We need to talk about Art Critics

While the pandemic has put the art world under financial strain, art criticism remains among an under-discussed realm in terms of the new conditions under which it must be performed.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Dec 26, 2020

For decades, for art critics and reviewers, the norm has been to draw from first-hand encounters with either an artwork or an exhibition. The ability to do just that has been dramatically impacted by the ongoing pandemic and the onslaught of lockdowns.  Museums and art galleries have had to wrestle with the costs of being shut down for most of the year, while many artists have had to rely on state funding, or, when none is available or forthcoming, as is the case in many parts of the world, have had to fend for themselves by whatever means. While their plights have been discussed in various ways, little to no formal conversations take into account the unique conundrums that most art critics are faced with.

Never before was their authorial mediation more expedient. The luxury of having a piece of text that could translate an aesthetic or sensual experience to someone who couldn’t physically access it was never as invaluable as it is today. And yet, for most critics, the most existential question at hand is, quite simply, how to survive, especially when the circumstances have become more precarious than before. How, for instance, must one deal with pay cuts when writer fees were already so low; how to find platforms to publish one’s criticism when magazines world over are struggling with shrinking advertising revenues, since their model was based on paid-for publicity by galleries?

Sheltering in place has made it difficult for art critics to function and besides a few initiatives, there’s not enough discussion around figuring work-arounds | STIRworld
For most of the lockdown, the critic’s writing desk has had to function as a portal into artist’s studios, galleries and museums Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

Most galleries and institutions have conceived enterprising initiatives in order to enable the continued production and perpetuation of art. Some of these have included UC Berkeley South Asia Art Initiative’s’ for which Mithu Sen and Brendan Fernandes were invited to experiment with ‘new forms of making, translate embodied creative process into a digital realm, and craft new modes of audience engagement across dispersed latitudes and time zones’; or Berlin-based Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s ‘CC: World’, a series of digital letters in video, text and audio formats, which I would highly recommend as an immersive foray into various artistic subjectivities (my personal favourite is Rabih Mroué wonderful video, “Cheers to our Wishes”); and Experimenter’s annual Curator Hub, which took place for the first time with all its speakers dispersed across continents. Galleries that have managed to stay open during windows between COVID-19 waves have been uploading walk through videos on social media. Some have even hosted digital previews. Art fairs have been experimenting with transitioning to virtual viewing rooms with relative success, while auction houses are mostly thriving. Biennales have simply rescheduled to 2021 while maintaining a rigourous online programme.

What occupies significantly little to no discursive space within many of these platforms and initiatives, though, is the fate of the critic. This is tragic for numerous reasons, most significantly because there are so many exceedingly pertinent questions that are begging to be asked. For instance - how does one dare to review a show one is unable to see in the flesh, which is a very real demand that is being made of some critics fortunate enough to be commissioned? What is the relation between seeing and believing within the domain of art criticism, especially when one is addressing issues of an artwork’s materiality? What constitutes the body of evidence that allows for the particularity of our claims of insight when our experience of an artwork’s reality is abruptly framed by the virtual? Do we take the artist’s word as the gospel truth, or must we allow for contestation? How do we accommodate digital mediations? Do we rely on our imaginations to compensate for the absence of visual tactility? How do we even begin to encounter an artwork’s materiality and evoke it in our criticism? Should art critics intellectually and emotionally invest in the labour of unearthing new ways of approaching artworks or exhibitions when they cannot be physically attended to? And if, for instance, we are able to engineer uniquely uplifting methods of mobilising our art criticism while sheltering in place, could it mean that the floodgates are now open, and we can no longer necessarily be limited by locality and its accompanying privileges or lack thereof? Are we looking at a moment in time when a South Asian art critic seated by her writing desk in the Italian Alps can legitimately review an exhibition by an artist in New Zealand, or Bangladesh, or Indonesia? Could this allow for a shift in the prevailing Euro-American-centric focus of current art criticism that pretends to be global?

Will the present moment of lockdown and quarantine disrupt how art critics contribute to art historical discourse? | STIRworld
Temporary work cataloguing artist monographs for a private collector has been a way to personally access art during the present lockdown in Europe Image: Rosalyn D’Mello

Few art critics will refute that over the last year they have not been included or considered in most conversations about future sustainability. As a critic I have more questions than answers to offer. Where travel is currently inflected by undertones of risk, will proximity to art hubs or centres, namely big metropolitan cities, become a crucial determinant as to whether one can continue to practise art criticism, or will the domain of art criticism expand as the world discovers multiple ways of encountering art objects and installations? Moreover, will the dominant hierarchies in which the art world rewards existing privilege over enabling career trajectories that are more alternative, not institutionally backed or auto-didactic continue to hold sway? We haven’t yet begun to skim the discursive surface when it comes to the challenges faced by most critics, many of whom have had almost zero earnings in months, especially in art world scenarios in which art writing has been historically devalued. If the global art world and its expansive infrastructure and tentacular networks that manifest as biennales, art fairs, and art festivals continue to invisibilise the very real existential and semantic dilemmas art critics are wrestling with, the long-term art historical loss will be irretrievable. The absence of robust art criticism will cost the art world dearly. It must become the labour of all its stakeholders to figure out why and to imagine potential remedies that can help critics sustain their livelihoods, especially under their present duress.

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