How Can Criticism Grow Stronger?

In my last words as editor, I will articulate the role of art criticism in four main points – and say something about how it can get even better.

Friday 31 January was Jonas Ekeberg’s last day as Editor-in-Chief of Kunstkritikk. He is depicted here during a lecture given at Nordic Art Association (Nordiska Konstförbundet) in Stockholm on 18 November 2019 in connection with the launch of his book Post-Nordic – The Rise and Fall of the Nordic Art Scene 1976–2016. Photo: Alvaro Campo.

When I first took the chair as Editor-in-Chief of Kunstkritikk in August 2009, two particular challenges lay ahead. First, we needed to expand the financial basis of the journal. Secondly, we had to do something about recruiting new writers.

Now that I am leaving my post after two terms as editor (interrupted by a research break in 2014), the journal’s finances are considerably stronger. This has provided the basis for truly professional operation, as well as for Nordic and international expansions.

Jonas Ekeberg was Editor-in-Chief of Kunstkritikk until January 2020. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

The situation of art criticism in general is more complex, however. In Norway, more grants and scholarships for critics have emerged, and the Arts Council Norway has set up a special focus area called ‘Journals and criticism’, albeit without increased funding. Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that stakeholders like Arts Council Norway and Fritt Ord believe criticism is important.

On the other hand, criticism in daily newspapers and broadcast media has seen a sharp decline. Several of Norway’s biggest newspapers no longer publish art criticism; it is barely noticeable on the radio, and to the best of my knowledge, no TV stations have any real investment in visual art or criticism today. If we look to Sweden, Denmark, and the rest of the Nordic region, the situation is more or less the same.

A major problem

This is, of course, a tragedy both for criticism as a genre and for the critics as workers, but it is also a major problem for artists, exhibition organisers, and art audiences. No specific figures exist to tell us exactly how many exhibitions, publications, and events are produced in the Nordic region each year, nor how much work an artist puts into an exhibition. Still, it is disheartening to see how such extensive resources are spent without leaving any trace in the public realm. It may sound naïve, but I firmly believe that every professional art exhibition deserves criticism on some level.

If this goal is to be achieved, the art field needs strengthened criticism, both qualitatively and quantitatively, which in turn requires more funding for the critics and more funding for the editors’ offices. Hence, the Arts Council Norway’s new focus on journals and criticism is timely, and should be considerably strengthened in the years to come.


In addition, we also need a new commitment to criticism in the daily newspapers and broadcast media alike. This is a thornier issue due to the dire financial straits afflicting the major editorial offices. Still, if it were possible to both develop the genre and enhance the quality of criticism while stimulating funding, I think it would be possible to reverse this trend.

Even so, another component must fall into place in order for us to obtain the criticism that the art field and its audiences deserve – and that factor is criticism itself. Having worked within the field for ten years now, I would venture to say that there is still much to be done not only in terms of the quality of criticism, but also in terms of innovation within the field. Some critics have tried their hand at a more personal mode of criticism, and in the wake of social media we have also seen a more enthusiastic and affirmative vein of criticism – one that is on the art’s side, as it were. The real criticism, however, the one that seeks to understand art as an historical argument and expression of its time, that particular criticism has not evolved sufficiently in the last ten years within the Nordic region. In the daily newspapers, we find almost exactly the same voices today as we did ten years ago. Here at Kunstkritikk, critics often quit before they have built sufficient experience. This makes it difficult to contribute to greater quality and innovation.

Two factors

I believe that two factors are crucial if we wish to further enhance and elevate criticism in the Nordic countries.

First, the critics must educate themselves. That means they have to see more, read more, and write more while they are still students. As a critic, you must know about the most important artists and oeuvres, about the theories and art historical arguments of our day; you must form opinions on these issues and be able to express them in writing. These foundations must be laid down by the critics themselves. Clearly, this profession is not for everyone. On the other hand, this knowledge is surprisingly easy to acquire, not least for those undertaking study programmes within the fine arts or the humanities. I urge today’s students to do one thing: give it a try! You will certainly gain hugely valuable knowledge and insight, even if you do eventually choose to pursue a career other than criticism.

Second, the funding available in the system must be expanded in scope. In order for criticism to truly be alive, critics must get paid and have publishing channels for their contributions. Let us leave the latter issue aside for now, assuming that there is editorial capacity available and room for more criticism in the media. Instead, let us look at the salaries paid to critics. Obviously, these should be substantial enough to enable critics to make a living. Still, a 2017 review showed that the average fee per review/piece of criticism in Norway is NOK 2,900 (EUR 283). This comes to an annual salary of around NOK 250,000 (EUR 24,400) if you write two reviews every week (the maximum possible). A critic ought to earn at least twice that.

How might critics’ fees be increased, and how might critics once again be given permanent positions as members of editorial staff? I think this is a purely financial issue, and what is required is essentially a split between media and donors. Specifically, I think that just as farmers receive subsidies per litre of milk produced, critics should receive a grant as support for every piece of criticism they deliver. In order to produce a sufficient wage, this grant should match the original fee. This support should come from a fund set up by private and public stakeholders acting in unison.

Four components

If we have critics with firmly founded knowledge and access to a living wage, criticism will have the opportunity to fulfil its role in the ecosystem of art to an even greater extent than it does today. This role involves at least four essential components, which I will make my last words as Kunstkritikk’s editor: first, criticism has an intrinsic value as literature; second, it performs an important task as the first line of art history writing; third, it provides important feedback to institutions, galleries and artists; lastly, it provides the public with valuable information, guidance, and perspectives on art.