Home » Should VoCA be More Critical? More Art Debate

Should VoCA be More Critical? More Art Debate

The debate continues.


Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967. Image: gala.univ-perp.fr

Yesterday, VoCA reader Earl Miller posted a comment HERE in response to the post ‘Should VoCA be More Critical?’ He says that, given the amount of ‘bad’ art in the world, it’s important as an art journalist to find art that he likes or feels is important, but flawed.

We were inspired by Miller’s comment, a topic which is something that VoCA spends a lot of time thinking about.

It is perhaps useful to turn it into a question – which is more important to write about, art that the critic ‘likes’ or art that is “important for its stature, timing or positioning?

For that matter, does the critic automatically like art that is important?


Wolfgang Laib (one of VoCA’s favorite artists), installing one of his milk stone works. Image: mintdesignblog.com

Good critics should never be concerned with what they ‘like’ but rather should be asking whether a particular artwork is worthwhile to society. What characteristics does this artwork have that make it important – more important than other, similar artworks? What stands out about it? Does the work project an idea forward? Whether or not the critic personally finds the work pleasing should have little to do with it. Part of being a critic is being able to see beyond one’s own aesthetic preferences.

Art is a language. Criticism is about trying to translate the language while keeping it from descending into slang.

Possibly Jerry Saltz (and myself, and many others who agree with him) are wrong and maybe there is far less ‘bad’ art out there and more that is “important for its stature, timing or positioning but flawed.” How should a critic cope with this?


Candice Breitz, Inner + Outer Space, 2008. Image: artmossfear.com

I would argue that all art being made today is in some way important. But the flawed works are not great works and do not deserve being championed. If they are, the art world becomes a charitable, democratic place where artists are rewarded for their every effort.

But the art world has never functioned like that. The very nature of the market means that certain works generate demand and others simply do not. Some artists (the talented, savvy ones) become superstars, written into history, while others (possibly equally talented, perhaps less savvy) do not.

Interestingly, in recent years a ‘middle class’ has emerged in the market. As more galleries open, the market has opened up to a sort of average, where multiples have become popular as successful artists grow their brands while preserving their upper markets. And original works of art sell for $500 – $10,000. Much of this art may not be truly great, but nonetheless holds value in its originality, energy and the pleasure that it creates.

Should this ‘middle class art’ be subject to criticism? How should a critic cope with this? Is there value in criticism that sees value in everything?

NOTE: COME TO THE ‘FACE THE CRITIC’ NIGHT WITH US AT THE DRAKE HOTEL, TORONTO ON THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2010. MORE DETAILS TO COME.

16 Responses to “Should VoCA be More Critical? More Art Debate”

  1. Derek says:

    Here’s an insightful post on this topic with a particular emphasis on photography.

    http://dlkcollection.blogspot.com/2009/12/thoughts-on-negative-reviews.html

    I’m not sure that all art being made today is important (if sometimes flawed), and think that the desire expressed above for critics to depersonlize rests on a somewhat idealistic modernist perch. But when understood critically — whose “society” will the artwork be important to, after all — such ideals are necessary for the critic to perform his her/function.

  2. JD says:

    “Is there value in criticism that sees value in everything?”
    No.

  3. Earl Miller says:

    Intresting points AC. I do start with work that moves me – either negatively or positively – but will only seek to publish something when it has public relevance in my opinion.

    I agree that a good critic – or any good writer for that matter – must distance him/herself from the subject of he/she writes about. However, it is impossible to withdraw all individual input; what I am instead referring to is a sense of standing back and thinking about what good the piece is to the perceived audience. That is, not to write criticism as diary entry or as self-expression. I would like to see more art writing that avoids such a pitfall.

    Can you provide some examples of the “middle level” art you are speaking of.

  4. Earl Miller says:

    Great link, Derek. For more stats on the lack of evaluation in American journalism plus my take on the state of art criticism please see –

    ww.thefreelibrary.com/The+state+of+art+criticism+and+critical+theory:+Earl+Miller…-a0192257858

  5. Eric says:

    “Good critics should never be concerned with what they ‘like’ but rather should be asking whether a particular artwork is worthwhile to society.”

    Is it possible to examine, research and reflect on a work, come to the conclusion that it is worthwhile to society, but still not like it? Does a work that is immediately pleasing have less value than one that requires examination, research and reflection?

    I don’t consider myself a critic by any standard, but I do find value in sharing works with others if they appeal to me.

    Beyond anything else, I think honesty is the most valued asset a critic can bring to the job.

  6. adam says:

    Like “good” art, I believe there are no hard-and-fast rules governing how good criticism should be written to be effective. It is – generally, abstractly speaking – possible to write in any voice and any point of view, and still write well and have something to say.

    Certainly, strident negative opinion produces some of the most ill-considered and unreadable criticism. Maybe its something about the tone one needs to take in this type of writing?

    A link to today’s Gaurdian blog, Jonathan Jones: “Did art critics kill RB Kitaj?”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2010/jan/08/art-critics-r-b-kitaj

    Some of the readers comments are worth reading as well. Knowing quite a bit about Kitaj’s life and work, I would say, yes they probably contributed to his death. Certainly the critics drove him, an American Jew, a “London School” artist, out of England. He did believe that the few totally savage reviews of his retrospective (and that seemed more about the outrage of British critics on the subject of what is acceptable for a British artist) contributed to the stress that lead to his wife’s death. No doubt these critics were voicing what many sober, good Protestant Englishman of a certain generation felt about Kitaj’s work.

  7. Mark says:

    VoCA should stop referring to itself in the third person. It’s annoying and discredits your content.
    VoCA should redesign the blog: small white font on a black ground is eye-stabbingly frustrating to read. And if not, at least have the posts fully available through rss feeds instead of just the headlines.
    With regards to the current thread topic, I sugest that you focus on what you feel counts and forget the rest. This most basic act of judgement can be summarised in the following: What is this artist doing? Why is he doing it? Why now? What does it relate to? And what can come of it?

  8. Earl Miller says:

    I see Mark’s claimed acts of judgment as description and/or exposition as opposed to evaluation.

    I appreciate Adam’s link: it is a sad story that stresses the responsibility a well-read critic has but too often shirks. He/she can have an affect on people’s lives and, therefore, must take the job seriously.

  9. Mark says:

    Earl Miller’s comment about my comment is not entirely on point. It is through a thorough “description and/or exposition” that one can truly strive to construct a pertinent evaluation. Within the critical process, these are not opposed to evaluation, but rather an integral part of it.

  10. Earl Miller says:

    Mark – that makes sense…

  11. Artie says:

    Fillip and Artspeak addressed this topic last year:

    http://judgmentandartcriticism.com/

    A book is forthcoming.

  12. Earl Miller says:

    Artie – the book is now out through Artspeak publications

  13. I stumbled upon this and am so glad…what great dialouge
    thank you earl especially

  14. AC says:

    Yes, a GREAT dialogue!

  15. Juan Diego says:

    shutup all you artfags..
    no one cares about your opinions the only real art is graffiti everything else is gayyyyyy

    dont bother responding cause i dont give a f**k what yall fools gotta sat

  16. Juan Diego says:

    say* typoss happen

    freedom of expressionnnnnnn
    and u hate america if you delete this comment

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