Can there be good art if there is no bad art?

Some art is good, so it follows that some art must be bad.

Beyond our own opinions, how do we know? 

Many critics who write glowingly obtuse reviews only describing the installation, what sold, who was there, contribute little, except promotion. Glowing is great, but who dishes out the bad news? Where are the critics?!

Nicholson's dialogue in "A Few
Good Men"
is repurposed here:

Artist: "I think I'm entitled."

Critic: "You want answers?"

Artist: "I want the truth!

Critic: "You can't handle the truth!"

is the truth too hard? Is it risky getting it wrong? Are the rules muddled, if rules
exist? Are politics intertwined with networks and markets? Is art
criticism too 20th century? Does anyone care?

I think we should criticize the critics, definitely risky busy for an artist, but someone's

to ask this question... again. What has happened to art

Paul Klein and Dawoud
at the Hyde
Park Art Center
critiques earlier this year assuaged my fears.

Thumbnail image for Dawoud_right and Paul_left at HPAC crit.SMALL file.jpg

Expecting the usual glossing over I
see in print, Bey and Klein were instead honest and critical without being destructive. They posed useful,
constructive ideas addressing artists' weaknesses and strengths. They
cited artists relevant to the work shown, indicating their
understanding of it and its contemporary importance. They got it right.

like artists should risk getting it wrong, as with Philemona Williamson
at New York's June Kelly
, a regular at Art Chicago. Read Williamson's review and be sure to read the comments. But she tried!

love praise, but we need criticism. Critics signal when the art is a
hit or miss or in-between, and it could grow or diminish the market.
Art history reminds us times and tastes change, but we are here and
now. Expertise in art history; aesthetics, philosophy, and exposure to
art feeds critics experienced opinions. Take a chance! Take a stand!
Help the rest of us understand art from a perspective framed by
knowledge. Explain the barometer that measures artists. Tell everyone
the truth! All art is NOT equal. Art critics, be critical for art's


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  • We will be having our second Open Crit at the Hyde Park Art Center on Thursday, August 27th at 6 PM. Open Crit is an opportunity for Chicago artists to have an open and honest critical dialogue about their work with curators, artists and anyone who wants to attend and be a part of the process.

    The next Open Crit will be facilitated by Nathan Mason from the Department of Cultural Affairs. I will be there as well, and anyone who likes is free to attend. There is now charge to attend. If you are interested in presenting your work a future Open Crit contact Ray Yang at

    Thanks for writing about this Joyce.

  • Open Crit is FREE to artists and the public. Looking forward to seeing some of you there. The Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 S. Cornell.

  • I don't know if its so much as bad art, as much as it is about great critiques. This is the one thing I miss about art school. I didn't even know about these critiques but I am going to be sure to get on whatever mailing list I need to be so I can check this out.
    Great post

  • I haven't noticed MSM art critics commenting on African American artists much in any manner--glowing or critical. To them, black artists are still fairly invisible.

  • Good points Joyce. We should definitely criticize the unbelievable depths to which art criticism has sunk. It wasn't very lofty to begin with.

    The BAD must be pointed out as well as the good and the great. If everything is good --- as long as it is trendy and consensus correct --- as is the case now, then nothing is good. And the merely "OK" is just as bad as the bad, perhaps worse. The merely OK is always in a war against the great.

    I have written articles in both English and German criticizing the state of curation and criticism, as you know, --- and I was even reprimanded by a curator and critic who told me that I (and others who write) should stick to only criticizing artists. The crits above sound good, but extremely important, right now, is critiquing the 'critiquers,' the gatekeepers, and the latent desire for, and tendency of, artists "Arsch zu kriechen" (in German for "brown-nosing", but worse --- I think I'll get away with the term if not in English!)

  • Dawoud: Thanks for posting the details for the Hyde Park Art Center critiques. I learned from witnessing the first one.

    Stephannie: I agree. It's not easy to get critical feedback on your work once you've left college.

  • As an washed up athlete I fully understand the value of a critique. A bad one can wake you up or nock you off your high horse. This is a good way of making you bump up your game. A good one can sound like someone is offering you the keys to utopia and will give you the confidence to push the envelope.

  • I like this post too. And I think the Hyde Park thing sounds great. Everyone needs feedback.But let's separate the desire for honest feedback from published art criticism.

    To understand the sad state of professional art criticism, I think we really need to look at how the landscape has changed. Stephanie and Gretchen and I have talked about this a lot -- let's stick with the "80,000 artists in Chicago" statistic. And we know there are 300 galleries -- that is a trememdous amount of art. Some nights in Chicago offer 40 openings.

    I know for us, with our reviews, if it's bad, we (generally) just don't bother. We highlight the stuff worth seeing. The critical game today is a lot about SIFTING, looking at tons of stuff, and bringing the good stuff to the attention of the public. From there you can pick on some issues that would make it stronger, but it overall comes from the place of feeling it's worthy of promotion.

    The old model was based on the fact there was a small community of working artists - so you'd look at the stable and give some the thumbs up, some the thumbs down. (Today, with performance art, on a local level, we do that, as there's very little of it) But for visual art ... well, let me throw it back to Joyce and the crowd for feedback and pose this question: why even bother reviewing lousy art when there is so much good art out there?

  • Thanks Mark:

    Dancers have a particular physicality and line in their dance movements. Musicians perform on key unless they intentionally perform off-key but it is evident either way.

    There is always the subjective part. A dancer can have the physical attributes and the line but seem automated with no depth of feeling.

    Critic Margaret Hawkins has said she admires good figurative work. Some prefer abstraction, performance, sound or light art etc. But within each subset we know some is schlock (is that German?) and some is good.

    Most artists never get a review, of course.

    As you say, Mark, How can EVERYTHING be good?

  • Kathryn:

    Yes, times change. Does that mean art should not be criticized?

    There are always people who are left out. No one expects all shows or all artists to be reviewed. But the ones that are, are described and not reviewed.

    A good example a critical (verbal) review of art work that challenged the artists as well as praised them when deserved was the critique at the Hyde Park Art Center.

    It's down to the movies model. The top grossing movies get the attention. Let's just make a TOP TEN LIST of art shows and not call them reviews when they are not.

    The language, as you point out, is important.

  • I only ever write a bad review of something if it is an artist who is so important or big-time that he or she probably doesn't give a dmn about me, and, secondly, the criticism leads to a larger concern. I.e., it addresses issues important beyond the artist (like my Feeble Painting or Neo-Conceptual consensus things).

    Beginning artists should only be critiqued personally and in private (not published), I believe.

    I think more ink should be spilled truly critiquing (not just attacking) the unquestioned basic notions currently in effect and therefore appearing "transparent" --- critiquing critics, publications, intnl curators, fairs, etc. THAT form of so-called negativity would certainly not be beside the point.

  • I still think some of the the best "art" criticism is being done by the NY Times music critics: Jon Pareles, Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff. They all seem to be deeply knowledgeable about music in the technical, historical and aesthetic sense, and able to write about it for a popular audience. Most art critics have no idea how the objects they write about come into being, which then allows them to sort of dismiss the actual work and then blanket (bury) it in a discussion about everything but the object itself. Of course the writing about art and making art are two very different things, and writers are entitled to whatever flight of conceptual, personal or theoretical fancy the work in front of them provokes, but still I think the door seems conspicuously wide open for folks to become "art critics" without an ounce of serious training, knowledge or accountability.

  • Right: Artists almost ALWAYS state their training, whether traditional art school or a neighborhood priest.

    I really think it's the money factor! "The Arts" in print these days boils down to the movies, then popular music, theater, books and lastly visual art, unless there is an impressionist blockbuster.

  • OKAY, first of all there is no such thing as Bad Art, just like there is no such thing as Bad Sex, or Bad Money. There's just some art we like.

    I used to think is was a Bad thing that 75% of art school graduates stop making art by the time they are 30. They I finally Realized that the more art school graduates we have the better off our society is.

    Same thing with Art. The more people who make it the better our society is - even if the art isn't good.

  • I agree with your assertions, but I believe in a society that for the last few decades has strongly discouraged "critique", "apprenticeship", and "becoming expert" at anything. The word "craft" no longer applies to much. We now shoot for "mediocrity", "do a little just to get by" - this also applies to "Art", a word that is over-applied to the ... Read Morelowest denominator.

    Years ago I heard Nikki Giovanni say "what makes a writer a writer is that they write, and not because they're published".
    I've repeated this quote on several occasions recently to writer and journalist associates and the response has been like a grew a third eye instantaneously. As the debate rages about what to get paid, and how to get paid, and the legitimacy of our creations continue to lie in the purchase amount, then I'm afraid they'll be no bad art, nor good, for that matter. It will all come down to degrees of Mediocrity - Vonnegut's prediction in "Harrison Bergeron".

  • These are all interesting comments.

    I think there are two ways to look at a published review - an artistic lense and a literary lense.

    Dawoud, I agree that from an artistic lense, most reviews are really bad. But from a literary view, most "important" reviews can be a dreadful read. When you mentioned, "talking about everything except the object itself", yes, I agree with you, but it's how reviews can be made into something flashy. So as a rule, the review is a difficult literary form, as an artist statement is also a very hard form.

    I think there's also the question of what the purpose of the review is. Is it for the person who saw the show, or the person who will never see it?

    My larger issue - the more I stare like a zombie at our site analyitics and become increasingly confused - is that our most poorly viewed pages are reviews. BUT posts where we talk ABOUT reviews always get a big readership.

    The more we (as publishers) check the stats, the more we pander. So I'll close off topic -- on the internet, you vote with your clicks. Reviews are more rare, and shorter, because of a lack of readership.

  • Thanks for all the feedback. Some people are commenting on my Facebook page as well.

    Hey Paul: very optimistic statement...Kinda overlooking physics. I'll paraphrase: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". Ergo, no good without bad.

    Kathryn: I know that some people fear reviews because of art speak that they can't decipher and two, if they are all good, why bother reading them? Provocative subjects engage people.

    I think reviews can be for people thinking of seeing an exhibition, or who have already seen it. I look for information about what I can expect, who's in the show, etc. and concrete info like gallery and museum hours. After the show, I wonder what someone else thought.

    Wondering what feedback you would like on a review?

    Alice: Sad but true...I am often surprised by artists who only work if they have a show. I don't get that. A painter paints.

    hey Paul: I wonder if the Madoff victims think there is such a thing as "Bad Money".

  • Ok... I'm going to put myself on a limb here, because I really want to put some direct and specific questions out there. I'm not condoning anything, I just, as Joyce said, want the truth, unblinded by sentimentiality or nostalgia.

    Cheerleader "criticism" - I'm starting to get a hefty inbox. It's probably about 10% of what New City gets. It's massive. My inbox is filled with hundreds of solid artworks, interesting projects and venues that are doing strong shows. They all are writing to me and my peers in hopes of receiving coverage. And we can do about 2 a week. WHY, out of all that "stuff" would I pick something weak, just to say it's bad? At the expense of covering something amazing? This current lineup at the Cultural Center is just out of hand - I think it's all strong, from the China photography show, to paper cutouts, to Nnenna Okoke's newspaper installation and Nicole Gordon's monkey tree installation... I would have liked to have done a post on each one. But there's no attention span for a zillion reviews a week. So we pick, and good art gets left out. I want to start a Flickr account of strong art that never made it onto the blog.

    And as for the argument above, like MSB said, to "pick on the big boys", fine, we can make fun of Koons. But now everyone does that, you get too popular and people start bashing you. So that doesn't seem very breakout, and doesn't make sense on a local level.

    So again - this is not a rhetorical question - why would we write a review that says the artist isn't worth his/her weight in salt? When press space is so precious, why waste it on unworthy art?

    (I'll also add to respond that Joyce is right, negative reviews are always usually more fun to read than good ones.)

  • "Bad", "flashy","important" are not the things I care about or the things I, at least, am talking about. I do hope someone actually bothers to read the music criticism of Ratliff, Chin, and Pareles at the NY Times to see what I am talking about.What I am talking about is knowledgeable writing that--in this case--examines the performance or CD in a way that provides informed access to the music for a broad readership, both those in the know and those who might not know anything about the artist/musician.

    A critical (not "bad") review of work that is not wholly successful can be useful to both the artist and to the reader trying to come to terms with the work themselves. A well written critical--not simply bashing--review can be helpful.

    None of this, of course, addresses the issue that Kathryn raises that indeed there is a lot more interesting work out there than ever gets talked about in print or in the public arena. What gets written about is usually also a reflection of the writer's own subjective interests.

  • Yeah! Kathryn, I wouldn't bother with average or repetitive or derivative work displaying no interest in shedding new light on contemporary culture.

    There are lots f artists who will never produce a masterpiece! And plenty of artists who don't care about reviews. they are making money. They do art fairs (street art fairs, and studio sales and are in the business of making a living.

    My point is, establish some parameters and then review art based on something substantial.

    There are categories that can be addressed. Suppose you review emerging artists exhibiting their work one week?

    Then Works on Paper in Chicago galleries another week. Photography could be another medium that you address in a review. I have noticed that photography is leading the pack when it comes to new exhibitions internationally.

    How about a week of sound art and performance?

    or you could create themes reviews: In the digital word, what's real? And find shows that show digital work that creates world only possible through manipulations on a computer. Or those that are digital that remain true to the natural world.
    Reviewing one show at a time when there are so many artists may be passe! Try something else.

    That's my point.
    Take a risk. Do it better or die trying!

  • NYTimes music critic Ratliff:

  • Thanks for this link Joyce. Would that we had art critics consistently writing at the level that Ratliff writes about music. Folks might actually learn something. Holland Cotter's writing sometimes approaches this level. His review of the mami Wata show in DC was truly insprired. See this link for that:

    True this isn't about an individual artist or even one artist. But the level of inspired and informed writing sets a benchmark.

  • As a latecomer to this dialogue, and I am up much too late, I would like to add that there are many visual dialogues in which a work or body of work may participate, as there are many written dialogues to which a work or works may contribute. An epiphany, a gesture, a way of being, value, knowledge, and information; these are not be limited to any one dialogue. In my mind the critic is as free to compose their voice and contribute to or build a dialogue as I am, in fact I expect that out of a "good" critic. I expect a similar ability to discern from curators. That is why I look at certain artist, read certain critics and go to certain shows.

    Certainly, once in public view, artists, critics, and curators participate in a power dialogue on a very narrow spectrum of art to define the "good."

  • "Are the rules muddled, if rules exist?"
    It is up to the artist to take a stand, set the rules, ask the questions and often times give the answers.
    Critics no matter how skilled can not reply to art without substance. How can they write critically about art that is has no substance or just plain weak. Bad critics are the result of BAD art.
    Jerry Peart

  • There have been times throughout history when art criticism or philosophy of art and aesthetics led the way for the great (art) creators that followed and then of course there were the times when the artists were in the lead forming things and the critics were left trying to make sense of it all.

    These were times when big ideas were discussed, when art was thought to morally and ethically change the world, make it a better place. Then somehow a pessimistic, put someone down including your self, attitude has developed especially over the last 50 years or so. (Oh, what have I just said? That's how old I am, that must mean I'm the problem and the change has to start with me!)

    Reading everyone's comments makes me feel good and confident that everybody is truly concerned, exhibiting lots of empathy, we need this. Everyone involved in the arts (and other endeavors) have to take higher ground, analyze the situation and do what is right. (We know what is right.) Artists, art = critics, teachers, collectors, administrators, curators, etc. must try to see the truth from a wide perspective and promote art as a great thing, always try to build it up, add to its legacy, constructively criticize, but don't cheapen or belittle art as an experience.

  • The comments are very thoughtful.

    Daddy P. and Tom: YES!
    This is an issue that is near and dear to artists who seriously pursue a career that is often misunderstod and underestimated. Oh, and as usual I forgot to mention it's a career that may not pay. Many of us think of the money last!

    Maybe more artists need to segue into art criticism. It poses a conflict of interest in some ways, but may be the solution to having someone versed in art history and experienced with various art media, interested in the artists intent and clear on what non-artists need to know in order to appreciate art that the lay person may find "difficult", to become the critics.

    I agree, Tom, it feels good to read the ideas. It feels hopeful, too.

  • I fully agree that artists need to step into the critical vacuum and start writing more from the vantage point of actually how this stuff comes into being. It's not new: Sol LeWitt, Frank Bowling, Barnett Newman, Ben Shahn and numerous other artists were writing and publishing about the art of their times, laying down a knowledgeable critical platform from inside the field. Mark Staff Brandl does the same. I do my bit when I can, and sometimes get people pissed off in the process. The point is that we are not creative idiot savants who can only make our art and then retreat back into the shadows while everyone else holds forth about our work. We write, we teach, we have a conversation with and about ideas.

    There will always be those--especially if ones writes critically--who think it is being done to "clear the field" for ones own professional advancement. So it is fraught with a certain peril. Not much one can do about those folks who believe that it is a shameless act of self promotion at others expense except to try to be more measured and precise in ones writing.

    Here is an interesting online essay I came across about artist as critics:

  • Yeah, Dawoud, between a rock and a hard place...

    How to work around the issue you pose and the others that we don't have the space to address!

    But it makes sense to me that artists take the reigns of art criticism.

    Here's an interesting post i just found. Jonathan Jones is to-the-point on art criticism and his place in it!

  • I might also suggest that if artists do want to take up the critical mantle it might not be a bad idea to also take a class (or two) in Expository Writing. Writing--and certainly good writing--is an art form in and of itself and as much respect should be given to the written word as to what it is you are writing about. There is an underlying science to all forms of expression. Certainly there are enough of us artists teaching at colleges and universities that I'm sure we could audit a writing class or two when time allows rather than simply "winging it" as writers and thinking that's enough.

    In a long ago former life I was a remedial reading teacher in the NY elementary school system, where I taught students the rudiments of both reading and writing. So my feel for this might be different from other artists. But like I said, opportunities are available out there to refine ones writing skills. Trust me, the "spell check" on your computer alone isn't enough! Let's get prepared as artists to take the critical lead.

  • Writing, like making art is harder than it looks.

    Thanks for the additional feedback on that subject, Dawoud.

    Will any artist who writes and publishes a first art critique please let me know?

    Remember, too, that anyone looking to have their work critiqued contact the Hyde Park Art Center.

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