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Nut Up Or Shut Up: The Artist As Critic

Re-posted as part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine” Originally published October, 2009

Jeriah Hildwine

"Nut up or shut up" - Woody Harrelson, Zombieland (2009)

"Nut up or shut up" - Woody Harrelson, Zombieland (2009)

It is a strange relationship that exists between artists and critics, with critics reliant upon artists for their prima materia, while artists begrudgingly covet the praise and recognition of the critics.  With the rising popularity of art blogs, however, full-time critics are no longer the sole purveyors of this attention, and some of their duties are being assumed by art bloggers and fellow artists.

Some art blogs, like Art Fag City, are run by full-time writers.  Many art bloggers, however, are themselves artists:  Bad At Sports resident blogger Meg Onli is herself a practicing artist, whose work I recently reviewed on The Gallery Crawl And So Much More… The Gallery Crawl is itself run by my wife Stephanie Burke, herself a photographer.  Stephanie and I both also write for Art Talk Chicago and the Chicago Art Map, both run by Kathryn Born, who is a writer of poetry and fiction as well as of art criticism.  Whether or not this chain eventually leads to Kevin Bacon, I’m not sure.

When artists write art criticism, an apparent paradox occurs, as the artist and the critic, widely believed to be natural enemies, become one.  It could be argued that the skills necessary to criticize art (a mixture of philosophy, rhetoric, critical theory, and writing) are different from those necessary in its making.  This may be true in terms of inclinations and predispositions to aptitude, but just about every artist since Warhol has been expected to execute and defend his or her own work within a critical framework.  If an artist today finds a critical apparatus necessary to the making of his or her own work, why should that apparatus not be applied to the work of others?

Just as Roosevelt says it is the critic “who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” it is the artist “who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

An artist’s criticism of another artist’s work is held in tension between camaraderie and competition, between “I know what it’s like” and “I could do better.”  All artists share a bond, as we have passed through the same fire.  This experience makes us admire skilled and intelligent solutions but makes us skeptical of easy answers and obvious shortcuts.  A full-time critic can learn these distinctions, and the best of them do, but there is always something different between knowing a thing to be true (because you have learned it) and understanding the thing (because you have done it).

There is the concern of whether an artist might be reluctant to criticize harshly an exhibition at a gallery with whom he or she might want to show in the future.  My solution is simple:  I don’t write about bad work.  This may sound at first like a bit of a cop-out, but I don’t think so.  As much fun as it would be to write a review of something terrible, there really isn’t much point beyond the gratification of talking shit.  When writing for Art Talk Chicago, this is a non-issue; ATC doesn’t publish straight-up negative reviews.  But when writing elsewhere, I could trash bad work if I wanted to.  I choose not to, and for two reasons.  The first is that, yes, I would be reluctant to say something harsh about a show at a gallery with whom I might want to show.  Secondly, however, and far more importantly, is that I think that the best response to bad work is to ignore it.  There is enough good work out there, especially in a city like Chicago, deserving of far more attention than it receives, that a writer should have no need to review mediocre work.

Attention, after all, is a commodity:  that free booze the galleries hand out every Friday night isn’t really free; they’re buying your attention.  As an artist, I want exposure, I want attention.  Don’t we all?  As a viewer, and even more so as a critic, I am on the opposite side of that equation.  As a viewer and reader, so are you.  Our attention, our eyes, are the commodity that galleries, and artists, covet.  It is our attention that gives good artists the semi-celebrity status that allows them (and their galleries) to sell work for thousands or even millions.  Critics’ praise and viewers’ attention is what creates the market; we trade our attention for free booze and a free art-viewing experience.

Unlike reviews of products or of popular culture such as music and film, where the reviewer acts to advise the reader whether a given product is worth the reader’s money or not, reviews of art serve to get more people out there looking at art, and giving those people a better understanding of what they’re seeing.  Full-time critics might do well to dissect and in some cases dismiss mediocre work, but artists writing about the work of their peers might do best to simply draw attention to work that deserves it.

Full-time critics still have a role to play, and letting us know when shows are overrated is part of that role. It should not typically be regarded, however, like a review in any other field, where we are advised to avoid a piece of film, music, or literature. When Jerry Saltz describes Daniel Birnbaum’s curatorial choices at the Venice Biennale as being basically conservative and as-expected for a biennial these days, I can’t imagine that he’s suggesting that anyone otherwise considering attending the Venice Biennale cancel their travel plans. Rather, it takes the pulse of things, offers guidance for artists (and curators) contemplating their next move, and gives viewers some context for understanding what they’re seeing.

Artists writing criticism can do much the same thing.  We can express our admiration for our peers who are doing good work, and we can question decisions of which we are skeptical.  I don’t think of myself as a critic; I go out, I look at art, and I report on what I see that I like.  My main motive is to make people aware of what’s out there, and to motivate them to get out there and see it; any actual criticism that occurs is incidental to this goal.  Other artist-critics in Chicago do more real criticism:  Bert Stabler and Steve Kush Ruiz come to mind.  I’ve seen Stabler’s work at Home Gallery and recently at Antena, and I also reviewed his curatorial project Salad-Church-Exercise.  I’ve only recently become aware of Ruiz’s work, through his website and his criticism blog.  Both are good examples of artists who fit comfortably into the critic’s hat as well, and they are a welcome addition to Chicago’s local criticism scene.