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Does The Visual Art World Need Sharper Criticism? Yes.

Does the art world need a good hatchet job or two?

That thought crossed my mind when I read A New Honor for the Hatchet Job, on The New York Times website: it outlines a prize, soon to be given by a British website called The Omnivore, which “will be presented to the author of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months.” The point, says The Omnivore, is “to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism.”

It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to click on the link to the eight finalists — all but one published in Britain, and that one — in The New York Times — was by a Brit. Could a shortlist of hatchet jobs for book reviews even be developed in the U.S.? Are our reviews too bland?

More to the point of this post, could anyone make such a list for art criticism? I’m not looking for nastiness — but when was the last time you read a learned, thoughtful, well-argued critique of a museum or gallery exhibition that was negative? Even the negative reviews of the show of spot paintings of Damien Hirst that I saw wouldn’t qualify.

Like The Omnivore, I think a little more sharp, trenchant art reviews by authoritative critics would do the art world some good — particularly in the world of contemporary art, where artists are still alive to respond (or not, as they choose).

The quality of criticism is hardly a new issue. (I wrote about critics’ losing influence myself, back in 1998, for the NYT.) I recall a recent conversation with a theater figure who told me he rarely reads the critics anymore because he no longer learns from them. Sometimes, learning from negative reviews is easier than trying to discern anything at all from positive reviews.

And a hatchet job might get people outside the art world talking about art. Just a thought.




  1. David Ross says:

    Read Peter Schjeldahl on Hirst’s spot paintings… Trenchant, witty, negative but worthy of the term criticism. Ditto for Roberta Smth’s response to the Sherrie Levine exhibition at the Whitney. But in general, I agree with you.

    • A long time ago, I moderated a panel on criticism at the ADAA Art Show — Elizabeth Murray, Alex Katz, Peter and Michael Kimmelman. Elizabeth made the point that Peter was at his best when he wrote negative reviews.

  2. Mike Nicholson says:

    On this subject, your readers might enjoy the recent review by Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard of the new David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy:—

  3. I can’t say I have been reading much review of art these days but you may have a point in general. It is hard to put into words what is generally not meant for words. Even artists have a difficult time articulating the what and why of their art. Myself included. But I was thinking that writing about art could be much like citizen journalisms these days. Loads of people are out there with a camera and a blog to post their 2 cents on every political shift of the day. Maybe the bad thing is that the craft of writing and knowledge of art is less respected and understood. The good thing could be that these writers are not writing to score points that open the door to writing for some big name publisher. There are places I go for my politics and mostly none of it is from the big name sources. In the same way there may be places for really good and honest art writing.

  4. This precise question came up yesterday when reading an article in the Daily Mail announcing Martin Boyce as this year’s Turner Prize recipient. The thoroughly caustic depiction of the prize caught me off guard, as not a single comment seemed to paint a positive picture of the prize so revered here in the U.S., particularly in New York. Perhaps it isn’t in American culture to thicken our skin for this kind of writing (thinking of the difference between British and American television comedy, e.g.), or we are just thoroughly complicit to a congratulatory pat-on-the-back circle in the art world, or both. In any case, here’s the article from the Daily Mail:

    • Melanie — interestingly, in business journalism, it was generally the other way round: American journalists were the tough questioners, relatively speaking. I’m not sure about that nowadays.

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