Modern art criticism 'does not have time to think'

Over the past several years there has been a subtle, but increasingly prevalent, debate centring on the changing state of arts criticism and arts journalism: In the electronic age of blogs, user-generated reviews, public interactivity and citizen journalism, it seems all opinions are equal, and everyone can have one.

‘Everyone having a view where no one is being prized more than another means that everyone has their tastes confirmed,’said Dr. Ronan McDonald, a senior lecturer in Modern English Literature at the University of Reading.

David Lee, art critic and editor of the visual arts newsletter The Jackdaw, places the blame for the degeneration of arts criticism, at least in the British media, largely on the Tate Gallery and its ‘repackaging’of the Turner Prize in the early Nineties.  The Tate, which started the Turner Prize in 1984, realised in 1991 that it needed to find a way to generate more publicity for the prize. Coverage moved from the arts section to the news section, which also meant the nature of the arts story changed – articles now had to be entertaining, preferably controversial and, most of all, newsworthy, he said.

Arts journalism began to emulate celebrity journalism. The spotlight shifted from the painting to the painter. ‘It all adds up to celebrity,’said Lee. ‘It is almost as if the art is insignificant.”

What is not insignificant, though, is the subsequent explosion of public interest in art. In 2007, over five million people visited the Tate Modern, making the gallery, which opened in 2000, London’s most-visited tourist attraction last year.

But an interested public does not necessarily mean an informed public, said Lee, who, like McDonald, points his finger at critics who ‘are prepared to play the celebrity game’and are not concerned about introducing their readers to new artists or educating them about art. 

‘They [art critics] all write about the same shows, and they always go to the same places,’said Lee. ‘It is a very narrow coterie of taste which is being promoted all the time.”

Yet critics cannot be held totally responsible for the state of their profession, said Brian Sewell, a British art historian and art critic for the Evening Standard since 1984.

‘There is a way in which institutions control a critic,’said Sewell, noting the demands of increasingly faster news cycles, combined with galleries that fail to provide critics with adequate information about exhibitions.

‘The result is that criticism itself is uninformed because it hasn’t had time to think,’he said.

The debate about the relationship between the arts and journalism also extends to the internet, which some say has all but rendered obsolete the once authoritative voice of the critic.

A recent study by the online ticket-seller Goldstar Events found that over 60 per cent of respondents would be ‘very likely’to seek out a website with user reviews compared to just 25 percent who said they would turn to a newspaper or magazine. Almost half of those surveyed also said a negative review by a major columnist would have little effect on whether they attended a performance.

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