A Few Ideas about Art Criticism: Part 1

Philip Guston, “Painter III” (1963)

Somehow, I got the idea, I think it was from a Greek, that it is my “duty to praise the good”—which sounds simple, but isn’t.
Out of laziness, narcissism, jealousy or just enjoying something for myself without telling anyone else about it or thinking others won’t care or only special people or friends will be interested—there are so many reasons that “the good” goes uncelebrated.

It seems to me self-evident that the bad and the less good should also be analyzed or there is no purpose to art criticism. The history of painting is a kind of dialogue; artists are continually adopting ideas from the past and the present and rejecting others, often working in opposition to the popular and overused. It seems to me that the dialogue is about how we see, what we see and about feelings that we can only try to describe and everyone might could participate.

A friend from Appalachia told me that people there say “might could” instead of “should”. It’s less annoying.

Alex Katz, “Self-Portrait (Passing)” (1990)

I start with how I feel when I look at a painting and then I try to figure out why. That is all there is to it. I reject authority, my own and others. Painting is way too important for that. I welcome disagreement with what are essentially—only my opinions.
People have asked me “Why don’t you just write about what you like?”
That’s why.

It was a fringe idea in the 80s that it was “kinder” to ignore artists who you don’t think are good. Now it’s doctrine. This is a dangerous idea—it infantilizes visual artists—if you try to take it in the very best sense of how it was first meant.
I haven’t heard anyone say that politicians should not be criticized—don’t they have feelings?

Artists have been ignored for many reasons: gender, race, class—isn’t this just another one? Instead of the critic being forced to come to grips with what they don’t like and tell us the reasons why, they can feel good about themselves, they aren’t meanies!—and avoid being wrong except by the lesser sin of omission.


Eric Fischl, “Face Off” (2017)

This idea of “kinder to ignore” keeps unknown artists from being taken seriously but it’s just as bad or worse that critics don’t criticize the powerful and successful artists of our time.  The simple truth seems to be that they are afraid to.

When the magazines and the newspapers were funded with subscriptions, critics took the point of view of the viewer. Now the money that galleries pay for ads supports the art sections and the critic takes their point of view, gets fired or quits.
Criticism in other fields takes the part of the audience. Who would continue to read a music, food or movie critic who didn’t?
It doesn’t work if you care about painting and it’s so sad to me that most people don’t. They think that the critics are shills and the artists are narcissists and paintings are only a luxury item for rich collectors. I have not found one person who is not involved in the visual arts who reads the art reviews.

Anne Harvey, “Wine Decanter and Garlic”

A dealer asked me why my reviews are short. My joking answer is, “My reader’s attention spans are short.” Mine is, certainly. But I also said I’d like to get people interested who are not in the art world and he said, “That’s not going to happen.” Ouch.

It’s true that the rich, no I mean the ultra-rich, are the main buyers of paintings. They seem to have convinced people that the paintings they don’t buy have no value. But their ideas are destroying everything. Why are the rest of us letting them? They own multiple houses during a homeless crisis, ride around in their private jets, buy politicians; the list of their destructive behaviors could go on and on.
More to the point for this essay, they amp the value of paintings because for them the paintings are assets. They are also being used for money laundering, and donated for tax deductions that make the donor appear charitable. Obviously the collectors have a real interest in maintaining the value of these assets and they have the money to discourage real criticism.

Dan Schein, “The Skepticism of the Angry Man Landed Him in a Mire of Gloom and Doom” (2016)

To the artists: are you afraid of a critical word? Outraged, even? Have you built a fortress around yourself so that nobody will dare to say that your work is not moving—for them? Or that some of your paintings work and some don’t?
We are not comedians who instantly know if people don’t laugh and have a fine discrimination between real laughs and pity laughs. Somebody needs to trust us enough to tell us their feelings. The art that people care about is the art they talk and argue about.

Here I’ll say a word of appreciation for the Mike Weiss Gallery. And to Dan Schein who wrote and thanked me for a pretty mixed review in 2016 and the gallery put the review on their website. Unfortunately, the gallery closed in 2016 too. But that wasn’t my fault, was it?

Here is Schein’s letter:
“Dear Cathy,
I came across your” talking pictures” piece on my show at Mike Weiss.
Just wanted to say, thank you for taking the time to look at the work and write your thoughts, interpretations and criticisms.
Interesting read.  🙂
It is nice to know that someone looked at the works for longer than a fleeting 3 seconds.

I write almost exclusively about painting because it speaks to me. I might occasionally like an installation but I have no ideas about them, what makes them good or bad and it’s the same for sculpture. I don’t think this is unusual in other forms. There are critics who write about the theater, but not ballet, music critics who specialize in jazz or classical and never both.

I would love to hear your comments whether agreements or even better, objections. Please write  a letter to the editor here.

This article has been illustrated with paintings I have written about. Links are provided below.



Philip Guston: : The In-Between Years at Hauser and Wirth

Eric Fischl: Eric Fischl and the Big Uneasy

Alex Katz: Walking Uphill With Alex Katz at the Guggenheim

Anne Harvey: The Intricate Modernism of Anne Harvey

Dan Schein: Narrative Painting Part I: Dan Schein’s “Where Do We Dump the Bodies?”