The Critic in the 21st Century (Newspaper)
Earlier today I wrote about Alan Artner’s article on minimalism from last month and quickly received a response from Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, the author who prompted my post in the first place. Green brings up a good point: that the role of the critic is to render opinion, not to educate. I agree that the critic’s primary role is to give professional judgment of the merits of artwork, however, I think that the role of the critic, particularly a major newspaper’s art critic, cannot be limited to handing down verdicts on art. In the 21st century we are witnessing the further evolution of the critic, the emergence of a multivalent critic.
With newspaper subscriptions dwindling and art usually (and unfortunately) cast as a subcategory of Entertainment, the newspaper critic must find new ways to remain relevant to the audience. This is imperative, else art criticism in newspaper ceases altogether, which would be a true tragedy. Relevancy doesn’t mean pandering to the public, it means addressing the perceived wants and needs of the audience. Why do people want read about art? I believe that people want to learn something about art primarily, whether that is through an essay piece or an opinion piece, and far secondarily they want a judgment.
For instance, people aren’t really reading the review of the Edward Hopper show to find out if the art is good or not, that’s a foregone conclusion, this is a nationally traveling show of a world famous artist containing iconic works like “Nighthawks” and “Chop Suey.” The verdict of “good art” is in before the review is written, what then is the critic to do? Give people the background knowledge that they should have for the show, in a word, educate. My speculation is that people pick up the paper thinking, “Hmmm well the Art Institute is having a show on Edward Hopper that I should see, I love “Nighthawks,” and I know he’s an important artist. I’ll read this review to learn more before I go to the show.”
I believe these changes to the critic’s role apply chiefly (probably only) to the art critics of major newspapers in major cities. The critical role is narrowed by these blockbuster shows and the refusal of the newspapers to cover anything but. Criticism for the emerging art, the gallery shows has migrated from the major newspapers to smaller newspapers (i.e. New City, F-News, The Chicago Reader, etc.) and blogs. It seems newspapers don’t want to take risks on anything and so safely stick to established taste. Ironically, taking risks on arts coverage seems like it could revitalize newspapers, turning them into cultural necessities, but they don’t see it that way I am sure, hence art has less space and sports as much as ever. As I see it, Artner is creatively expanding his role as critic. It is especially interesting that the article on Minimalism was written after conferring with the Museum of Contemporary Art about which art people have the most trouble understanding. Clearly, Artner is using the power of the pen to serve the public interest, giving them a little more information on minimalism, kind of like an art editorial. Newspapers try to educate their readers on a variety of issues: politics, history, sports, etc., why not art also? It also bears mentioning that the week of April 18th was a slow art week and the article appeared under the criticism-eschewing heading: “School of Thought: Art.”
Art criticism is still alive and well and someday it will migrate back into newspapers, but I believe that this new kind of multivalent critic is also here to stay. People in the U.S. know so little of art and it’s being aggressively pruned out of the K-12 education to make way for math and science education. That said, it seems people want to learn more about art than ever before and increasingly the newspaper art critic will be looked to to fill that role, both by the public and the newspaper’s editor.