Let us agree that art matters (because it moves). Let us ponder instead the practice of evaluating art. As it stands, art is valued by its popularity, price, and individual aesthetic. But before art has an audience, it must have advocates. Better yet, critics who’ll describe, interpret and evaluate it.
The critic is a knowledgeable art enthusiast drawn from the ranks of fellow artists, art enthusiasts as well as specialized journalists and intellectuals. Their role and influence are informed by their perspective, depth of analysis, breadth of audience, the zeitgeist of their time and so forth.
Today’s critic must decide what to evaluate and how. Should criticism interrogate the style of an artwork? Allusions in its content? Biography of the artist? The socio-political environment in which the art is received? Yes. Should the critic choose one or more of these criteria? Sure. Should the critic—Why not? After all, art criticism is but a well-formed argument, valid as long as it is defensible but always vulnerable to rebuttal.
If art criticism is a matter of opinion, why do we need critics to mediate between the audience and the artist? Shouldn’t it suffice to like what we like and let the art speak for itself?
Many factors necessitate the critic. The abundance of art produces intermediaries who curate the public’s artistic experience by admitting and rejecting artworks. Art institutions, dealers, curators, and critics are gatekeepers whose influence defines and upholds what is canon. For many, the resulting hierarchy signals merit. But artworks are also filtered by what’s in fashion, celebrity, financial viability and the idiosyncrasies of agents who interact with them. This stagnant gatekeeping sustains a self-replicating mainstream. But by the same mechanisms that art criticism creates the mainstream, it can elevate fringe art to attention and acclaim.
In the absence of critics, the market determines the value of art. Artistic endeavor is all but reduced to someone else’s willingness to purchase its product. Coupled with the politics of whose art gets to market, artists risk obscurity and the audience is denied a pluralistic view of things.
But if the the artist’s labor finds alibi in the critic, then the critic’s must find alibi in the audience. Both artist and critic are valued by their visuality. It is vital for each player in the game to not just like but elevate what they like by whatever currency is in their possession: creativity, money and attention.
S. Agatoni writes about what moves her on her blog(thatkigalikid) and elsewhere. She is most moved by the meeting point of work and beauty, in places ranging from film and television to data visualization. Her most precious material possessions are her books, deck of playing cards, and passport.