I think what’s incredible and incredibly maddening about the art world is its openness, its idiosyncrasy, its nebulous criteria. The lines between art, non-art, craft, kitsch, high art and low art, are all blurred—yet, people like what they like and defend their tastes. So be it.

I read art reviews to learn about exhibitions, but I’m always aware of critics’ subjectivity. In fact, my favorite critics, like Holland Cotter of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, balance descriptive exposition with opinions and a discussion of praxis—helping viewers see how artists put theory into practice. The feeling I get is that they aren’t writing because they have a deadline to meet, but because they have something they want readers to know.

Some critics, though, are primarily descriptive, revealing their own position only implicitly. I thought this was the modus operandi of East Bay Express staff writer, DeWitt Cheng, so I was surprised to read a recent review:

The comedian/actor Will Rogers once dismissed communism as “one-third practice and two-thirds explanation.” One might similarly criticize a fair amount of contemporary art that is conceptual rather than visual in its orientation, thus requiring some explanation on behalf of viewers. The idea that priorities are askew is especially problematic when the verbiage seems unsupported by the artwork, or inflated.

DeWitt Cheng, “Tangible Modern Art,” East Bay Express, December 23, 2009

I think when critics articulate their positions, it’s fantastic. I’m for transparency in the art world. Having a position explains why critics review some exhibitions or venues and not others. It also suggests to readers and young artists who may not know any better (poor things!), that critics are not objective, do not speak for the art world as a whole, nor are they authorities whose opinions are exempt from questioning.

These institutional structures that we kneel and bow and defer to are not inviolate institutional structures…. They’re not entitled to exist without challenge…. So you have to put yourself in a position where you are capable of knocking them off the position they occupy, because we are not bound to defer to anything that exists. Everything is available for critique—and also displacement….

—From Kerry James Marshall lecture at SFAI (via podcast)

Furthermore, readers would be well advised to seek out multiple critics, including ones of different critical positions. In this case, critics whose interests in visual art extend beyond art with “visual orientations” could make the East Bay contemporary art print journalism more balanced. (Some places to start: Artopic, ArtPractical).

My position is well documented on this blog (the world’s most rambling critical statement?). Another way to sum up my boosterism of art that is not primarily visual in orientation might be articulated in Lee Johnson’s recent interview with Ryan Gander:

LJ: Has your artistic practice i.e. the aesthetic of your work, been effected in any way by the turbulent economy?

RG: Not really, in the beginning I worried about it, but it had no effect. I don’t think the type of collections that buy my work stop collecting, people don’t buy my work for investments, they buy it because they want to own it, share it with others, or take care of it. They are collecting and preserving art history in the making in some way. I guess it would have more effect on artists that make things that sit pretty in people’s homes. The things I make are a bit beyond that, very little of what I make looks good, the things I make are by-products of the idea, so the Collector has to fall in love with the idea, not the thing.

LJ: Your practice draws on multiple layers of fact and fiction, and you work in a variety of different media including photography, printed word, film, performance, intervention and sculpture. Is it vital for your life-force and inspiration that you mix things up in the way you do, and keep surprising people?

RG: Its the nature of art making, it is in fact the only way of making art. I don’t trust anyone who starts everyday knowing they will make ‘a photo’, or only ‘a painting’ to be an artist. Art has to precede craft otherwise it isn’t ‘art’, its ‘the arts’. I love painting, it makes me sincerely happy, but I can’t do it everyday! I am an artist and I have a job to do, and the process of painting doesn’t fit every idea and starting point (in fact very, very few – only really ones that talk about the history of painting itself). I see being a painter, or a photographer in contemporary art like masturbating a bit, just pleasing yourself, really selfishly, but sharing nothing.

“Lee Johnson talks to Ryan Gander at Frieze Art Fair 2009,” White Hot Magazine, November 2009.

Gander makes his position undeniably clear. It seems grounded in a belief shared by many conceptualists: that the art medium has to be appropriate to the idea; that to work in a visual medium because the artist is most interested in its visual orientation, without considering its appropriateness to the idea or content, is conventional and inexcusable, perhaps even willfully ignorant. I don’t include Gander’s comments to knock our dear, much-maligned painter friends and uni-disciplinarian artists, but to help explain that art of a visual orientation, too, is subject to criticism, and can fall short when you consider different criteria.

Finally, two other ideas to explore—to know one’s position as a critic might be to also recognize the limits of one’s subjectivity. I am a young writer, and writing intelligently about work I don’t like or understand is challenging. Further, to take a position as a critic is to identify the work you’d gravitate to, as well as that which would leave you unaffected. But the third kind of art—arguably, the reason we keep looking and writing—is that which surprises you, and challenges your assumptions.


Holland Cotter on Song Dong’s Waste Not

In “The Collected Ingredients of a Beijing Life,” (NYTimes, July 14) critic Holland Cotter reviews Song Dong’s exhibition, Waste Not, currently at MOMA. In only a few hundred words, Cotter manages to:
– introduce readers to conceptualism,
– familiarize readers with the artist’s ouvre, political context and spiritual influences,
– describe the work on display, its back story and the viewing experience.

Economical, clear, effective for general audiences and informative for specialists. Brilliant!

In addition to the quality of the writing, I also appreciated the description of extreme frugality, a tendency I’m quite familiar with.

Art & Development

the search for silver linings

I usually like Holland Cotter’s criticism, but I found his op-ed, “The Boom is Over: Long Live Art!” (, February 12, 2009), highly debatable. He suggests that a recession is good for art, even going so far as to say “a financial scouring can only be good for American art.”

So I was glad to see Alexandra Peers respond “Why recession isn’t good for art” (New York Magazine, Mar 1, 2009 ). As she points out:

Not many people would argue that fewer jobs for dancers are a boon to ballet, or shrinking advances are good for literature, or newspapers in bankruptcy are good for journalism.

I appreciate Peer’s skepticism and realism. In contrast, I find Cotter’s optimism to be thinly-disguised cynicism. For example, Cotter makes sweeping generalizations like:

Students who entered art school a few years ago … will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

That’s overkill. While select young artists did benefit from market-driven hype, there’s no need to discount the multitude of other artists who continue to make huge sacrifices and appreciate the minor successes they have attained.

He also floats this vaguely Cultural Revolution-ish vision:

Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

This makes Cotter sound like he’s been sequestered in the art world for too long. Most artists already work in “the real world.” In fact, quite a few artists work in community-based art programs in hospitals, schools and prisons! Needless to point out, in a recession, these programs are vulnerable to funding shortages, and might have to reduce payroll or overextend staff — and that can only be bad for artists. (I mean, when was the last time you heard of an overpaid artist-educator?) If believing that artists should be fairly compensated for their labor makes me a capitalist, then bring me my top hat and monocle.

Cotter seems bent on taking a privileged art world down a notch, but he doesn’t acknowledge how a dismal economy will disproportionately impact those who aren’t privileged. Instead, he imagines that a recession could allow artists to

daydream and concentrate… make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Underemployment as a self-styled residency? I wish I could share Cotter’s optimism, but I don’t have to look far for a dose of realism. Most of the artists I know weren’t swept up in the market fury, and they continue to struggle with finding stable work and affordable health insurance. P, an art student, worked two jobs while in school to make ends meet. Q is entering art school this semester — upon graduation, he’ll join the growing ranks of the unemployed in search of a job. M, a recent grad, financially assists his parents after they defaulted on their mortgage. C, quite optimistically, found a perfect house with space for a studio, but couldn’t find a lender.

It’s one thing for artists to tolerate economic instability as trade-off for a creative life; it’s another for a columnist to deem it desirable for artists.