How Arts Criticism Needs to Change

Posted filed underCriticism, Discussions.

“Criticism today is not about delivering truths from on high, but about striking a spark that lights a debate. The way I think about my work, and about art, is infinitely more plural and ambiguous than it was in 2006″, writes Jonathan Jones in his latest column for The Guardian and he has started quite a discussion over there.

The age of the art critic as an unassailable voice of authority is long gone. Jonathan Jones recalls his rude awakening to the force of digital debate, and the era of readers biting back: “Six years ago, in the days when newspaper critics were just beginning to blog as a regular part of their work, I tried to do something like it in print. I wrote a highly personal article for G2 about how much I disliked the work of the artist Ron Mueck, adding for good measure that his fans “need[ed] to get out more”. At the end of the article, quaintly, my editor published my email address, inviting readers to get in touch with me directly. The initial deluge of messages was evenly divided between furious Mueck admirers, and those who sympathised with my disdain (his work was “brainless” model-making, I wrote). Six years on, the hate mail still arrives (as the years go by, it is Mueck’s fans who are most likely to Google him; my article sits like a piece of virtual graffiti alongside his Wikipedia entry).

Reading that piece now, I feel embarrassed – not because I feel any warmer towards Mueck’s work, but because the way I think about art criticism has changed. That aggressive, cocksure, dismissive voice, determined to prove that my opinion was worth more than my readers’ (“Here’s what I think you think … I just don’t think you see enough art”). What was I thinking? Criticism in the age of social media has to be much more playful and giving.

Back then, I thought of myself as an Art Critic (or “Mr Pissy Snob Art Critic”, as I had it in that article), following a tradition established for me (and many other journalists) by the great critic Robert Hughes. Wanting to be Hughes was always a foolish ambition, because there is only one supremely eloquent and intelligent Australian satirist of contemporary art in the world. Yet it is also an irresistible one, if you admire his essays as I do (especially the classic collection Nothing If Not Critical), and if you are given the opportunity to write about art. In my Mueck review, that longing was obvious. But in today’s more open forum – where people answer back, and where people often know more than I do – it becomes more and more absurd to claim such august authority for one’s opinions.”

Read on at The Guardian.

• Jonathan Jones is also leading a session called Pictures We Think We Know at the Guardian Open Weekend. Which artworks would you like to discuss?