The art world is suffering a number of crises. Artists are chronically underpaid, with more than 70% earning less than £10,000 a year. Institutions big and small are scrabbling around for funding, competing for money from the same dwindling pot, as budgets are continually slashed. Accessibility still leaves a lot to be desired, with audiences disproportionately affluent and white. Next to these seismic waves, the plight of arts criticism is arguably but a ripple. Nevertheless, critics are like the ugly animal in art’s food chain; people care less when they are endangered, but the knock-on effect on the prettier links could be catastrophic if they die out completely.
So what’s the crux of the crisis in criticism? Well for starters no one is paying them any money, and even more worryingly, any attention. In one fell swoop last year the Independent on Sunday axed all of its critics, and whilst other papers haven’t completely followed suit, reviews seem to be tumbling down the list of priorities. In an age of up-to-the-minute opinions expressed via social media and the proliferation of bloggers looking to vent their spleen, is there really any room left for authoritative voices? Perhaps not. The perceived democratisation of opinions is a welcome development and placing certain interpretations on a pedestal as more important is problematic.
But good criticism shouldn’t be about showing off superior knowledge and speaking from an esteemed position, nor should it be about merely slapping a few stars on the top of the page; good criticism should engage. That is to say, effective criticism should read like a dialogue between critic and artwork; an eloquent portrayal of the journey that the artwork has taken the critic on. There will often be road signs along the way, which situate the work in a wider matrix – either placing it within broader social issues, relating it to other cultural products, aesthetic patterns or historical moments. Not only should criticism engage the work, crucially, it must also engage the reader, whether through witty comments, perspicacious observations or a facund writing style (preferably all three).
Taking this all into account there is really no reason for engaged criticism to be competing with other opinion platforms that have a more ephemeral quality, like blogs and social media, which tend to focus on more immediate issues. A proper in-depth review should stand the test of time and still be an enjoyable and relevant read several months – if not years – later. In this sense the two really aren’t antagonistic, and critics should utilise the tools of social media in their practice to engage directly with both their audience and artists. If critics encourage feedback on their work and enter into dialogue with other voices (say, in the comments section) their writing is likely to become more relevant to the modern audience.
Visitor numbers to the large arts organisations are pretty astronomical in UK, with Tate having over 7 million visitors last year, despite all of the aforementioned crises, so there is a huge latent audience for insightful criticism. The first step in that regard is recognising the importance of criticism, so artists and galleries need to vocalise their support. It would be great to see more collaborations between critics, artists and galleries which involved critics in the commissioning and exhibiting process and enshrined criticism as part of the ongoing production of artworks, which after all, doesn’t stop the moment the work is placed in the gallery; the production and mediation of cultural meanings continues long after that. Residencies are a common method for galleries to support artists to produce work, and it seems plausible it could work for critics as well. A gallery could have a ‘critic-in-residence’ to review their exhibitions, deliver talks and engage in an ongoing dialogue with the artists the gallery represents.
Monetising arts criticism faces the same challenges as any other type of writing in a digital era where dwindling revenue streams tend to be focussed purely around advertising. More initiatives like Breese Little’s Prize for Art Criticism – which offers regular cash and exposure prizes for critics – are sorely needed. Funding has always been an issue for both artists and critics alike, but unlike the former (usually), the latter don’t have a tangible ‘product’ to sell as a result of their creative endeavours. Historically, artists have also had their patrons, and it is perhaps time to start exploring means of patronage for critics as well. Naturally, crowd-funding initiatives like Contributoria are an innovative and achievable way for critics to find and interact with their patrons. But as the seemingly ceaseless record-level auctions prove, there is a lot of money in the art world, so there must also be scope for more traditional forms of patronage. Ultimately, the future of arts criticism depends on people wanting it to be saved. The conservation effort has to start now.