Art Criticism

Art was no part of my milieu when I was growing up; nor was art criticism. I must have first heard tell of that profession in the movies.

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Art was no part of my milieu when I was growing up; nor was art criticism. I must have first heard tell of that profession in the movies. I dimly recall watching a horror film about the enmity between an artist who declares “I live by my hand!” and a critic whose motto is “I live by my eye!” After the critic murders the artist, a pair of disembodied hands takes revenge by tearing out his eyes.

Yet I remember, too, the grade-school art teacher who showed us reproductions of works by Matisse and Picasso. When I made a crayon drawing of some downhill skiers—I’d never seen a ski slope any more than I’d met an art critic—she praised my decision to have one of the skiers cut off by the bottom edge of the paper. She thought this very sophisticated. I didn’t understand what the big deal was. That was probably my first practical experience of art criticism, and it made me at least nebulously aware that what someone sees in a picture isn’t necessarily just what its maker meant to put there.

Many years later, I learned of Marcel Duchamp’s view, usually paraphrased as “The viewer completes the work.” It’s a dictum I repeat regularly. What Duchamp proposed was that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” I suspect that he did not know—nor did I, until after I was already familiar with Duchamp’s idea—that Walt Whitman had much earlier declared that “the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.”

It was thus Duchamp and Whitman who gave me a ready answer to an artist friend who once challenged me with a piercing question: “Why do we need art critics?” After all, she continued, “scientists don’t need science critics. Why is art any different?” And it’s true: There are no science critics. Yes, scientists doing a peer review are acting as judges of their fellow scientists’ work, but only in a sense: They are acting as fellow practitioners, not as critics. Science is not founded on a compact between maker and receiver. The art critic, however, formalizes and deliberately exemplifies the role of the spectator who realizes the artist’s work—not by leaving it just as it is, but by adding something to it, making a personal contribution.

If the art critic is, as I say, the self-appointed representative of the spectator whose existence is essential to art’s own, then the validity of the critic’s role ought to be assured. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is not, as might have been true at times in the past, that the critic is too powerful, figuratively murdering with his eye the poor artist trying to live by his hand. Instead—or so one gathers from all the recent articles and symposia on the crisis of art criticism—the critic seems to be losing all influence. The overheated, ever-expanding art market on the one hand, and the explosive growth in the number of big international public exhibitions on the other, have rendered the critic’s aesthetic judgment superfluous. The critic no longer has the power to participate in forming a consensus of value; somewhere above his or her head, the collectors and curators are doing that. The critic can either tag along or get left behind.

There’s some truth to this story of the critic being superseded by collectors and curators. While the latter two have different roles and motivations, what they share is the command of material resources (private in one case, often public in the other) that can help chosen artists produce their work, make a living, and gain exposure and reputation. Critics have only words at their disposal—­literally so, more and more, as the transformation of publishing by the Internet has made it ever harder for writers and journalists of any description to earn a living. And in the global economy of recent decades, with its relentless upward redistribution of wealth, money talks louder than ever, drowning out other forms of exchange.

Adapted from thenation.

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Jack Westin
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12 Comments


  1. author starts with his experience with art criticism.
    art criticism is what makes the art complete.
    author gives distinctive views b/w science and art; science – peer review(fellow scientists) art – critics (contribution to complete the art)
    however, criticism is losing its influence compared to previous decades. it is losing place by collectors and curators.
    it’s because curators and collectors can make artists make living, but critics cannot.
    money talks louder than ever.

    Reply

  2. MI: How art is received= as important as art itself. Compared to texts using quotes from Duchamp and Whitman, contrasted with science, work received from peers but not critiqued- evaluated.
    Consumers of art like critics but influence of critics is decreasing with time due to power of capitol.

    Reply

  3. 1. Art & art criticism =/= part of life (ex: movie)
    2. teacher = 1st critic
    3. MD view = viewer completes work
    4. need AC = spectator + science =/= critics
    5. critics losing influence
    6. critics losing influence + collectors = benefits artists

    MIP: Critics are losing their influence; neutral

    Reply

  4. Art critics represent the viewer’s take on a piece of art, which is critical to its artistic culmination. However, due to societal trends, the art critic has lost influence.

    Reply

  5. art = maker + receiver (personal contribution)
    critic = not powerful + losing influene

    Reply

  6. Art critic completes the roles in artwork. Modern transitioning from the art critic to the collectors and curators.

    Reply

  7. Art critics/viewers complete work of art, but are currently losing influence, especially to curators and collectors of art.

    Reply

  8. The critic contributes or completes art. The influence of the critic has decreased due to the expansion of art and collectors are more influential.

    Reply

  9. Art critics are loosing their power and influence.

    Reply

  10. art critic adds to work, art critic not powerful

    Reply

  11. MP: Art critics contribute opinion to the artist that helps to complete a work, but they are being replaced by something similar that has money

    Reply

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