The Role of the Art Critic


John McDonald

According to the majority of art critics in the United States, in a poll conducted by James Elkins, the main role of the critic is to provide information about exhibitions. The least important thing, for those who responded to the questionaire, was to have an opinion.

Nothing could be more indicative of the rut into which art criticism has fallen than these lame, self-defeating views peddled by a dwindling number of professional critics. It’s hardly surprising when even the critics now think of themselves as writers (or recyclers) of press releases.

As a critic one must have a broad enough outlook to recognise such provincial gamesmanship and call its bluff. The only thing that matters is the quality of the exhibition itself, not the hype that it generates. A critic is obliged to give an honest, informed assessment. They must be prepared to distinguish good from bad, and argue their case. No-one is forced to agree with a critic’s reasoning, but they should always give their readers something to think about.

This has been the fundamental role of the critic from time immemorial. Along the way, many practitioners have developed messianic complexes, seeing themselves as taste-makers and breakers. But what worked for Clement Greenberg in the 1970s, has no traction today. It is the market rather than the critics that decides who are the outstanding artists of the age. When hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in a celebrity artist such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, it makes little difference if a critic gives them a bad review.

Art criticism nowadays is both a hopeless cause, and more necessary than ever. Hopeless, because intelligent commentary now seems less desirable than glossy advertisements. Necessary, because it is important that someone, anyone, stand against the tides of banality and forced positivity that threaten to swamp the contemporary art world. The critic has to be a cool-headed analyst, not a fan, a lackey or a helpless victim of the Zeitgeist. Criticism should be a fiercely independent process, free from institutional or corporate prerogatives.

I don’t think a critic needs any special qualifications beyond the ability to write well and insightfully. The longer one persists, the more one grows in terms of knowledge and experience. The paradox is that even though one develops a certain fluency, the activity of art criticism never gets easier. When it starts to become a matter of routine it’s time to find another job.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald & film critic for the Australian Financial Review.

Dr Oliver Watts

Art criticism is vitally important to art. The critic acts as a mediator between art and its audience. The art critic is both an outsider and an insider, someone who is embedded within art but also observes it from the outside. On one hand the critic provides professional support to a community of artists – the traditional role of the expert. They shed light on the nuances of the craft, the history of a medium and the theories behind certain decisions. They can also be cast in a role of educator and promoter.

One of the roles of the critic is to communicate the historical context of an artwork, artist or exhibition to the audience. The critic’s responsibility is as much to the artist, who is often a peer, as it is to the public. On the other hand there is a risk that the critic sides too far with the artist and fails to engage with a broader art-interested public.

It is no longer necessarily the critic’s role to decree art as good or bad, as was the case in the modern period. In the context of contemporary art, the critic’s role seems to have shifted to that of an interpreter. The critic articulates what it is that we are actually looking at: what is the approach, context, historical or theoretical basis for this artwork? In the complex contemporary artscape the critic is a crucial interlocutor between art and its audience.

Dr Oliver Watts is a contemporary artist, lecturer and theorist. 

Vasili Kaliman

In the present day we curate the criticism that we interact with. With new technological platforms that allow us to add, like or follow specific people and organisations, the criticism that we seek out and allow ourselves to critique becomes self-designed.

The landscape of art criticism is changing fast, so the importance of immediacy is evermore necessary; all traditional forms of criticism are represented to the reader in a ‘post’ sense: the exhibition has concluded leaving behind only reports of a single viewpoint regarding something we can no longer see with our own critical eyes. But now equipped with mobile devices we can instantly look at images or read short texts relating to exhibitions that are happening at this very moment, the world over. Images and texts that have been curated by us—via who we follow, which are instantaneously fed onto our devices, give us the opportunity to like or comment, and give us the capacity to be critical of what the post displays. This same process of evaluation and selection was made in the first instance when we decided to either like, follow, or add said person or organisation. From the outset we were critical of whether we liked what this profile had to say or show.

For the ‘poster’ this is the same concept: by curating certain choices of what to and what not to post they exist firstly as an observer and secondly an endorser. The critical nature of the ‘poster’ owes to personal taste, whether purely visual or the result of extended research into the artists’ conceptual merits, which does not always reveal itself in a singular image or 140 characters. Consequently, this form of succinct and accessible criticism opens itself up to a broader range of follower in both nature and number. These new forms of critical display do not allow for lengthy academic essays tied to personal agendas, artistic biographies, or content written in view of the larger context of the art world. These new critical formats simply allow for snap choices of critical judgement, culminating in a like, a re-tweet or a share.

Vasili Kaliman is director of Melbourne gallery STATION and co-founder and director of art fair Spring 1883