Response: Art and the Art of Criticism

April 27, 2009 · Print This Article

Unless you’re Jerry Saltz, art critics are rarely the center of attention, and I strongly suspect that most prefer it that way. There’s something unseemly about referring to oneself when writing about the work of others, isn’t there? That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. So I was really curious about the physical form that the exhibition “Response: Art and the Art of Criticism” (at I Space through May 30th) would take. The show is ostensibly about the relationship between artistic practice and the critical discourse that frames it. Its organizers-critics who are members of the Chicago Art Critics Association–aim to open up a discursive interplay between artists and the critics who are tasked with writing about their work (and, let’s not forget, with assessing its successes and failures). I wondered how its organizers might play around with the exhibition design, how they would choose to foreground that which usually remains in the background; most of all, I wanted to see how successful they would be at objectifying their own practices by making what are normally private thought-processes public while at the same time engaging audiences within a traditional white-cube gallery setting.

Although I didn’t attend the opening, I rushed out to see the exhibition the day after, as I am sort of a geek when it comes to things like art criticism and the general issue of cultural writing, and I’d been looking forward to this show ever since I heard about it a few months ago.  Further fueling my excitement was the fact that Chicago art people can get really fired up around questions of criticism, validation, aesthetic judgment, issues of power and how one goes about garnering cultural capital, and that interest, coupled with the no-bullshit, straight-shooting style of discourse I have also observed both conversationally and occasionally in print led me to anticipate something deliciously juicy-maybe even bloody-from this exhibition. Something raw, not cooked.

Suffice it to say what I actually encountered in the gallery was disappointing. I saw a very conventional-looking exhibition of art objects, all of which were accompanied by the standard wall labels that, save for Conrad Bakker’s, contained no explanatory text or any other critical framing devices other than object information. Clearly the organizers were at some pains to keep things kosher: to let the artists have their space, and the critics theirs, and then put the mix-it-up-part yet someplace else.  Aesthetically and pretty much on every other level however the works themselves don’t play well together –  it’s not that they clash, they just don’t speak or, as the case may be, ‘respond’ to one another in any way. I gather they’re not supposed to, as the show wasn’t curated along thematic or formal lines but instead according to the idiosyncratic selection process of each participating critic.

Indeed, the catalogue’s introduction posits the role of the art critic as central to this exhibition, and describes the show’s purpose as investigating “the critical process itself, by opening up the crucial ways that critics engage with artists’ work… The essays are not meant to be typical reviews, but rather self-reflexive expositions of the writing process and on the art that inspires them.” In this way “Response” is structured in a layered fashion, with the first layer of encounter (for viewers, anyway) being the work on display in the gallery itself, the second layer the exhibition catalogue, where criticality, writing, and aesthetic judgment are allowed to re-assert themselves, and the third layer taking place off stage, so to speak, and re-presented online via a series of recorded conversations that are available on the I Space website (and I think on CD as well).

But the problem is that that there is no actual ‘criticism’ per se and not much self-reflexivity happening anywhere in the exhibition-not in the catalogue, and not really in the online conversations either.  Really, the only thing that makes this show different from any other is that the so-called “responsive” material has been discursively incorporated into the ‘exhibition proper’ -but there isn’t any alchemy happening within that exhibition space with the potential to create new models of understanding or thought-provoking bits of exchange.

In order to assume the role of curators, the critics abandoned their role as critics, instead of-and this is where I thought it could have gone differently-figuring out a way, as uncomfortable though it surely would have been, to simultaneously inhabit both roles. It’s not like I wanted venomous exchange-that’s just as bad as being overly solicitous. But what if, instead of choosing artists whose work they admired, some of the critics had selected an artist whose work has in their opinion been uneven over the years, or about whom they’ve written critically in the past but have subsequently revised their opinion, or maybe even an artist whose work they’ve always avoided writing about because, embarrassed though they may be to admit it, they’ve never really ‘gotten it’ and so could never bring themselves to write about it?

To me, that would be really interesting, that would be sexy. I was expecting something sloppier, but this is all so darn polite. To be sure, there are a few revelatory moments. I liked how in the essay artist Adelheid Mers admits that she envies “quick witted historians and philosophers” and that her own work-“slow and clumsy”– is made in an effort to make sense of concepts that initially befuddle her. Alicia Eler’s opening statement: “I never meant to be an art critic,” hints at a reluctance to embrace the role both professionally and personally, as if there is something slightly humiliating about admitting your identity as this schlumpy homely person that’s called an art critic as opposed to an artist, who is by definition a hottie. Lane Relyea’s rundown of Artforum’s descent into little more than punditry is illuminating, but there’s nothing personally revealing about it. How does he feel about the role that he himself plays in all this, as an educator, a critic himself, and a writer for that magazine? Relyea remains conspicuously silent on this point, preferring instead to swathe his words in the comfortably familiar rhetoric of the academician-as-critic.

My own words here may come off as snarky, but truly, I speak from love. I think art criticism is a dying form, hell, it’s probably already dead, Saltz and Roberta Smith notwithstanding. Professional art critics are the auto workers of the culture industry, as a friend of mine put it over a beer last weekend: outdated, irrelevant, and almost certainly on their way out. I’m not happy about this, and I surely do hope that criticism morphs into something new and exciting and, most importantly, equally valid and as relevant as it once was, a long time ago, as it tries uneasily to find a place in online discourse. But I still kinda think ‘the art of criticism’ is going down in flames. And if that’s the case, why not go down in style? This was supposed to be the critics’ moment in the limelight – why not loosen up a little – or maybe a lot? Use the “I” word more often? Embarrass yourself with your enthusiasms, confused lusts, and occasional flights of fancy, even if it means feeling a twinge of regret the next day (and also maybe a little thrill of relief)? An exhibition like this is your chance to get shitfaced at the office party and cry on the janitor’s shoulder, spill red wine on your pinstripe suit–hell, fuck your boss in the supply closet, nobody really cares what you do anyway.

Everyone’s so afraid of offending each other, and I don’t blame them. Chicago, I gather, has a small and friendly art scene where everyone knows everyone. Maybe that’s the problem with criticism in this city-no one really wants to do it right because what do you say to that person when you inevitably run into them at an opening the following week? It’s an argument for remaining friendless if there ever was one.

A panel discussion on this exhibition will take place at Art Chicago a week from today, Monday May 4th, 1-2:30 pm at the Merchandise Mart Conference Center. In spite of myself, I can’t wait to see it.

24 thoughts on “Response: Art and the Art of Criticism”

  1. ew says:

    How is one bad exhibition the poster boy for all of art criticism in Chicago?


    You sound like a clueless grad student in need of attention.

  2. Claudine Ise says:

    “ew”, did you yourself see the exhibition? Do you think it’s ‘bad’? Because those are your words, not mine. Instead of sniping anonymously, tell me why the show worked for you, what you liked about it, make some kind of reasoned argument in response to what I wrote. Your angry response makes me think that you took my words very personally, so I’m curious about who you are and why you reacted so strongly to what I wrote.

  3. Alicia Eler says:

    Hi Claudine,
    Thanks for your criticisms of the show. I look forward to meeting you at the panel–come introduce yourself after. We should chat.

  4. Thanks for the response Claudine, we were hoping for thought provoking comments and yours certainly are. This exhibition could have taken many paths—criticism has many voices, styles, methods—our goal was to try to offer a slice of what is happening with criticism in Chicago today, and to help continue the discourse.

    While it might have been ‘sexier’ to have the critics select work that was uneven, or challenged them in the past, in the long run I think it is much more interesting to read about work the critics are interested in…I can only imagine what an exhibition of work that was uneven, or work the critics didn’t want to write about would look like, ouch.

    Maybe art criticism is dying—but doesn’t a great critic discriminate between the good and the bad? Is only writing about what they consider to be good or great work bad criticism? I’d much rather read a review or critique of work the critic felt was important, interesting or compelling, that’s usually how I learn about the things that I sometimes don’t get the first time around.

    I wonder, who would you choose to write about?

  5. Jason Foumberg says:

    I really enjoyed reading Claudine’s response, and it got me thinking about the job of the critic. In giving words to visual art, we try to show why the work is relevant. This may be the reason why no one in the show chose to burn bridges or die with style–because we respect the artists and the profession. But I do agree that experimentation will help carry criticism forward.

  6. Richard says:

    All of the above having been said, you still need to go see Duncan’s piece in the show which is particularly bitchin’.

  7. Polly Ullrich says:

    Congratulations on writing a good piece of art criticism—which considerably argues against one of your main points, that is, that art criticism is dying. It is certainly alive and well at BAS.
    The “Response” show means to affirm the talent and diversity within the community of art writers here in Chicago—as a quick read of the “Response” catalogue shows—by giving them the chance to explore how they think about their writing as they look at art by some of the strongest working artists in Chicago today. But they’re just nine of many Chicago writer/critics who contribute essential commentary on the arts in Chicago.
    It seems extraordinary that this might be considered to be a strange point of view. In fact, art criticism is not dying—it’s the venues for arts writing, and writing about culture in general, that are rapidly evolving and expanding into powerful new vehicles for conversation. This interaction is essential for the health of the arts. We’re in a time of opportunity, not restriction, as we morph into new venues for discussion. The question: how to keep facilitating this process locally. Remember Mark Twain: “The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” Chicago is a writing town—from playrights to novelists to journalists to, yes, critics.
    “Response,” however, is equally an exhibition of significant, accomplished visual art in Chicago–hopefully, this emerges strongly as well. Attempting to intermix verbal analysis with the strong visual qualities of the “Response” art in a gallery setting has been extremely interesting. These artists and writers represent nine diverse slices of critical exchange in one gallery setting. In order to facilitate this “side by side” and interactive quality, we’ve decided to post each critical essay next to its art work.
    Looking forward to more comments,

  8. duncan. says:

    Thanks Richard but it is really Christian Kuras and I’s piece. But you are totally right on the “bitchin'” part.

    Wait this might be self serving.

  9. Richard says:

    I was just saying what you paid me to sa…oh….yes…..Christian, sorry yeah I goofed that up.

  10. Critics are leaven; I space is not Kosher.

    Concerning the movement of gases, I space was, in my eyes, symptomatic of a certain type of conflation: the roles of curator, critic, and artist having been blown together.

    I hit the opening on Friday night, and listened to a few of the accompanying mp3s, and then envisioned a three-tiered excavation revealing meaning:

    (1) The work of 9 artists filled the gallery. But, agreeing with above, “the show wasn’t curated along thematic or formal lines but instead according to the idiosyncratic selection process of each participating critic.” So that, searching for meaning, it was necessary to move down from the artwork to the critic.

    (2) Though, if I had been taught that “found objects” and “appropriation” were acceptable because the artistic act consisted principally of choice and placement, did the 9 critic’s choices and gallery placement of 9 particular artists make of the critics — artists?

    (3) Downward still, if the critic’s choice and placement were relevant considerations, then what of the curator who conceived of the show — and chose the critics?

    Here, I say again, this show wasn’t about keeping things apart, but rather it was about mixing them up.

    Indeed, Polly’s comment above contains praise of Claudine’s art criticism. But Claudine’s article deals mainly with criticism and not art. The two things — art and criticism — have become synonymous. And more-and-more often the curator, critic, and artist are said to exist within the same person. Healthy?

    To the degree that the show was a matter of strategy to attract critical attention [drawing in at least 9 critics from the onset] the strategy proved good.

    But the artwork, I think, suffered. I had seen most of it 1-2 years earlier in various other exhibition spaces. In this new context it whispered aesthetics and screamed personal connections.

    C’est la vie. It is, as Mary wrote, a, “slice.” And it is wrong to expect too much of any one thing, or person. That people continue to create — whether writing or art — is good. It is something for which to be thankful. I’m glad that I went! Go.

    p.s. It ought not need to be said, but, yes, Duncan’s piece was like unto some wondrous artifact of the gods, fallen down from Olympus.

  11. Hey Duncan, where can we out-of-towners and out-of-countriers find some photos of the work on-line? I went to I-spaces page — no photos. Googled your and CK’s names, none of this show. I’d love to see some documentation, since I won’t make it to the show!

  12. duncan. says:

    Wow. Shameless. Yes Mark.

    Christian Kuras and I’s pieces can be found on our site at…


    and there is audio at…

    I imagine that there will be more visuals on I Spaces site at some point.

    Paul you are too kind. Christian and I worked hard on them and were thankful for the opportunity to show them.


  13. Thanks! Some really enticing stuff there. I always liked Happy Hydrogen Bomb — reminds me of my erector set days as a kid, mixed with my days building dioramas in the Field Museum.

    Vales Values Value and Shows No Sign are wonderful works-with-words in them (I refuse to use that trendy “text work” apellation). Most of all the flat wall-works. Hand done? You know I love sign painting and lettering. Fabulous — even quirky (that’s puckish to you, Richard!)

  14. Kathryn says:

    Hi All,

    I reviewed the show and everyone’s comments on ArtSlant.

    Have at it, and if you don’t like being mentioned, I can modify.

    Here’s the jist:
    My feeling is that the gallery exhibit, technically, physically, is just fine. All the works are strong, Carol Jackson’s Tally is magnificent, a cowboy-style leather huge number that equals nothing (00,000,000,000). The MacKenzie and Kuras duo outdid themselves with Shows No Sign of Being Unresponsive which is emotionally devoid text filled in with teeny tiny flowers so perfect and painstaking it makes you cry (interestingly, Corey Postiglione, in his review, didn’t take a stab at what their bonsai tree had to do with anything.) Bakker’s stuff looks soft even though it’s hard and Meerdo’s roadside grove billboards make the mundane seem organic. The critics wrote in a way that was sometimes personal, and sometimes iconic of their writing.

    I think the issue is that people evaluated it as a gallery exhibit. I give it higher marks because I see it as a conceptual art adventure, a showcase of de-materialized art. The trick issue is what, exactly, was the show? Where did the exhibit start and where does it end? Was the text also artwork? Was the panel a part of the show?


  15. Claudine Ise says:

    Hi Mary, and everyone, thank you all so much for your thoughtful (and even handed) comments. Mary, I was thinking about your question about who I would have chosen while I was out gardening today. It’s a very good question! So, hmm, I think one way I might have gone was to choose an artist who I knew from the get-go would not be satisfied with the way I framed his/her work. Not just that I would describe it incorrectly, or inadequately, but who I knew would disagree with the fundamental premises of the way I approached the work. Someone like BAS’ Mark Staff Brandl maybe, (I’m just picking an artist who immediately comes to mind) whose work I am still learning about but who I strongly suspect would not like the way I would write about it. He’s also a writer himself, with strong opinions. So then we could tussle, as it were, over the “ownership” of the meaning of his work and that would be the exhibition project itself. I would write text, the artist would re-write it, critique my critique, and back and forth. That would be one way I might go. Another artist I might have chosen isn’t from Chicago, her name is Rachel Harrison and she’s a huge deal in the art world and (this is the part I wrote about sheer dumb not understanding) I do not get her work at all. Granted I haven’t spent a lot of time with it but the pieces of hers I have seen have always make me go, “wha??”. So I could select her or an artist who provoked a similar dumbfounded response, and write quite honestly about my struggle to understand the work, and hopefully in the process undercutting my own critical authority. Those are just two quick thoughts in answer to your question since I have to go out and weed some more. But I also should add, that I realize exhibitions like these need to have some consensus behind them, and were I in the room discussing the overall approach and everyone hated my ideas I would likely choose a more traditional route as well.

  16. Interesting re-thinking there CI– for such a thing I would gladly take part. Such show ideas might also point out that artists are not always the best commenters on their own work. I think I, e.g., am better with others than with myself.

    Your idea would highlight the give-and-take, dialogical approach to criticizing art, which I think is a good idea whose time is here. A related idea of mine, which no one has gone for: I proposed to several publications for whom I have written that they should consider “dueling reviews” two or three of the same artist’s show, critics from “differing camps,” perhaps even when you know one will be positive, one negative — just to put it all in perspective and get out of the Third-Person-knows-everything approach still so prevalent. At least, indirectly, internet is approaching such discussion. i would like to see it more foregrounded, as in your idea.

  17. salvo cheque says:

    Hey Mr. Brandl,
    Your idea of head to head reviews are currently done by

    You can’t see it online, but the last two issues have had “Crossroads: Two Critic’s Assessments”. Not necessarily two differing opinions, but definitely different perspectives.

  18. Thanks Salvo for the info! Too bad I can’t get it online, as being in Europe I probably won’t see the paper pub.

    I’ll try to search it out — if you hear of it appearing online, let me know.

    I stand by the assertion that it is a very good idea, among other things it highlights the relativity of criticism; and more ideas similar to it need to be striven for.

    I find CI’s idea above also very promising. We need more such ideas and more guts if we wish to revitalize criticism. When I see discussions of criticism, they all revolve around “should the be more aggressive towards artists or not.” How limited.

    I suggest the very structure of criticism has to be experimented with. Perhaps gently, but somehow. First, it should include much more questioning of the “givens” of the artworld, such as, e.g., the unwritten rule that the structure of “international” curators a little gods is never to be questioned. But also simply far more open, inventive forms have to be found.

  19. Claudine Ise says:

    Mark, I absolutely agree with your point here:

    “I suggest the very structure of criticism has to be experimented with. Perhaps gently, but somehow…But also simply far more open, inventive forms have to be found.”

    Totally, totally totally. It would make reading criticism more fun too, don’t you think? I don’t know why more publications don’t do the “dueling” multiple voices angle on criticism. Now I left out your part about the international curators not because I don’t agree, necessarily, just because I don’t understand the full context of your argument there. Do you mean, the curator’s words should not be taken as authoritative (in the same way that we’re talking about critics here) or you have a problem with jet-setting curators who travel, schmooze, pick words based on what everyone else says is cool but aren’t really interested in establishing a viable context for presenting those works within their own institutions? (or something along those lines).

  20. salvo cheque says:

    I like to think that I’ve been experimenting with criticism’s form by making it more of a collaborative effort.
    First on my site, going head to head with Kurt Mueller (listed as Dominick Mueller).
    Second in print, I gathered my co-contributors for the weekly paper and worked through the previous Texas Biennial via a shared google doc. part 1, 2, 3, 4
    Then a short-lived podcast inspired by BAS.

    Sorry for the self-promotion, but I think these changes that you are asking for are happening, just not at the scale or visibility in platforms that have been built on and according to old media.

    PS: keep an eye out for an email from me.

  21. Exactly along the line of your last statement, Christine. My point is that that particular “structure,” of the rootless sophistic intl curator, is seldom questioned. And it can only exist in a situation of purposeful historical amnesia and careerist lack of imagination — I have even had students say to me “that’s how it always was,” showing an immense ignorance of history, cowardice and other problems.

    That example has no direct bearing on any recreation of criticism — yet the existence and dominance of careerist intl curators and the secret desire to join them on the part of many small-time quasi-curators — are responsible to a large extent for why criticism is so unimportant — for good an bad.

    It is simply a glaring example of where a little, simply questioning and creativity in fashioning experimental structures could go a long way. Your idea for criticism/show suggests a creative re-imagination. This is needed on ALL levels of the artworld now.

  22. That’s not just self promo, Salvo, those are great links having directly to do with our discussion. I’d love to hear from you. I’ll check all your stuff out soon; I’m a bit rushed now, so I only glanced. Very intriguing.

  23. The Shark says:

    “critics who are members of the Chicago Art Critics Association–aim to open up a discursive interplay “between artists and the critics who are tasked with writing about their work (and, let’s not forget, with assessing its successes and failures). ”

    I suppose if you are new to town you might take something as failed and impotent, as completely laughable, as the Chicago Art Critics Association seriously, reinventing the Chicago Wheel of Misfortune yet again-certainly no artists I know of do – CACA; (their own acronym/moniker of choice) is responsible for one thing and one thing alone; that would be, giving shit a bad name-

    In what world do the losers get to assess success and failure? I know of no artist here who is waiting around with baited breath for what any of these clowns have to say-

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