A discussion with SAIC faculty on the challenges faced by Art Criticism
By Brook Jonquil
Chaired by Kathryn Hixson, with panelists Joseph Grigely and Michelle Grabner, the “New Challenges for Art Criticism” panel on February 11 turned out to be populated entirely by SAIC faculty (João Ribas of MIT was absent due to airport conditions). The presenters set out to elucidate how art criticism has evolved alongside art itself, particularly with regards to so-called “relational aesthetics.”
Grigely and Grabner each read brief papers that proved to be not so much the meat of the session but the appetizers. The real fun started with the Q and A, which quickly became a lively and entertaining discussion.
The paper that Grigely presented framed the conversation, though in fact it was not his writing at all but that of the late Gregory Battcock, the counter-institutional art critic whose estate is the material of Grigely’s recent work. Battcock’s writing loomed over the room with his assertion that critics provide nothing but free PR, and that the whole art world is just a trumped-up cog in the money machine.
Hot topics also included ethics in relational art, where material issues such as where an event happened and who or what was involved tend to be of less importance than the fact that the event happened at all. This was contrasted to ethical norms in science.
It was noted that critics themselves are in fact relational artists by definition; criticism itself is a “relational machine.” That is, the panelists viewed themselves as provoking debate, bringing people together and generating new connections between artists, viewers and critics, similar to how “relational” artists like Jeremy Deller or Rikrit Tiravanija encourage the development of new relationships with participants in their pieces. The topic of the artist’s intentionality also arose, since critics have a willingness to engage with the intention of the artist, whether or not it manifests in the work.
Grabner, who writes for both Art Forum and X-TRA, raised interesting points regarding the publications of criticism, addressing how the former limits the reviews to a few hundred words and discourages opinions for or against, while the latter, which she prefers, allows her to write 2000-word reviews.
The final question was whether design could be a useful model for the criticism of art — in the field of design, the success of a piece is entirely contingent upon its use. While this is an interesting proposition, the question really boils down to that old gadfly “What is art for?” Leaving so much room for spontaneity was an unusual move, but thanks to the intelligent and humorous panel, and an engaged and conversant crowd, the result was a very satisfying conversation .