What Should Art Criticism Do?

Selections from Track Changes: A Handbook for Art Criticism

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Track Changes: A Handbook for Art Criticism comes out tomorrow from Paper Monument, n+1’s contemporary art imprint. Edited by Mira Dayal and Josephine Heston, the anthology is a collective response to a set of ongoing questions: What makes an art-writing practice or an editorial process feminist? How do critics and editors of color find entry points, guidance, and support in an art world that has long prioritized straight, white, male writers, artists, and readers? How do we decide which artists to uphold or critique, and how do we understand the impact of our critiques? What agendas do writers and editors operate under?

Structured as a handbook, Track Changes gathers texts by twenty-five art writers and editors, exploring all stages of the art writing process—pitching, commissioning, writing, editing, and publishing—and sharing strategies that encourage solidarity and reparative decision-making to actively challenge structural inequalities within the art world.

The book is available for purchase from the n+1 bookstore.

Pitching with Collaborative Solidarity—Toward the Artist, with Wonder

Writing is a solitary practice; writing about art, lonelier still. I might spend days deliberating over the right words, crawling toward what feels right and exploring something that might’ve been better untouched by my perspective. But I am never truly alone when I write. The writers I love, those worldview-shapers, hover at my shoulder; behind them sits an invisible audience of the artists themselves.

When I’m granted the privilege of choice, the option to pitch what I’d like to cover, I think about collaboration—I engage with work for which I feel deeply and through which I can share ideas that the artist might be able to mine. I build one half of an imagined epistolary dialogue, a humble offering to the artist.

I recently read “Critic in Crisis,” an essay by James McAnally for MARCH. McAnally advocates for the strategic critic who responds to a need for solidarity and transformation: “Too often, [criticism] harms without repair, or reifies the institution as inevitable. It bludgeons with no trace of solidarity.” Writing to or for the artist, as if in collaboration, will not resolve these issues, but it removes the critic from a solitary mode of address. Considering the artist—beyond the institutions that may support an artist in service of the institution’s own contexts and ideologies, and beyond the true or supposed indispensability of the critic themselves—might situate the text somewhere new, somewhere away from institutions altogether. I write this way by choice, but also by necessity—without an art-historical background, I try to move from a place of care and interest, without perceived authority.

For any writer, access to a publication is valuable—it enables you to work. Clout, though, is a cruel receipt. The problem is not influence or clout itself—that would be reductive—but rather the perpetuation (often by those with some widely acknowledged stature) of gatekeeping, competition, and hierarchical narratives. When a writer has access to such publications, it is therefore imperative to utilize the given space responsibly, with care and respect. Share it. How might one navigate this tension of contributing to a publication that also serves as a gatekeeper throughout the initial process of pitching a story?

1. What will you pitch? With whom do you want to engage in world-building? Whose work provokes even fleeting excitement, a kernel of alacrity that might bloom later, on the page? I am drawn to work that addresses some kind of underbelly or root system, such as the dynamics of local ecosystems or the previously untold histories of a place. I am thinking here of Maren Hassinger’s 2019 Tree of Knowledge installation at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, which helped tell the story of the Black farming communities that established the surrounding neighborhood, or of the work of the artist—and my friend—Jamilah Sabur, who considers borderlessness by looking to tectonic plates, underwater ridges, the unseen but deep formations of land invisibly connecting so many of us. Some artists’ questions focus on the very specific—a language, a single tree, a neighborhood, an ancestral memory—and, in turn, frankly upend my own previously held notions, which at once dissolve or expand. I think of the ecstatic, often collaborative work of Edgar Fabián Frías, who is also a psychotherapist; their installations and performances are inclusive, delightful, and warm, so the participant leaves feeling at least a little bit changed from how they felt an hour prior. The practice of the artist, filmmaker, and poet Cristine Brache—again, a friend—is visceral; the inherent strangeness and sadness of living feel nearly tangible, even in the archival footage of a short film. Slowly, artists like these crack small parts of the world open; they may challenge long-told anecdotes, presumed authorities, or even the very institution housing the work. This is what I want to support, if only for the selfish reason that it makes me feel excited, intimidated, new. This is how I begin to respond to work, build on it, affirm it.

2. In developing your angle, consider whose stories you believe in and whom you might try to uplift. What if you want to touch the work, to reject the historical, patriarchal positioning of the critic as hierarchically separate from and intellectually superior to the art object? You may be writing a review, but in imagining yourself writing to the artist, perhaps you are expanding on the notions they’re exploring—considering the examples given above, maybe you, too, will relearn the history of a place, a language, a figure. Your previous understandings, your sense of self, the emotive qualities of the work and their impact, the potentiality of all these forces and beliefs become unexpected angles and places of research. Imagine the artist reading it: what do you want them to see, to learn themselves?

3. Ask yourself: Is this a story you can—or should—tell? Consider the capitalistic illusion of unlimited capacity projected onto all cultural producers. As one of few arts writers in a “small” city, I feel the pressure to help showcase as many local artists as I can, as often as I can, while maintaining critical distance. As a person with chronic physical pain, I’ve developed more compassion for my limitations. Write what you can tend to with care. Also consider your own voice. You will never share the lived experience of the artist; remain mindful of the space you’re taking up and the lenses through which you approach their work. Can you interview the artist before you write? Can you explore together? If you can’t, how might you write with a sense of sympathetic consciousness toward their work, their view? If the artist is no longer living, what would you like to have said to them? Critique or praise is naturally transformed when it comes from a place of interest, of attention, of at least attempted understanding. How has the work moved you? Challenged you? Maybe you write about this in a way that’s personal. Maybe you simply write from that place of attunement.

4. You can maintain a sense of distance in your pitch with the understanding that your identities and relations will inevitably inform what you’re writing. If you have some relationship to the artist, some emotional investment, acknowledging that is important; it will help an editor decide if your position is the one they are seeking, and later, it may help an editor probe your blind spots. It may also indicate your ability to translate and measure the artist’s intentions—sometimes the emotional investment that accompanies an existing relationship can inhibit the writing, while in other instances, it might facilitate it. This is exciting.

5. Within your pitch, you don’t have to decode or elucidate the work for the editor. You can state your desire to explore, query, and investigate the work through the act of writing. (This might be easier to do once you have established a relationship with an editor, who can then trust you to explore with rigor.) Maintain your curiosity.

6. Relish the moments when your conversations build on the work, when it feels like your perspectives have broadened from your dialogue. In 2021, I interviewed the multidisciplinary artist Natalia Lassalle-Morillo about Retiro, a hybrid film-performance project she created collaboratively with her mother, Gloria Morillo Cabán. Lassalle-Morillo is from Puerto Rico, the place of my own mother’s birth; in discussing the project, the artist taught me about my ancestry and, in turn, recognized and defined inspirations for the work she hadn’t yet located—though they were always there, always with her. The generosity of sharing can extend the contours of an idea. Like a spiral, I read her, she read me; the imprint of what we learned now exists, unwittingly, in a web of relations.

—Monica Uszerowicz

On Bad Art(s Writing)

When writing on black artists, we often have an agenda: Demonstrate an anti-racist critical discourse in which the artist’s depth and complexity is fully illuminated. We are often writing in the wake of white writers who misread, misinterpret, or altogether ignore black artists; writers who perpetuate false binaries between high and low art, art and popular culture, and art and activism; and writers who don’t take basic steps to research the histories, techniques, and vocabularies with which black artists are working. Such art criticism often says more about the enduring ignorance and laziness of white supremacist discourse than it does about the formal and conceptual concerns of black artists. The stakes of writing about black artists can feel especially high in these conditions. We often write from a defensive position, worrying that critique might give people more tools with which to misread and/or denigrate black artists. Critics working from a place of white fragility can be afraid to generate critiques for fear of looking like they don’t know what they’re talking about or of appearing to be racist. The pressure can be intensified when we are writing in small and midsize cities, and when we are circulating in tight-knit arts communities: We fear our writing will be taken as a personal attack and/or will have direct consequences on artists’ capacities to fund, create, and exhibit their work.

Our commitments to developing rich, critically informed writing on black artists can come up against an interesting burden, though: chronic positivity. When black artists—and minoritarian artists, more broadly—do not receive critical writing that engages the formal and conceptual intricacies of their work, and points out what could make the work stronger, they are susceptible to constant praise that can become tokenizing. That constant praise often comes from seemingly progressive, radical, anti-racist, decolonial, feminist, etc. circles that are paradoxically too invested in the progress narratives, respectability politics, and/or celebrity cultures of the capitalist art market to provide real dissent. Art criticism that refuses to critique contributes to a negative feedback loop in which artists and the discourse around them stagnates.

There are, of course, many reasons we may want to critique black work, and these reasons are not exclusive of black art and artists. Sometimes the work could be sharper in its formal execution. We might have concerns about the conceptual genealogies or aims of the work. We might be tasked with writing about an artist who is a known abuser, or has what we feel are “bad” politics, or performs a marketable blackness that we feel capitulates to the art market’s voracious appetite for easily consumable difference. The challenge is how to richly detail artists’ aesthetic concerns while skillfully and strategically drawing out historical and contextual information to make an informed critique. Such strategizing can only happen after we have plotted our own relationships to (the politics of) blackness, and after we have acknowledged and attended to the expectations we have of black art and artists.

Great arts writing subsequently depends on a belief that race has an effect on the production and circulation of art. Great arts writing is responsively fleshed out through carefully conducted research, and is necessarily self-reflexive. It also depends on and thrives among people and institutions who believe that critique is a form of care, to use Mandy Harris Williams’s language: “Earnest social and cultural critique is, and always will be, the desire to get to the bottom of the thing for the liberation of truth and therefore, all people involved.” Critique is a method of holding one another to the highest standard, and the material labor of arts writing “forms necessary data for the efforts at redesigning society towards more caring and liberated ends.” Put another way, arts writing can and should be an effort to wield critical thought in the service of a more just society. Practicing critique as a form of care disabuses us of the belief in objectivity that still plagues arts discourse, and honors moments when we want more: from a work, from an artist, from a community, from an institution. Let’s orient to these moments not as a lack but as pressure points of vulnerability that produce (our) desire(s). In doing so, we implicate ourselves as writers in ways that might generate more ethical, holistic systems in which the work of black artists is engaged in all their complexity.

—Kemi Adeyemi

On Queer Feminist Critique

I don’t think I knew what art criticism was until I started writing it; certainly, I didn’t know any art critics, nor what the job entailed. I studied art history in college and learned over time how to look closely at objects—to not only describe but analyze, assess and ascertain meanings, values, virtues, and so on. I can’t say that this naiveté was particularly beneficial, but I have been tremendously lucky in that my very first editors and readers, all artists, friends, and mentors, were all unfailingly kind.

Each of those people has also contributed in some way to the expansive and illuminating ethos of what I see as queer feminist criticism, the framework that has facilitated so much of my thinking. I’ll stress here that while not all these people would identify as queer or as queer feminists, they have all imparted its central lesson: that the problem of not knowing is instead a problem of what it means to know at all. For a while, what not knowing meant for me was not knowing how to translate what I felt or saw or understood about art into text that felt engaging; as I write more, it has become a matter of learning how to trust my own judgments, how to be honest. These days, I find myself trying to take what I have learned from queer feminists to try to write with the kind of urgency and empathy that drew me to this field in the first place.

What a queer feminist mode of critique has entailed for me as a writer is working through all the incidents when what I ostensibly hope to assess or analyze squirms away, fleeing my attempts to pin it down, to say the right thing. While writing about performances where the bodies of the performers are put at risk of real, physical injury, or about paintings that redefine kitsch and bad taste, or on films that suture the sublime and the grotesque, I am placed in a position wherein I confront my prejudices, the limits of my understanding, and the bounds of my knowledge. I think it’s important to do your research as a critic, to understand the terrain of what you wish you comment on, but practically speaking, I know that research is my main form of procrastination, an exercise in avoidance disguised as productivity. It’s natural to want to know everything before you form your own opinions, and an informed opinion is better than its counterpart, but research can also instill paranoia. It’s far better, and easier, to approach writing criticism with the conviction that every assignment, every essay, no matter the subject, will teach you something you didn’t plan to learn.

By queer feminist criticism, then, I mean criticism that renounces any separation of the affective from the political, that is less interested in excavating, uncovering, or denuding its object from the mysteries shrouding it than in posing questions about the value, labor, and circulation of art right alongside questions of sensation, solidarity, and attachment. When confronted with art—whether objects, experiences, or the loose ends of sensations instantiated by people who seek to shift the registers of our perception in some way, however small—the critic who takes seriously the project of queer feminism is obligated to allow for the possibility that the very frameworks with which they are armed to assess and analyze may in fact be completely futile.

I don’t mean to advocate for an unfettered surrender to the mysticism of art, nor do I think that queer feminism is all about epistemic humility. Much of what drives me to continue reading and writing criticism is the understanding that criticism doesn’t serve to affirm what I already know or believe to be true. I find such a mode of criticism both desultory and stultifying in its smug refusal to admit that what art does best is to take us in directions previously unplanned and leave us with questions rather than answers.

For so long, my aesthetic judgments—my purported “taste”—defined a key part of my character, but when I found myself weeping at the end of a tour of a lesbian feminist haunted house, or talking to a group of artists who recounted their time marching through the streets with video cameras to force the government to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, and then trying to find the words to capture those experiences, I recognized that there was so much I had yet to learn about art, about criticism, about myself. These were people who encouraged me to continue asking the questions that guide me today. I’m still trying to get it right.

—Tausif Noor

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