This past February at the College Art Association’s annual conference I attended a panel on the role of the art critic.1 One panelist touted the fact that the publication for which she writes scrupulously policed conflicts of interests among writers. Her comment came in the midst of a discussion about Clement Greenberg and his penchant for collecting the work of artists he wrote about. The panelist in question felt this practice, and the practice of artists gifting works of art to Greenberg in the hopes he might write about them, undermined Greenberg’s critical point of view, robbed him of genuine gravitas, and de-legitimized his position.
This, of course, got me thinking about the job of a critic, the work of a critic and everything that goes with it. To describe the job of a critic precisely is like trying to tease out a finely threaded knot. And to say anything definitive about art criticism or art in general is to be wrong. By its very nature, art is perpetually slipping in its definition; and my first thought, listening to this panelist, was how strange this idea of objectivity in talking about art. To be a critic first one must, I think, have a point of view, a vested interest in the work. Of course she’s right too—“we,” the people of the art world, would be poorly served by a literature driven only by self-interests.
Conversations about art generate the illusion of an unspoken and universal criteria against which the value of art is to be measured—that an esoteric knowledge allows some of us (the initiated) to know “good” art from “bad” and of course, that those others over there, who hold some other opinion, are deluded, ill informed. Yet the fact of the matter is this: “good” art is the product of an aggregate. Within the Art World there are many art worlds and “good” art is the product of any given “art world’s” thinking. A shared collective of interests forms each art world. There is no one fixed “good,” but many “goods,” each aggregated into one of many art histories.2
Comprised of a broad and diffuse field, the “Meta Art World” consists of thousands of artworks, artists, gallerists, non-profits, arts supporters and patrons, most of who go without significant recognition. As well, those recognized often fall back into obscurity. They flare up only to flicker out, an ember that brightens, then is once more absorbed by the field. It is this field—these art-workers and these art works—that make an Art World possible, viable.
Within this spectrum, it is for the critic (or curator) to think deeply about art, to give work its due. The critic moves through the field, a field of literally thousands of works produced by literally thousands of artists, selecting and framing those distinctive few, articulating what is noteworthy about each.
Let me editorialize here, as I am confounded and put off by those who declare themselves suspicious of art theory as if there were only one. It is not an art “theory” but rather many art theories. Each of these forms the core of any given art world at any given moment. Choose one and leave the others—but be careful what you would condemn or condone, what you would exclude or more importantly who (not what) you might keep out. There has to be a field for an Art World to be, for there to be an Art, for there to be an “us.” The field, in its ideal, is never hegemonic.
Producers of theories and art writers give our world its parameters, the envelopes we push against or work within. There is no art without a definition of art, without a resolute conception of what art is and can be. No part of it can exist without the other.
Beyond this, for an artist or artwork to be distinctive and exceptional, a work or an artist must be distinguished from its broader front or field—it must be pulled out in contrast to what surrounds it, and whatever it might surround.3 The job of the critic is to frame the work, to call attention to idiosyncrasies, to articulate viewpoints, biases and “interests” that contribute, shape and define the aggregate of “good” work. It is the job of the critic to explore, expand or narrow and disseminate, to advocate for his or her special interests and to provide for and nurture the formation of an ever-expanding field. To a greater or lesser degree, the critic’s voice must seek to institutionalize positions, to challenge and to destroy, to hold up objects or people with admiration, to give voice and to make a record of this voice. It is the job of the critic to leave a trace and give the artwork its due.
As for me, I come to art as an artist. My art writing is formed by my time in the studio and the things I think about there. I am attracted to work that resists summation. I am attracted to work that contains some ineffable quality that requires direct engagement. I am attracted to work that can only be hinted at through words but never fully contained by them. In short, I choose to write about work I am interested in: work that excites me, work that sends me back to my own studio.
Inextricably hinged to the work of all other art workers is the work of the artist. These are reciprocal relationships. The Art World and each of our individual art worlds provide for the possibility of artists, but artists likewise make possible any Art World. What others can bring to a work, and unpack from within a work, is only as rich as the work referenced.
This is the thing that artists often struggle with: how do we make something worthwhile, something meaningful, significant, something of interest? Yet this exact drive can lead toward anxiety and sometimes work that is all too contrived.
Each artist must come to the making of art in his or her own fashion, but this is what I can tell you of my experience. It is a balance between thinking and awareness, seeing one’s own work and coming into the studio without inhibition—a balance between the gut and the mind. Being an artist is about practice; about having something of interest pull you back into the studio (whether the studio is a physical space or a space of the mind). It’s about having the courage to pull those works out of your self and put them into the world.
I am most interested in the work of artists who persist. They come to the studio with a set of interests or concentrations that they explore and expand, allowing them to evolve. They are in love with and deeply committed to their practice. They are generous. They are showing us something they have seen, understood, considered; and they’re not stingy about any of it. They persist in this kind of practice, sometimes without recognition or reward. They persevere despite the fact that art as a process is one that inches towards an ideal without ever fully attaining it.
And as for the work of art, the products of the artist’s labor—it should make us present. The work should put us fully in the moment of our engagement with it and if it does its work well, it should linger, nag at us, remind us from time to time that we once met. It is when this happens that art and art worlds are justified, and it is the work of art itself that calls these worlds into being.4
Lane Cooper, an Associate Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and practicing artist, holds an MFA in Painting. View more articles by Lane Cooper.