UK United Kingdom

The critical friend: for whom does the art critic speak?

The contemporary art critic cannot say with certainty whether something is good or bad. What good criticism does today is to help the public “see” the artwork. It does not explain and close down meaning…

Does the art critic speak for the broader public, for the artist or the connoisseur?

The contemporary art critic cannot say with certainty whether something is good or bad.

What good criticism does today is to help the public “see” the artwork. It does not explain and close down meaning, but opens the artwork up.

This usually means placing the artwork within a certain line of art, or showing how it relates to certain modes of practice.

The contemporary critic is now a close friend of the artist who sometimes speaks on his or her behalf. The good contemporary critic is one who visits studios, knows the scene and knows the work. It is a more collaborative and less authoritative process.

Is it the critic’s job to say whether art is good or bad, or to place it in context and let the viewer decide?

The major risk with this approach, however, is that the critic becomes too engrossed in their subject and does not have enough distance.

Robert Hughes, a staunch modernist, used to refuse to buy any art of his contemporaries so as not to be sullied by outside influence.

The German art critic Boris Groys also points out that this limits the critic’s ability to speak on the public’s behalf, if this is still a goal of contemporary criticism, because you are already embedded in the scene.

As one of America’s best-known art critics David Hickey has said, at worst, the critic can become a courtier for a scene of gallerists and buyers.

So as the rich flit into the fly-in Gagosian gallery in Paris, the critic merely points the connoisseur in the right direction, and cannot really believe that they are working for any broader interest.

This “friend” approach also begs the question: why can’t the artist speak for themselves?

New media players

As opposed to the traditional media, blogs and social media are crucial to the dissemination of this sort of friendly and embedded critical framing.

Das Platforms is a hugely successful new player in the Australian critical scene that has amassed, in a very short time, some very important and influential artist interviews.

The Art Life, now has a team of reviewers who archive many of the shows around Australia. You never feel that you have missed a show.

Art critics in the traditional media who see themselves as the voice of authority may be making a mistake.

The voice of authority

It was this notion of inclusion that was misunderstood by newspapers critics who insisted on an authoritative voice that became increasingly at odds with the grassroots art scene.

Facebook has become a very important place for critical engagement, although in this case you really do need to be “friends.” Curators, artists and theorists call hysterically to each other for a professional and disciplinary approbation. As in the media, if someone is mentioned by another, then that is good.

So what of mainstream media? There is still an economy of cultural hierarchy which places weight on certain opinions. In other countries, the broadsheet papers still carry weight, as do important industry magazines like Art Forum and Frieze.

Although the critic may not judge anymore, there are certain authors who are good readers of art and who can light the way of your own aesthetic response. Don’t we all have a favourite film critic to whom we trust and return?

The art crowd or the popular crowd?

Finally, the death of criticism in the mainstream press was grounded in the futile search for popular appeal. The grassroots critics are successful because they realise art is a difficult speciality.

Like any discipline, there is an educated reader who understands the language of the game, its jargon and its history. This is nothing to fear in art criticism.

Whether it be sports pages, financial pages or cooking pages, the lover of that discipline expects to engage with technical and specialised information. We want readers to connect with the arts with the same enthusiasm as a sports fan who can name their favourite players and coaches stretching back decades.

The move towards more popularity and entertainment value in the arts – from the Australia Council to the various museums – for the sake of any bums on seats is a risky strategy.

If we can admit that we are speaking to an informed and interested “art crowd”, we will lay the ground for a vibrant arts sector. This is art’s best hope for survival and hopefully future growth, and the critic has their part to play.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    I believe that art plays little part in peoples lives these days.

    I doubt that one in a thousand could name a prominent artist from the last ten years.

    At the Tasmanian MOMA we get an installation where dancers shit or piss into a it art or just call it crap.

    Art has been superceded - except for perhaps those investors who see art as more a money thing than an art thing.

  2. foibles58

    logged in via Twitter

    looking at the greater arts scene, I have been dismayed by the all powerful role newspaper arts critics have taken on themselves - usually mouthing sycophantic irrelevancies that do nothing to increase our (or their) understanding or the art form, or else offering a vitriolic diatribe against someone they don't like. We often later find out that this abuse of their role is because they take personal affront to those who differ with their thoughts on any subject.

  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Does anyone except aficionados even read art critics - does anyone care!

    The whole "arts" scene is almost redundant these days.

    Opera and ballet are elitist forms that are heavily subsidised for the meagre few.

    Musicals have a reasonable shelf life - but it's interesting to note that when these shows are advertised there is no mention of the composers - who knows who wrote King Kong or Legally Blonde.

    Its only about the dollar bottom line and bums on seats.

    The cultural heartbeat of Australia is on life support, as i-phones and i-pads become the only art-ifacts people care about.

    1. Katrina Grant

      Art Historian

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      'Does anyone except aficionados even read art critics '

      Isn't that partly the point being made in this article - we should recognise the necessity and in a way the satisfaction of writing about art for people who are engaged with art, not worry as much about reaching out to those who are very much not engaged. The way sports writing doesn't write to convert people who don't like sport, it writes for people who love it.

    2. Robert Nelson

      Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

      In reply to Katrina Grant

      Thanks Katrina! You are kind to clarify Oliver’s intentions. As a newspaper art critic myself, it would make my job easier if I believed you and Oliver.

      Why I cannot and why I reject that position is that it aligns art with the whole complacency of sport, a prospect which I find somehow baleful. Art from ancient times to Courbet to Beuys and now the generation of Carl Scrasse has had an educative role, either spiritualized or politicized toward various democratic or reformist ideals.


      Read more
  4. Giles Pickford
    Giles Pickford is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired, Wollongong

    Someone asked me the other day “what is it about music and art?” I said that music and art are the only two things that make perfect sense and it is probably because neither of them have any words in them. The moment there is a word there is an argument.

    Also I note that art and music are embedded in our DNA. Children who have not yet learned how to speak will draw pictures and dance in front of the TV when music is playing.

    So saying that Art is no longer relevant is an absurdity.

  5. Robert Nelson

    Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

    It’s a thrill for me to see art criticism discussed on *The Conversation*, so thanks, Oliver Watts!

    I agree with much of your article, whose paradoxes you might compare with my observations in ‘Picasso’s trousers: art criticism in the age of equity’, first published in *Heat* but available on a critical site, artinfo (

    Your conclusion underestimates the full tragedy of art criticism, which has neither been able to win a larger audience…

    Read more
  6. Stephen Powell

    Artist, Photographer at Stephen Powell Wildlfe Artist

    Whilst I am an artist the contemporary art critics who I suspect this article refers to and the 'art establishment' they rule would and do uniformly exclude my art because of subject matter without regard to the qualities of the work. I am a realist wildlife artist and artist like myself whose work is inspired by nature in my opinion are ignored if not condemned as unworthy of inclusion in the 'real art' world on the basis of subject matter. I want to see works that are inspired by nature that don’t…

    Read more
    1. Giles Pickford
      Giles Pickford is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired, Wollongong

      In reply to Stephen Powell

      My son enrolled in an art degree and spent four years trying to please his "teachers". The same corruption described by Stephen Powell exists in abundance in Art Schools. The teachers are mostly failed artists who take their revenge and resentment out on students who refuse to conform and turn art into a mockery.

      In the end my son gave up in disgust and got a job in a hardware store. He has real talent so it is a great shame.

    2. Stephen Powell

      Artist, Photographer at Stephen Powell Wildlfe Artist

      In reply to Giles Pickford

      The path to being an artist doesn't have to start in an art school. Often the structure of the courses doesn't match the artistic path the student want to follow. I didn't take up painting until I was 40 after a management career in the ceramic industry. Whilst my art career is not as lofty as some I am proud of my achievements. My works are admired and collected, I travel regularly to Africa guiding artists and photographers who share my passion for wildlife, I have tutored wildlife art from Halls Gap to Grafton. Many consider I am living the dream. Tell your son to shrug of the Art School experience put passion into his work. The best revenge for your art school experience is success as an artist.

  7. Oliver Watts

    Lecturer, Sydney College of Arts at University of Sydney

    I agree totally with Robert's points. As a teacher obviously I believe strongly in sharing the power of images. Overall the real paradox for art criticism is that it oscillates between on one hand speaking for and with the public and on the other being embedded within art practice/community. I do believe that art has a crucial critical role to play in speaking the unspeakable; to that end art should engage socially and meaningfully. However in this piece I concluded as I did because it seems to me…

    Read more
  8. Donald Richardson


    This conversation is vitiated by the (common) conflation of the two usages of 'authority', as exemplified by the phrases: 'being in authority' and 'being an authority'. A critic gains respect only when he/she writes as 'an authority'. Authoritarianism has no place in critical writing.
    And it is futile to gainsay that art in not absolutely inherent in humanity. There is no evidence of any community ever that had no art.