The art world system includes artists, dealers, curators, collectors and critics. Artists make works sold by dealers, who sell with the help of museum curators and private collectors. And critics interpret and validate this art. But right now the role of the critic has become deeply insecure. At present, it’s almost impossible to make a living as a freelance critic. And the number of journalistic posts for critics is vanishingly small. Gentrification which transforms former down-and-out neighborhoods like Manhattan’s East Village, good places for writers and young artists, into trendy sites has transformed the entire art world. Young artists can no longer afford lofts, and art dealing has become much more expensive. The same is happening in many other cities. And so while in the mid-twentieth century there were important independent scholars, now it’s no longer possible to make a living from art writing.
The value of many commodities is established by the marketplace. And so we don’t require critics to establish the value of raw materials or useful goods. But we do need critics to establish the value of the artifacts that are displayed to be sold in the art market. No one needs a painting- and there is no particular relation between the cost of art production and its exchange value. An enormous number of paintings are produced, and just a few of them have economic value. This present role of art criticism is a relatively new development associated with modernism. In the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt, Saenredam and Vermeer didn’t need art critics. And outside of Europe, often art worlds functioned without art criticism. The importance of art criticism in modernism and what comes after is in part a response to the very nature of this art. In this period, when radical aesthetic innovation is the norm, we need theorization provided by critics in order to identify what art matters. Without art critics, we wouldn’t know what to make of the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Robert Ryman or Sean Scully, who all rework tradition in ways that require articulation in order to be understood.
One way to understand art criticism is to contrast the activity of philosophers. I am am academic philosopher and I write art criticism. We philosophers describe knowledge, justice, and the nature of art. We aspire to objectivity- to understanding the world as it really is. But art critics are rhetoricians. We develop persuasive interpretations, explaining why the works we admire have value. Philosophers have always been suspicious of rhetoricians. Since seeking truth is essentially different from producing convincing arguments, it’s not surprising that there are tensions in my intellectual life. When I write as a philosopher, my concerns differ from those in my practice of art criticism.
Usually we philosophers consider the arguments of our most illustrious predecessors, without devoting attention to considering how they earned a living. Still, we should note some differences between the life styles of Descartes, Spinoza and David Hume, pre-modern figures, and the professors who succeeded them, Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein. Staring with Kantian modernism, philosophy becomes an activity of tenured academics. And many people think that the esoteric activity of philosophy deserves support from the educational system. The institutional role of art critics is different. Denis Diderot, Charles Baudelaire, Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg, and Peter Schjeldhal describe very different works of art. But they were all independent scholars. Unlike philosophy, art criticism didn’t usually become an activity of academics. (Obviously I am one of the exceptions. There are others.) Art criticism, especially criticism devoted to contemporary and modern art, is tied to the direct promotion of commodities. And for any philosopher concerned with truth and objectivity, this is a real problem. How can the rhetoric of art criticism ground artistic values?
As an art critic, there’s nothing I dread more than discussions of visual art and money. It’s devilishly hard to talk about the aesthetic and political issues associated with art that matters when I am distracted by financial concerns. And yet, these distractions are unavoidable, for you cannot fully understand visual art nowadays without considering why the best works have high economic value. Recently I was in the Yale Art Museum looking at Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Cafe (1888), an amazing composition that deserves prolonged contemplation. But as I found myself distracted by recalling the recent 1.5 billion dollar auction of the Paul Allen collection, I wondered: how much is this painting now worth? In 1960 Meyer Schapiro, who was a worldly art historian, said “The extraordinary prices paid for contemporary and older art seem pathological.” His example, $100,000 for a Picasso, is of course now comically dated. What would he say about the Allen auction?
If thinking too little about money is unrealistic in our art world, too much thinking about art and money prevents you from appreciating art’s value. Nowadays grand works are trophies. There are lots of enormous mansions, many large yachts, and numerous luxurious private planes. But upscale artworks are unique. If you set out to design artifacts for billionaires, you couldn’t do any better. And while the desirability of mansions, yachts and private planes needs no special explanation, the value of artworks depends decisively upon the discourse associated with them. But the working assumption of us critics is that art has something more than just exchange value.
A tradition of leftist art criticism has deplored the art market. In 1972 John Berger produced a famous BBC show Ways of Seeing, that became, also, a very widely read book. In his chapter on art and property, after critiquing nearly all European painting for its obsession with property values, he allows that there are a few exceptional figures – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, Chardin, Goya, and Turner. But it’s no accident, of course, that their works are generally more highly valued in the marketplace than the paintings by their lesser contemporaries. To identify what is very exceptional is to justify its high exchange value. Is the function of the best artists making trophies, in the way that the function of the yacht construction business is building yachts? I hope that’s not the whole story, but I do find the implications of the present situation deeply unsettling. Schapiro moralized about the role of Bernard Berenson, who played a key role in the early twentieth century sale of old master Italian artworks to American collectors. But then the ultimate effect of the art market was to place the most desirable artworks in public collections. I am not sure that that’s the case any longer. Not with the rise of private collections. Perhaps this shows that the art world system doesn’t any longer need critics. Maybe dealers, curators and collectors can assign value to contemporary works. There was a prophetic dimension to the aesthetic judgments of Diderot, Baudelaire, Fry and Greenberg. But perhaps now the market system in contemporary art can run without such critics.
The American art world has become very good at critiquing our museum system. We question the sources of funding and the inequities involved in the organization of these institutions. And we support the struggle of museum employees for a decent wage. But we are less accustomed at looking self-critically at the role of critics, which also deserves attention. If criticism matters, then why is it not supported financially? But asking this question assumes that the present economy is semi-rational, a most optimistic assumption. Raising this question is not, I hasten to add, to criticize my hard working editors, who have their hands full financing these publications, which is not easy. Like me, they too are working within a social system that is not easy to transform. One solution to these problems is that art critics become academics, like philosophers. Another is that the role of the critic will be taken by curators or collectors. But given the nature of art criticism as rhetoric, that development would change the art world in ways that are as yet unpredictable. We live in challenging times.
I owe my point about Ways of Seeing to Julian Bell. As a critic, I am a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Rail and Hyperallergic. On one very ambitious private museum, check this out.