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The Precarity of the Critic and Their Vulnerabilities
Ancient Problems, and Current Ones

Loredana Longo, CARPET#21, THE IDEALS ARE THE STARTING POINT FOR EVERY REVOLUTION, 2017, 316 x 208 cm, bruciature (slogan di politici occidentali) su tappeto orientale, courtesy Galleria Francesco Pantaleone, Palermo

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Does art criticism still exist? In what settings does it express itself? What is art criticism today? What are its tools? Is it a profession? To whom is it addressed? What impact does it have? Who and what does it move? What real autonomy does the critic have?

The fact that there are so many questions over contemporary art criticism is proof of how vulnerable it is. Practicing criticism means taking a stand, narrating and backing up one’s own point of view by using acquired analytical tools and specific knowledges, as well as by bringing one’s own sensibilities into play. A critical text highlights the innovative and necessary features of artistic research as well as its unconvincing elements; it thus fulfils a control function with regard to contemporary artistic production. In the analysis conducted by the critic, the first factors that come into play are human ones, of empathy, prompting the author to get to grips with an artist’s production and their sensibilities as they pass judgement. In so doing, the critic takes on a public responsibility towards the artist and their own community of reference. Practising criticism means being familiar with an author’s work, going into greater depth, and having an aptitude for understanding artistic practices. Criticism involves time, study, built-up experience, elaboration — all actions that are difficult to pull together, given the acceleration so characteristic of our era and the critic’s need to perform various roles just in order to sustain themselves. It should thus go without saying that they generally choose which artists, research and exhibitions to write about and which ones to avoid.

This is the first reason why, in the pages of specialist journals, we are now used to almost only reading positive critiques, expertly written texts by fine authors that shed light on current research. Negative reviews of exhibitions and monographic texts that present critical aspects of an artist’s research are isolated cases, by this point. Indeed, to the reader unaware of the peculiarities of the art system, the mere fact that an artist’s research or the exhibition being analysed is featured in the pages of a magazine would seem to lend them a dignified standing. This surely would be true if magazines were independent of private funding, advertising and sponsors. Yet the financial support of these outlets by commercial galleries, as well as by private individuals and non-profit organisations, creates an environment of ambiguity that undermines the free exercise of criticism. Over the years, we have seen an impoverishment of this intellectual practice, also due to the employment of ‘low-cost’ (if not zero-cost) contributors motivated by their desire to enter the art world by beginning to build up their own credibility within the system. In this way, the need for the critic has gradually declined, with the effect of granting them a mainly promotional task of rewriting press releases. If online publishing has played a key role in making this dynamic into common practice, a similar exploitation of the critic’s work is now also well-established among daily newspapers, which in various cases employ highly specialised figures for derisory remuneration.

An analytical discourse on the art critic as a figure must, therefore, necessarily begin from some considerations related to intellectual work in general, and then move on to the peculiarities of the critic. Criticism could only be a profession if the remuneration on offer enabled the professional critic to earn a living. But conditions today make it almost impossible to do this job alone. The ‘pure’ art critic has no possibility of earning a living with such work, and this must therefore be a hybrid role. It is not uncommon for critics who work with newspapers and magazines to simultaneously write texts and curate exhibitions for art galleries. Quite obviously, this activity is coloured by a potential conflict of interest that does not allow the author to fulfil the functions of criticism as conventionally understood.

But criticism is not dead. Not all of it. As I have mentioned, the analytical — non-promotional — texts published in specialist journals or newspapers, dedicated to an artist’s practice or an exhibition are often high-profile and champion the necessity of certain research by emphasising its peculiar characteristics. But also corresponding to these writings are the critical functions that are conducted in other forms and in other circles. The activity of contemporary art museums consists of critical choices made on different terrains, from the enhancement and valorisation of the permanent collection, to the production of temporary exhibitions, research, and the writing of historical-critical texts. The curator who fulfils all of their role also makes a critical gesture: even beyond the text produced for a given exhibition, the fact of working with an artist and highlighting a line of research itself corresponds to a critical choice. The exhibition route established and its installation in turn contribute to the way in which an artist’s work is narrated, read, or re-read. So, we would rightly speak of the exhibition as a piece of writing and of the curator as a critic. Yet there is still today a tendency to counterpose the critic to the curator, almost as if these two figures were antagonists. In my opinion, diligent curation is a critical practice, inseparable from criticism. When this is not the case, even expository writing becomes largely a matter of promotional work.

In today’s panorama, made up of obvious interdependencies, anyone who wanted to invest in criticism and in the critical word would first have to create a free environment for it to be practiced. Institutions could point the way for a change of direction, in this sense, starting by employing highly qualified individuals and paying them fairly for their labour. Only by making this dignified work again, indeed putting those who take on this work in a proper position to do it, can we imagine a full-fledged refoundation of criticism as a practice. Moreover, we need to reflect on scholarly journals and what is feeding into them. Among the contemporary art journals that ANVUR includes in its list, there are some that deal with the most strictly contemporary art, but which are not independent of private investment. In some cases, academic journals — like Piano B, Arabeschi, Palinsesto and Predella — only touch upon current developments. In Italy, in fact, we lack any peer-reviewed journal concerned with the strictly contemporary, because this is not considered a field of research: it only becomes research when it is about History. Moreover, the academic system does not value articles about contemporary art on an equal footing with scientific production: this ‘devaluation’ discourages art historians who are also interested in the contemporary from investing time in producing research for publication. Thus, we read more about the strictly contemporary from tangential disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and economics. How far can an academic (scientific) article generate the critical (speculative) dimension?

The existence of criticism is a political fact. The first question that needs asking, then, is whether today we are missing criticism, and whether it is really desired. The current state of affairs would suggest that it is not necessary — or at least, that it is not interesting enough to be foregrounded as a dimension of the knowledge and systematic discussion of today’s art, with its strengths and weaknesses. So, while we go on discussing the ‘death of criticism’ and seek out the responsibilities for this, we do not fully pursue those sustainable directions that would be capable of generating the change that would give it value. Restoring dignity to criticism by freeing it from extraneous interests would play a crucial role in bringing contemporary art closer to the general public, who could then interpret it, as well as bringing it closer to investors and to the institutional decision-makers who finance art projects. Perhaps more lacking than anything else in contemporary art is a free criticism, capable of re-establishing a dialectical and non-affirmative dimension. This is something that we haven’t yet understood — or else perhaps things suit us as they are.