As I see it, there are three things that art criticism can do:
1) Art criticism can measure a work of art against critical and philosophical principles (which can include ideas about art’s progressive historical development) to determine its worth. This is considered the ideal form of criticism, the task it performed at its origins in a hazy heroic past. When this kind of criticism is written today it usually involves determining whether art is politically progressive or reactionary, and often applies critiques that have been around for forty years.
2) Art criticism can give a detailed description of a work’s appearance (or, if it is a performance or a video or something else that changes over time, an account of those changes), elaborate the artist’s intent and references, and suggest the work’s implications for its social and cultural contexts. Now that holding firm, unwavering philosophical and critical principles of aesthetics (or subscribing to a viewpoint of a linear progression of art history) is considered reactionary and elitist, this is the form that art criticism takes in periodicals (newspapers, magazines, semi-professional blogs). This is also the preferred mode of discourse for press releases, museum wall texts, and other printed matter that officially accompanies exhibitions. When the main task of this kind of criticism is to index an artwork, the writing is bland. When its main task is to describe, it is didactic. It is often a mix of both.
3) Art criticism can take the form of narrative. It can be a story about the contingencies that cling to a work when art meets life. This is the critical biography, the monographic study of an artist’s life and work and the effects of the two on each other. In shorter forms this is some of my favorite art writing—the writing of Chris Kraus, John Kelsey, and the people who invented Scene & Herd (Jack Bankowsky, Rhonda Lieberman, David Rimanelli) as feuilletons about art and its social contexts.
Narrative is pretty cool. Narrative sits next to (ahead of?) quantification/rationalization as a basic (the basic?) means of understanding the world. It situates perceptions in space and time and makes it possible to share them. Narrative is so basic that it’s the default mode of discourse for all the non-art, non-professional criticism found on Amazon, Yelp, and other sites that solicit reviews and ratings. People don’t just evaluate the goods and services and give detached, principled reasons for their ratings. They tell stories—to no one in particular—about their experiences of consumption. They tell stories that incorporate all the contingencies and particularities of an individual life, numbed by the anonymity of the generalized design.
What does Yelp do to art? It is a medium for translating the experience of seeing art into the internet vernacular of consumption narratives. Why Yelp art? The art world has expanded rapidly in the last decade. So many artists! So many galleries! So many non-profits, vanity museums, museum expansions—so many visitors! What is the art critic to do? He has three choices. Art Criticism #1 provides a reusable template. Just figure out your standards, measure any work against them, and BOOM!—you got a review! But this easily descends into hackwork and bloviation, especially in these times, when the rigid position of Art Critic #1 is undermined by the plurality of voices and viewpoints in the inclusive art world. Art Criticism #3 still works but to be really good it requires sustained close attention to a very small number of artists. So you get accused of only writing about your friends, and you can’t write about them often enough to get published regularly. Art Criticism #2 is the reasonable response. It is also the boring response. Art Criticism #2 is so boring that few people read it seriously, let alone remember it. It becomes decorative—filler for CVs, reasons for selling ads, the textual support for reproductions.
I’m interested in what it means to be an unprofessional art critic. Not an amateur but someone who would be a professional if he didn’t reject the codes and standards of professionalism. So what does it mean?? Some ideas: Writing about a lot of art, in all its variety, like a newspaper critic. BUT. Writing about art quickly and badly, like a hack. Writing about art honestly, like a baby. Writing for no money, like a poet. Writing for no one (and everyone), like a regular user. Yelp is a format that welcomes and encourages all of these kinds of writing. It also offers a way of writing about the explosive growth of the art world that doesn’t take it for granted. It offers a way to address it obliquely—by wearing the skin of a consumer navigating a market of great plenty, with the wonder of a browser who can’t buy any of it. That’s an easy skin for me to wear because that’s how I already live.