This week at the L Magazine, I wonder why we bother. Most art’s crap, and everybody knows it; can a case be made for the bad review?
Contrary to popular belief, writing negative reviews isn’t much fun. Sure, there’s pleasure in coming up with the perfect put-down for an overblown art star, but by and large you’re attacking working professionals doing an already difficult job. You feel like an asshole, even when you’re sensitive, even when you’re apologetic, and even when the artist’s dealer calls you up to compliment you on the review (as has happened to L Mag Art Editor Paddy Johnson). Peter Schjeldahl, the current art critic for the New Yorker and a master of the negative review, decided he was sick of criticism in 1976. In the lengthy poem he wrote to say goodbye, he pours word after word into an apology for every time “I mistook my hand-me-down taste / for the light of election, and poured ink on the worthy.” Like every good critic, he’s specific: “That supercilious dismissal of William Baziotes—horrible,” he writes, “Jim Dine, how could I, Joan Snyder, how could I … Richard Hamilton, where did I get off?” It’s a poem every critic—art or otherwise—should read in full.
Besides which, negative criticism is not an effective vehicle for change. In Don Thompson’s book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, celebrity megacritic Jerry Saltz tells the author, “I can write that work is bad and it has little-to-no-effect, and I can write it is good and the same thing will happen.” Unless you’re at the absolute top—Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith at the Times, and… okay, that’s it—any negativity is likely to be written off or drowned out. After all, you’re working in an industry where every single other person, from curators and dealers to advisors and collectors, is essentially in the business of producing hype. If you want to change an artist’s practice, an MFA is a whole lot more efficient than a bad review.
Don’t worry, we don’t take our own advice. To read the full piece, click here.