Criticism Can Be Good

Reviews should be written for those who care, not for people in power. A new book collects some of the most savage criticism from the past sixty years.

A collection of negative assessments from Bad Reviews, Retrospective Press, 2022. Montage: Kunstkritikk.

An important feature of Bad Reviews (2022), which consists of some 150 negative reviews from 1963–2018 (mostly from the US), is that it has no preface. This means that it works like a real artist’s book: just open it and start reading. The texts are accessible on their own terms, disregarding the intentions of the editors, artist Aleksandra Mir and critic Tim Griffin. This allows for very different readings. Criticism is a sensitive topic, but in different ways for artists and critics. Someone told me that one review sent Mike Kelley into a depression from which he never recovered, and in an email to the editors of this book, Carolee Schneemann still calls an article from 1963 “dreadful.” I didn’t read it as a real criticism: it is long and only mentions her work, which is called “unforgivable,” in passing.

Who cares? Artists do. And Bad Reviews is in fact made up of negative reviews selected by the artists they are about. I myself have no artist’s sensibility at all when it comes to this, and as far as I’m concerned the book is not about art and artists as much as it is about criticism. Specifically, how the criticisability of art has changed quite often and quickly during the period the book covers.

Bad Reviews, ed. Aleksandra Mir and Tim Griffin, Retrospective Press, 2022.

The philosopher Arthur C. Danto, who was a critic in the 1980s when criticism entered an academic phase, puts it well when he writes that David Salle’s “indifference to criticism is the main if not the only critically interesting thing about his work.” Danto dislikes this, yet admires the artist for elucidating the world in which his own endeavour has “critical justification.”

As far as I know, critics don’t like to write pans. And it’s not only because they’ll get trashed on social media, or because those in power see their criticism as a sign that they’re not interested in participating in the art world, or that they’re reducing their chances of getting assignments. On a deeper level, there is a huge discomfort in having to face something that rejects criticism. It can make critics feel both foolish and excluded, but also as if something valuable has been abused, namely criticisability itself. The raison d’être of criticism relies on art’s ability to be criticised.

In this way, the frustration that emerges in savage reviews can be perceived as fear of a threat. In the book, there are several examples of psychoanalytically oriented critics who become straight-up indignant – today they would have been offended – if the works are either too close to the theories, or force the theories beyond reasonableness. In the first case, the critic has nothing to add, which is why the work cannot be criticised. The second case is actually what these critics long for: to enthusiastically engage with a work that generates new unexpected effects in theory. But sometimes when the effects become too free-thinking, the critic fears that the interpretation will make both theory and criticism look ridiculous.

In one review, the American critic Johanna Burton suspects that Année Olofsson may be making fun of feminism and psychoanalysis, and the very uncertainty about whether this is intentional or not makes her a target for the critic’s need for certainty. One cannot, Burton writes, take “her Freudian exercises seriously.” Instead, they are likened to bad therapy.

Excerpt from Bad Reviews, Retrospective Press, 2022.

In the defence of the psychoanalytic critics, it must be said that they link criticisability to their own ability to contribute to the work’s status as art; they want theory-congruent works in order to participate in the realm of art. The critics who, during the same period, made the concept of art (before it evaporated into institutional theory) a criterion of criticisability, however, often hide behind it. They think they can use it as a category to separate art from non-art. And that would be fine if concepts were perceived as a prerequisite for thought and life, i.e. as a value. Criticism would then be about art as a value to be fought for, and panned works would be beneath criticism and unworthy of being called art. But academic criticism has no values, only criteria for identification. So then things may fall outside the concept: “good activism/design/research, but not art.” A worthless criticism, which tries to stay outside the dynamics of art.

Although one might think that the concept of art would be an obvious criterion for determining what can be subject to criticism, the Jena Romantics, for example, aimed higher and wanted to make criticisability a criterion for art. Critics like Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel understood the importance of making art the object of thought, whereas academic criticism wants to make it the object of knowledge, and loses the plot if it cannot determine whether their judgements are right or wrong. The vanity of expertise is the subjective condition for such criticism.

Excerpt from Bad Reviews, Retrospective Press, 2022.

Going back to the period before that, the 1970s, Bad Reviews gives the impression that critics were not expected to be experts, and that they did not hesitate to act under suboptimal conditions of knowledge. A critic like the American Peter Plagens instead seems to see it as a duty to take on these cases. And he does so precisely because he is a human being like everyone else, with as much “pettiness and stupidity as anyone.” Art is important to everyone in society, is the idea. That kind of critic, in addition to assessing the consistency and coherence of the works, can react to almost anything in an exhibition: the pricing, the gallerist’s discernment, the character of the neighbourhood, the audience. These texts are still good reads. Such criticism, which recognise many different values, including art, seems to have disappeared with the single issue of Thatcherism: taxpayer reaction and all the administrative policy issues that followed. In Bad Reviews, this objection appears for the first time in a number of reviews of Mona Hatoum from 1982. Variations on it have since become perhaps the most common criticism of contemporary art.

A big question is what happened to criticism from, say, 2005 onwards – the period in which I have been writing. At least this collection of pans is deplorable: boring, impersonal, lifeless, stupid, predictable, contrived, monotonous. In a word, mindless. A lot of the world’s absolutely worst texts have probably been written in this context. Anyone familiar with Artforum’s short reviews knows how pointless it would be to allow someone who is not an art world insider to read them. Academic specialisation is no longer the problem, but I recognise their style. When I worked as a script editor for a TV company, we had to write like that too. It’s criticism written for decision-makers, not for people interested in art. I guess it emerged around the same time that E-flux normalised the idea that people should be aware of the big openings tonight in Moscow, Tokyo, or Ulan-Bator, and the short reviews are aimed at the same audience: curators who have to make decisions about themes and artists. Criticism written for the powers that be. Absurd.

Now the time of the curator is over, I suppose, and a different category holds the power: collectors who have to work on decision-makers to increase the value of their investments. But I think the book’s sustained relevance comes from the very question of criticism. Because sometime in the 1990s it changed in a way that gave the curator an unjustified amount of influence. Art criticism was no longer about beauty, media specificity, ‘the interesting’, consistency, or anything else that could be related to art as art. Instead, the critic, like the curator, was supposed to emphasise ‘the relevant’.

Excerpt from Bad Reviews, Retrospective Press, 2022.

In a 2003 piece, Roberta Smith of The New York Times – who claims the throne with ten reviews in the book, from 1989 onwards – rails with vomitous precision against curators who allow “good art to be replaced by good intentions.” Soon every small museum will be “a Lazy Susan of moralizing primness, eccentric materials, intellectual dryness, multidisciplinary amorphousness or high-tech spectacle,” Smith argues. I’ve had a director of an art institution explicitly tell me that it doesn’t matter whether art is good or not; other criteria are more relevant. In that scenario, there is nothing an artist can do to gain influence. No matter how good the art they produce is, it is only their alignment with what some people believe is ‘relevant’ that determines whether their art is shown.

With the criterion of relevance, negative criticism becomes virtually impossible. The only thing the critic can do is focus on the art, which doesn’t matter to the boss anyway. Or they have to argue for something that should be even more relevant, however that is decided. I suppose that as critics we have to decide for ourselves who our reader should be: the boss who doesn’t care, or someone who cares about art in the same way as we do, i.e. who has the same criteria for criticisability. In this way, at least we’re showing that another world and another art – different from that of our bosses – is possible. And then it’s probably easier to see what, based on that vision, should be criticised. Harshly, ruthlessly, and eloquently.

Bad Reviews, ed. Aleksandra Mir and Tim Griffin, Retrospective Press, 2022.