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Critical Condition 

Why is SAIC prof James Elkins so pessimistic about the state of visual art criticism?

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School of the Art Institute professor James Elkins was a bit peeved earlier this year by a call he got from the folks at the National Arts Journalism Program. They were embarking on a survey of visual arts critics and wanted his opinion of the business. "Newspaper art criticism in America today is entirely disconnected from serious discourse on art," he told them. Based on conservative ideas and marketing hype, he continued, "it has no impact at art schools; it is not read, except by people who subscribe to The New York Times and The New Yorker. Their target audiences are people who know almost nothing about art and occasionally need to be placated by being told that contemporary art is not worth everything it's said to be."

Now that the survey is done and his comment has been immortalized in the NAJP's report, "The Visual Art Critic" (published on-line at www.najp.org), Elkins says "there's a confusing antecedent" in his quote. The know-nothing target audiences are not the New York Times and New Yorker readers. Otherwise, he stands by it. And while he's got some bones to pick with the survey itself--a piece of "American-style quantitative sociology," deluded in its assumption of "unimpeachable accuracy"--he's found, with a certain thrill, that it validates a theory he's been working on for a while. According to Elkins, we are awash in "a kind of art criticism that essentially tries to avoid judgment." This spineless commentary, which he calls "descriptive art criticism," first turned up in the late 1950s and by now has eclipsed the evaluative work that used to be what criticism was all about. He's writing a book on the subject--to be titled "What Happened to Art Criticism?" and due out next spring--and the survey came along just in time to give him statistical ammunition.

The NAJP, based at the Columbia University School of Journalism (currently suffering its own identity crisis), polled 169 critics from 96 daily newspapers, 34 alternative weeklies, and 3 national newsmagazines last March. (Among the findings: critics think SAIC is the most influential art school in the country; Chicago is a weak third behind New York and Los Angeles in the contest for most vital visual arts scene; and the fifth-best art magazine is the dear, departed New Art Examiner.) Working from the questionable assumption that the visual arts "are big news" because they've "experienced a period of dynamic growth and professionalization over the past two decades" (what hasn't?), the NAJP set out to discover "whether the popular news media provide sufficient exposure for artists, arts institutions and the ideas that govern their work."

You don't need a survey to answer that question from the art world's point of view (and no other viewpoint is evident), but never mind. What "The Visual Art Critic" delivers is a rough sketch of a sorry lot. With unsurprising variation for age, sex, and venue (daily or weekly; large circulation or small), the critics are well-educated whites with mainstream taste (they like painting and photography, Rauschenberg and Johns) and an acute case of insecurity. Misfits in the newsroom, more than half are freelancers and more than a third think they wouldn't be replaced if they quit their jobs. (About the same number think "too much" art is being made and shown.) Thirty-eight percent of those at daily newspapers and 64 percent at alternative weeklies earn something between $15,000 a year and nothing. They can't afford to (and may not care to) uphold journalistic ethics: they make and show their own art, curate and judge exhibitions, write commissioned copy for catalogs, and hold down jobs in the field they're covering. Nearly half of them believe it's OK to accept a gift of work once in a while from an artist they've written about.

The really grievous part of the survey, Elkins says, is a list of 58 authors the critics were asked to rate for their influence. Clement Greenberg, Susan Sontag, Robert Hughes, and Peter Schjeldahl came out on top, and Elkins himself showed up as a write-in. He thinks the list was "too miscellaneous," failed to account for ideas (as opposed to merely recognizable names), and prompted people to respond in certain ways--with some wild results. Jacques Derrida and Sister Wendy show up together on a list of authors widely known by critics but not important to them, while the New York Times's Michael Kimmelman ranks just ahead of Immanuel Kant in a group of theorists the critics find influential. On the other hand, a section devoted to "mission" strikes Elkins as remarkably accurate. Only 27 percent of the critics think it's important to have an opinion about work they review. Instead, they're intent on description, historical information, and "creating a piece of writing with literary value," none of which, Elkins maintains, is quintessential critical activity. The critic's traditional duty and glory--forming and expressing a judgment--ranks rock-bottom on their list of priorities. So what does he think about that? "It's not right to judge the lack of judgment," he warns. "The question is really how to understand it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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