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.