09 January 2013

Against Hatchet Jobs

"Someone out there should offer an annual prize for the most lethal review of an art exhibition, because art reviews are getting way too polite. [. . .] The bloated reputations of so many artists of our time offer critics a lifetime's supply of truth telling, so why hold back? We should be going after this lot (and loads more) all the time, and at full volume. Instead, they are more or less guaranteed nice reviews that ignore the pustules of badness that seep out of chic galleries." ~ Jonathan Jones
This is the punchline from this essay at The Guardian today. I agree with the estimation of most product from the contemporary art world. However, I don't think we need more prizes. Indeed, part of the problem with art world denizens is that they too often have their eye on the prize (whichever one). And, while I admit to often finding myself tempted, we hardly need more caustic commentary. Critics should, I think, instead write mostly about work they admire or find compelling. Ignore the dreck. Silence is more effective than vituperation.

I have posted here many times about critics and what they are - or should be - up to. None of the best critics I've read - John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, David Levi Strauss, Dave Hickey - have taken the advice Jones offers - of publishing 'hatchet jobs.'  Commenting some years ago on what made John Szarkowski so perceptive and influential a critic, Robert Adams wrote:
"Szarkoski's writing made him envied, but the irony is that his competitors seem to miss some of the most obvious keys to his success. Among these is that he writes only about what he likes. It is a practice that cuts down competition from the start; to be clear about how and why something is difficult, whereas just to turn one's animosity loose on something weak is both fun and safe (who can accuse you of being sentimental). No wonder the affirmative essays stand out, and, assuming they are about respectable work, last longer. Weak pictures drop away of their own weight, as does discussion of them, but the puzzle of stronger work remains: we are always grateful to the person who can see it better."*
None of that means being un-critical, or failing to acknowledge the political, economic, social currents that conspire to render good work - creations worth discussing in the first place - so rare and exceptional. But I do think Adams is right. Need examples? How about John Berger's essay on sculptor Raymond Mason? Or, the essay on Susan Meiselas that Adams himself includes in Why People Photograph?**  These are the sorts of critical assessments I remember. The 'hatchet jobs' I forget.
* Robert Adams. 1996. "Civilizing Criticism." In Beauty in Photography. Aperture, page 59.
** I admire Meiselas and her work very much as I have noted here repeatedly.

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