Narrating the Adventures of the Mind Among Masterpieces

Recently several people, whose opinion I greatly respect, have introduced me as an art critic. I was gobsmacked by the label the first time, and truthfully, no less the second and third. I am an arts enthusiast for sure. In fact it consumes almost every moment of my life: by day I’m a museum publicist, by night an art socialite perusing the latest openings and fundraisers around town, on the weekend an art history instructor, and—in my spare time—I share my thoughts and experiences via Facebook, Twitter, and this site. But a critic? Definitely not.

On Thursday night, MOCA hosted a panel on the future of art criticism with Sasha Anawalt, director of the University of Southern California Annenberg Arts Journalism Program; critics Andrew Berardini and Sharon Mizota; and MOCA Associate Curator Bennett Simpson. While the discussion did explore the effect of the Internet on traditional media, as the event was billed, I was particularly intrigued by the panelists’ views on the differences between criticism and journalism, in respect to the arts. Berardini and Simpson were both remiss to call themselves ‘art journalists,’ preferring the title ‘arts writer,’ while Mizota said she was a part-time journalist. Anawalt was surprised they all distanced themselves from the term and said that by her definition anyone writing about anything “commits an act of journalism,” regardless of tweeting, blogging, or publishing in a newspaper. Simpson asserted that the most visible writing about art in the art world doesn’t happen in newspapers, but in exhibition catalogues, art magazines, and, increasingly, blogs. Mizota argued on behalf of newspapers’ ability to occupy a more general space and be accessible to a broader range of people. She feels there has been too large a separation between the language of the art world and the general public, and tries to bridge that gap in her feature writing and her reviews.

As I was listening to these writers debate, I was recalling the words of the famed critic Clement Greenberg: “Art criticism, I would say, is about the most ungrateful form of ‘elevated’ writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging.” I thought, perhaps the reason I am hesitant to call myself an art critic is because I have such respect for the profession – though I don’t necessarily believe it’s always done well. Another reason might be that I’ve always thought of art criticism much in the vein of John Ruskin, who espoused that “The true work of a critic is not to make his hearer believe him, but agree with him.” Yet I, personally, write from a place of passion, not a place of persuasion (and if I was to accord strictly to Ruskin’s 19th century definition, my gender might disqualify me entirely).

That is not to say there aren’t many terrific critics who write without a persuasive agenda. During the panel, Berardini himself said: “I am not trying to convince anyone of my opinion, I’m just trying to start a conversation.” I know my writings on art—at least museum and gallery exhibitions—tend to feel more like friendly reportage than criticism, which one friend described as an “impeccable use of the gonzo technique.” Whatever label it is given, reportage or criticism, I hope that my writings most closely embody the philosophy of Robert Hughes who said, “I have always tended to take art contextually. If I have any merits as a critic, they have to do with my ability as a storyteller, and above all I wanted to tell a story.”

Note on Title: A slight paraphrase of the brilliant quote by Anataloe France, “A good critic is one who narrates the adventures of his mind among masterpieces.”

By Rebecca Taylor

The Museum of Modern Art (MOCA) is located at 250 S. Grand Avenue. For more information on events and exhibitions, please call (213) 626-6222, or visit www.moca.org.

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