The Real Crisis of Criticism

If Norwegian art critics have a marginal role in the public eye, they have only to blame their collective aversion to risk.

Ceal Floyer, Wish You Were Here, 2008. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / Vigelandmuseet.

Quite often, I find myself reading art reviews in Norwegian newspapers and journals where a critic describes an exhibition or a work only to evade the task of interpreting and evaluating the art. In a review of an exhibition at the Vigeland Museum written by Sara Hegna Hammer in the newspaper Klassekampen two weeks ago, we can read about how Félix González-Torres’s art is conventionally interpreted and learn that a work by Ceal Floyer has been nicely placed. The short text explains that the exhibition consists of three only works and encourages the reader to invest some time in appreciating them. However, there is no reflection on what the purpose of such prolonged and concentrated contemplation might be, what kind of virtue is being extolled here, and what it might possibly add to our lives.

In other instances, the critic delivers a merciless judgment, even if the objections raised seem to have more to do with the writer’s own lack of interpretative desire than with the art’s actual qualities or lack thereof. In his review of the same exhibition at the Vigeland Museum, printed in Morgenbladet, Espen Hauglid declares that he does not like the meanings proposed by the museum’s wall labels. Instead of interpreting the works himself, he concludes that their content is arbitrary, and that the exhibition is therefore “empty.” Hauglid, a seasoned art critic writing for a weekly newspaper that presents itself as intellectual, here demonstrates a startling lack of interest in contemporary art as a signifying object.

The first review – by Hegna Hammer – appears hesitant to take a stand on the quality and significance of the art and is perhaps the form that best typifies Norwegian art criticism at the moment. The Hauglid example is typical of the secondary form. In the latter, an assessment is made, but not one that arises out of independent interpretation. Rather, it is based on the critic’s expectation that the work should be self-explanatory or unlock itself without effort. The problem with both formats is that they offer little to discuss or reflect upon. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Norwegian art criticism prompts few aesthetic debates. This reluctance to interpret is a loss not only for criticism, but also for the art scene.

In the United States, a discussion about the absence of negative reviews – which in essence is about the function of evaluation in criticism and its value in the public sphere at large  – has flared up again, thanks to an essay by Sean Tatol in the journal The Point. Tatol, who has at times written as many as ten short reviews a week of exhibitions in New York, all for his blog The Manhattan Art Review, defends the bluntly dismissive review by claiming that the purpose of criticism is to help us to improve our perceptual skills, to hone our powers of discernment and evaluation. In this way, critics and readers alike develop a more sophisticated taste over time, which, in turn, provides fertile ground for more complex assessments and a deeper understanding of aesthetic experiences. If we are to believe Tatol, passing judgements of taste is less about confirming that we are right and others are wrong than it is about taking art seriously, gradually developing a sensibility, a point of view and a perspective on what is good – and what is not.

I do not necessarily miss the negative review as such; rather, I miss reading art criticism that is clearly argumentative. Reviewers who want to go somewhere with the exhibitions, the artworks, and artists with which they come into contact, and who are willing to take risks. Such criticism must to a greater extent rely on independent interpretation and exchanges of opinion, but must also be able and willing to show uncertainty, in the sense that the critic might also examine why a given aesthetic experience, preference, or feeling arises or reveals itself in the encounter with a given work. Obviously, this will not always happen – anyone who writes extensively over time will inevitably write a decent number of bland reviews. But when critics do not strive for independent interpretation, art criticism all too often appears as a flat and unmotivated supplement to the interpretive work already carried out by institutional communication and outreach departments.

We do not have to follow Norwegian literary criticism particularly closely to see that, by virtue of being more argumentative, it prompts and drives debates with relevance far beyond the field of literature. Some examples of recent discussions include: a major debate on how the literary canon should be read in the wake of #MeToo; a heated discussion about whether literary criticism focuses too much on major authors; and a number of aesthetic debates about topics ranging from how literary texts are used in the realm of theatre to the quality of Instagram poetry and how to understand autofiction. Many insights and debates have arisen from the willingness of literary critics to compete over the power of definition. Within the visual arts, the critical public seems to have little interest in discussing taste or values. Recent exceptions in Norway include: a debate about the professional art-related competences found in the management tiers of museums; and a brief, but sensationalist, argument about the absence of Christian Krohg’s history painting Leiv Eiriksson Discovering America (1893) in the National Museum’s hang of its collection. However, few art critics take part in these discussions, and these debates touch little, if at all, on aesthetic tendencies in the field. With this collective absence of assertiveness and willingness to confront, we, the art critics, can in many ways be said to get exactly the marginal role in the public eye that we deserve.

Christian Krohg, Leiv Eirikson oppdager Amerika (Leiv Eiriksson Discovers America), 1893. Oil on canvas, 313 x 470 cm.

Why is the evasive, mostly descriptive review, such as the one mentioned above, so widespread in the field of art? One possible reason is that reviews that willingly affirm the quality of the art in question have a longer lifespan. They are screenshot, shared, and worn as  badges of honour by the artists or institutions being reviewed, regardless of whether the interpretative work done by the critic is good or original. What is more, the pervasiveness of social media has led to visibility frequently being conflated with quality. Everyone knows that visibility is the main precondition for getting assignments and recognition. With this media-made reality in mind, it is hardly surprising that critics, like other cultural actors, adapt to the current climate. Everyone who is reviewed (and especially institutional communication departments) knows full well that the best way to deal with querulous, problematising, or negative reviews is to remain absolutely silent. Generally speaking, then, the critic has little to gain from being argumentative, experimental, or doubtful. Anyone who doubts the existence of a widespread notion that criticism’s primary task is communication and mediation need look no further than the parliamentary report Kunstnarkår (Artists’ Conditions), published in the early summer of 2023. Here, the Norwegian Ministry of Culture asserts, in the report’s only description of critics, that they “are important mediators, bridging the gap between artists and the public.”

Another reason for writing an evasive review is that the critic wants to spare themselves, and perhaps also the creator of the work, from discomfort. There is little social and professional distance between critics, artists, and those employed by institutions. The semi-public that exists on social media, where the private and professional realms meet and merge, is once again a contributing factor. In addition, the critic – who makes a meagre living, even compared to other cultural workers – knows that one day they will need a full-time job or other types of assignments; opportunities that are managed and bestowed by the same actors and institutions they are tasked with reviewing. The precarious working conditions of a critic are often accepted as part of a career plan aimed at permanent employment at an institution. A strikingly low number of younger art critics keep at it for any length of time. The art critics who write most frequently in Norway today are roughly the same crowd as ten years ago.

A third reason is the critic’s fear of speaking out in a manner that may be perceived as prejudiced, ignorant, or, worst of all, plain wrong, and being corrected for this. Better to be nice than to make a fool of yourself in public. In the book Kritikerens spøkelse (The Critic’s Ghost, 2023), professor of literature and critic Eirik Vassenden claims that one of the significant challenges affecting criticism today is a widespread skepticism towards all types of judgements of taste. Taste is now considered a personal matter, a preference on which it is almost rude or condescending to comment. Besides, why should a critic say anything about what is good or bad, interesting or dull, when personalised recommendations are everywhere, be they in feeds, on various streaming services, or search engines? Another important point in Vassenden’s book is that the threshold for interpreting a negative evaluation of a work of art as an attack on its creator seems to be lower than before. Once again, critics risk being dragged into a discussion on social media, where the fronts are informed more by who can see which threads – that is, who is ‘friends’ with whom – than fact-based argumentation.

The wording chosen by a critic can quickly become the subject of a more heated discussion than the verdict passed upon the art. Given this social reality, we may easily be induced to refrain from being critical at all. Tatol touches on a similar point in his criticism of the New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, who he claims tends to equate the good intentions of the artist with quality. The problem Tatol points to here is that the ethical positions promoted by art are often symbolic, obvious, and risk-free. It is not difficult to agree that such criteria – essentially an absence of interpretation – reduces criticism to a formula: good intentions equal a good artwork.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the real crisis for art criticism is not, then, that there is less of it in the media, but that, for the reasons mentioned above, it often avoids being anything other than affirmative. And on those occasions where it dares to pass judgement, this is rarely based on independent interpretation, or on a willingness to try to understand the object. If art criticism is to maintain a distinct professional identity and avoid degenerating into a mere communication and mediation service, we need to see more reviews in which critics try to explain which aesthetic choices they believe to be good and which they oppose, and why – including in those cases where exhibitions are perceived to be banal, bland, and unengaging. Without a vibrant critical discourse, there are few correctives to the bureaucratic and collegial networks that exercise power in the art field. When reviews neither interpret nor evaluate – or only evaluate on a weak basis – they not only become boring to read. They also become difficult for outsiders to determine what is at stake in art – and why they should care about it.

Eirik Vassenden, Kritikerens spøkelse (The Critic’s Ghost), 2023.

Translated from Norwegian.