting questions and perspectives on a work, and by result, encouraging discussion.
Art is so many things, but is most powerful when it emotionally impacts its viewers. This most often happens when an artwork is given a social or cultural context. Art criticism can take the techniques, materials, or aesthetics of an artwork/exhibition and parallel it to greater discussions including politics, race, religion, and gender.
One particular moment of art criticism that particularly stood out to me was the discussion surrounding a painting at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The museum featured a painting by artist Dana Schutz titled “Open Casket,” which featured a depiction of Emmett Till (the tragic symbol of racial inequality of the Jim Crow era; a teenage boy violently murdered after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman). Publications including the Washington Post and the New Yorker addressed the implications of a Schutz, a white artist, depicting the traumatic historical moment. What was interesting was that the criticism was less about her artistic technique or the painting’s historical accuracy. Instead, critics used this work of art as an examination of race relations, history, Black-American culture, and the current state of the art world. As a result, many people became involved in important discussions surrounding historical ownership, narrative, and appropriation. This single event had a ripple effect on the art world. Since, a number of art institutions have actively diversified their staff and established cultural advisory groups.
Without art critics to question or challenge Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, the foundations of conceptual art would not be the same. An interaction between creator and critic often fuels entire movements and artistic philosophies. There have even been art movements created with the goal of defying art critics, that are now legitimately canonized (fauvism, impressionism). What art criticism does is explore our society through the lens of creators. But rather than accept blindly, critics encourage skepticism, critical thought, and discourse. Art can be exciting, vague, or even confusing at times, but critics provide a sense of stability for many who are looking for ways to view or understand art. The fundamental point is not whether art critics are right or wrong. Good critics do not provide us with the answers, they provide opinions that work as templates for our own critical thinking.
(Pictured: Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays)
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