Who gets reviewed by art critics?

Who Gets Reviewed: Behind the Scenes at the Arts and Culture Desk


What happens to art that falls into a critical no-man's land.


Recently, Dawoud Bey wrote an editorial about the type of art that makes it into the big leagues. I won't get into all the details, but it angered a lot of people for a few reasons and I pulled it from the site.

But in the spirit of discussion, I want to take Dawoud out of the equation and re-frame the argument. Because the reality is that the issue has nothing to do with race or neighborhood, but a system in play that controls what art that gets reviewed, and what gets ignored. Aspects of Dawoud's stance were not his own, it's the sentiment held by 90% of the critics in the Chicago area. So let's take a look at the current system, discuss the system, instead of spending energy trying to kill the messenger.

So below is the argument. Then my opinion on what is valid, and

suggestions I propose as a path going forward. 


There are lots of different kinds of art, but I break it down into some basic categories (although it's more complicated than that, lots of stuff crosses over). But for the sake of discussion let's call artwork either challenging art, or decorative art. Decorative art isn't bad art, it's not simple art - it can be amazing, thoughtful and professional work. But my definition of decorative art is that it works in the home. A "normal" mid-western family home, a home that doesn't want to appear weird, bizarre, or so far afield that you can't distinguish the light switches from the conceptual art they collect.  Decorative art, for the sake of this post, is simply beautiful artwork that amplifies the homes attractiveness.

Challenging art, sometimes thought of as "high art" generally doesn't belong in the home unless you have a fairly open idea of decor, and visiting in-laws who are comfortable with strange terrain. One example of non-decorative work is a painting I saw at Monique Meloche many years ago. It was an oil painting of a young woman, smoking something out of a bong, and she was sitting in a position where you could see she wasn't wearing panties. This is not decorative work. Yes, it's an oil painting, yes, it's a portrait, but if you're quickly taking it down from the wall because when your mom just popped in, it's not decorative art (based on my definition).

Critics like challenging art. That's their bag. They don't review decorative art. Here's an example, Palette and Chisel, http://www.paletteandchisel.org/ has great classes and fine art is produced there. They exhibit the artists' work. No one reviews it. Ever.

 Then there is a third, very controversial type of art that doesn't fit into either category - Outsider Art. This featured work by un-trained artist who created intuitive work without the influences of mass culture. Reverend Howard Finster is a classic example http://www.finster.com/. But here's the point I'm making - once he got famous and started flying around on airplanes, the artwork he made became (financially) worthless. He suddenly wasn't outsider enough and, like decorative art.. his work fell into a critical no-man's land

 Those are the basics of what critics review and what they don't. Also, one other point about art coverage -- there is a difference between a review and a feature. Features are articles about the artist or gallery, but criticism is different, it's written by an art expert, and was designed to separate the museum-track artists from the non, and I'll go back to that later. Any artist trying to make it big wants reviews, not write-ups.

So that's the basics of the system for art reviews in print media.

But here's the issue at the eye of the storm, and my opinion. It's still biased. It's still racially biased, geographically biased and editorially biased. It's not the objective system it's portrayed as. Certain groups and venues have the ear of editors. They know how to market shows to attract critics, they write essays with lots of academic jargon that puts the work into a critical framework. In my humble opinion, there is a game that's played and it's not a totally fair game. I see awful art reviewed and good art ignored. And yes, right or wrong, most of the stuff that the critics are writing about today is done by artist with MFA's. 

 It's also my personal, and extremely unpopular view, that decorative art (as defined above), has a place at the critical table, and so do artists who aren't in a robust support system that's helping them climb the art world ladder. I could write a whole post about that, but this is already getting too long.

So what's the solution? Again, my opinion.  

1. The art critics and editors need to open their eyes, go to new areas and new venues, and look beyond the usual circle they run in.

2. Grassroots, Do-it-yourself art writing on the Internet is the future.I saw a list of local art review blogs (NOT personal blogs by artists about their own work, but reviewing the work of others). I looked at the list and asked myself, "Where is the blog about Latino artists in Chicago? Where is the blog dedicated exclusively to South Side art?" It doesn't seem to exist. It needs to.


Finally, to go back to the point about art critics - I'll say "be careful what you wish for". As Joyce joked in the comment on 6/29 of her last post -- http://bit.ly/3HzhbM

- - she's right. The whole system of art critics is in question. The art critic of yesteryear, who anointed Art Stars, who decides who's cool and who's not, is dying out. In the old days, if the right critic said you were great, it meant something. Today - not so much. The Tribune cut their full-time art critic with no intention of replacing him. The Reader used to list all the exhibits opening over the weekend, but no more. Print media is in trouble and online, DIY stuff is starting to gain power.

 So there ya go. That's my op-ed.


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  • Palette & Chisel: "No one reviews it. Ever."

    Newcity has reviewed it on several occasions

    Dawoud's essay was articulate and nuanced. It should go back up.

  • ah Kathryn, methinks you are going to get into a lot of trouble here. Who is to decide what is decorative (ok, i read kitsch here) or not? Greenberg tried to tell us what it was, and he was probably right for the most part but who wants to go back to that era?

    I agree with Jason, Dawoud's essay clarified what the situation is and should go back up. Maybe the regional and cultural stuff confused some of the issues he raised, but in essence, he was right on in terms of what gets coverage and what doesn't.

    Also, Jason is one of the few critics in town who gets out there to see what is up, and is not afraid to cover it all. He has been a complete breath of fresh air and we need to support (read-buy advertising!) in New City to show it.

  • I to am sorry Dawoud's essay was taken down.
    As I wrote on the New City blog. Some artist don't understand what category they fit in. They feel they should have their 15 minutes just like other artist who have worked hard to understand the system and can also support their work. This is a sad reflection of how some artist really don't understand the art world.
    However, I do think the system itself is flawed.

  • Just so that everyone is clear, Kathryn pulled my essay down with my consent. The comments that were coming in at that point were becoming increasingly incendiary and vitriolic, and at least one was libelous and not at all on a level of civil or informed discourse. Mostly they attempted to besmirch my character in response to what they saw as an attack on their character. I mentioned no one by name in my essay and would never do so as it reduces the conversation to a very debased level. I am interested in debating ideas not demeaning individuals. I thought Jason had done as excellent job in trying to grapple with this issue in NewCity. Had the responses been more varied I might have seen some benefit in keeping the post up. As it was the most informed responses were sent to me privately at my e-mail address. I have no desire to be David singly facing down an angry Goliath. I guess this is too difficult a conversation to have in public here in the Windy City. I will continue writing about other issues and leave this conversation to others who may want to--and should-- weigh in.

  • testing comments

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    Aaagh! Well one thing I'll say is that part of the reason sparks were flying is because this site is so buggy, half the people who wanted to comment couldn't register or comment! Including me for the last half hour!!

    I wrote a whole thing that just got lost.

    Here is the retraction http://bit.ly/XyRZf that might help shed some light.

    The whole thing, frankly, sucks on a million levels. Dawoud's piece was amazing, but was taken out of context. If we would have first reprinted his essay from "High Times, Hard Times", "The Black Artist as Invisible (Wo)man", none of this would have happened, it would have put his post within the context of a larger world view.

    But it didn't.

    I come from Bad at Sports and I see comments spiral all the time, and if anyone requests it, we pull. So that's what we did here. But then the argument came up that we were pulling comments and the response was being censored, so it was a one-way argument. Which was a valid point.

    So I said, fine, the piece is upsetting everyone and the more the link goes around, the more upset it's ticking everyone off. Pull the whole damn thing.

    Then everyone wanted it back up and by then, Dawould and I were fairly burned out, everyone sending emails until 2 AM.

    We had wanted a discussion about who qualifies for critical discourse and who doesn't, about art that's aware of a historical context.

    But right now, this whole thing with the Trib, and the near protest outside the building (due to lack of art coverage for African Americans) is still an unresolved issue. No one, including me, feels like anything has fundamentally changed.

    So the whole thing was a powder keg and this piece just hit wrong.

    The question is, what now?

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    Oh, wait, and to respond to Jason and Mary... Right, Jason, of course, you guys cover everything, you work hard to have a huge frame of discourse. I have to write this stuff fast, and don't always fact check things like that. But to flip it around, Jason, I want to ask you how you approach it. Yes, Palette and Chisel isn't a good example, but, let's say Skokie Public Library, the Skokie Art Guild puts on some very nice shows, lots of landscapes, watercolors still lives... let's use that as an example instead - where does that work fit in?

    I'm not asking that rhetorically, I really want to know how you consider this work.

    And Mary, right, I'm not saying kitch at all when I say "decorative"- I just don't know what to call it - it all sounds deragtory - non-challenging, safe, etc. I'm trying to divide what you can hang in a fairly conservative home when you don't want something racy. What I find perplexing about the art scene is that the conceptual stuff makes up a fraction of the art market, the bulk of the stuff that people sell out of galleries is ... decorative. Like Roy Boyd. It's not kitch, it's beautiful. But can you "unpack" that abstract work critically?"

    (Like my question for Jason, that's not a rhetorical question)

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    comment testing #2 - everybody - keep a copy of your comment on your computer. this system is zapping comments.

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    Kathryn, writing about art in a critical way is all about making discerning choices. I don't write about everything under the sun called "art" because it's a critic's job to draw a line around the things they deem important. Readers will stand behind a critic when they have faith in the critic's choices, or taste. (The benefit of having many critics is that many scenes get represented.)

    Per your example, I wouldn't disregard the Skokie artists you cite simply because their work is "decorative." Anyway, art has been decorative for a good long time. But ask yourself, does their art require criticism to better exist? Do your readers want to read about how the hypothetical sailboat sets off into the painted sunset?

    Mary, thanks for your support!

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    Well, Jason, know you have my support as well. Everything with this site was done as a reflection of New City. I have pulled apart your art section, made charts, scoured copy, and that's where I've really grown to see what a huge range you've covered.

    But you bring up the key sentence that really gets me spinning. It's hard for me to separate what's culturally important from what's artistically important. In my mind, it gets blurred. So like at Zigman Voss, they have an artist Moshe Rosenthalis, who died recently. He's a holocaust survivor and made paintings in communist-controlled Lithuania - really basic figurative pieces, very muted. Then he went to Israel, went through an obvious change, much more colorful, abstract stuff. So for me, it's hard to separate the biography from the art, the feature writing from the critique.

    Anyway, thanks Jason. Very helpful. Keep up the great work over in your neck of the woods. K

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    I think Dawoud's essay should be reinstated. Instead, the untoward comments should edited or edited out. This is a forum, I think, and all intelligent opinions should be permitted. If you start second guessing yourself or censuring the posts I think you will diminish the credibility of the blog.

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    Don, in a perfect world, yes, of course. But this discussion was determined, in offline conversations, that it wasn't fair to host only the original post, and not the responses. Now at old Bad at Sports, we just yank the comments. However, there is a lot going on, there are outstanding issues with the Trib, and a community that was shut out of the converstaion in the first place ... and it all gets into some complicated territory.

    But believe me, we didn't do this without talking it to death. It's a special circumstance.

    But I also want to step back and speak in general terms, at risk of being off topic. There is a difference between discussion and controversy. Our collective hope with the piece was to inspire discussion, but it

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    I certainly appreciate all of those who feel my blog post should be reinstated. More than simply becoming "controversial," which I think is absolutely NOT a problem, the discussion took a sharp turn towards name calling and defensive personal attacks. It would be a good idea if we could follow President Barack Obama's lead when he said that, "We can disagree without being disagreeable." As Kathryn has stated, there is also a history and context in which these exchanges took place that has less to do with my remarks and more to do with other unresolved issues between those who angrily wrote in and the entity that sponsors this blog site. But like I said, for me controversy is certainly not a problem; controversy without meaningful civil discourse is.

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:


    We also cribbed a new policy from a Toronto newspaper (thank you Mary Antonakos). See the "discussion" tab on the home page.

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