News comment, Writing

On “negative criticism”

Sean Tatol, the art critic who maintains a snarky website called Manhattan Art Review, recently penned a piece for The Point about art criticism titled “Negative Criticism, a sentimental education.” In an era in which many critics prefer to describe work rather than judge it, Tatol’s Manhattan Art Review is notable for the “Kritic’s Korner” — short, sometimes scathing reviews that include a star ranking system: five is great, four is good, three is okay, two is bad, and one is awful. At artnet critic Ben Davis took a deep dive into Tatol’s essay in a two-part piece (one and two), that brings in ideas by other critics who have written on the topic. Davis wonders if “negative criticism”’ is the right way to frame the solution, or even if ‘the question of judgment’ is really a full picture of what is at stake. I asked contributors at Two Coats of Paint if they had any thoughts about the essays or the state of art criticism, and today we are running responses from critic David Carrier and artist-critic Laurie Fendrich. We plan to run a few more tomorrow, so stay tuned. Readers might also like to revisit “On Being Not-Nice in the Art World,” the Two Coats of Paint Conversation recorded January in which Adam Simon and Laurie Fendrich led a discussion on the issue of negative criticism. –Sharon Butler

Art criticism today / Contributed by David Carrier

I find much of great interest in Sean Tatol’s essay and Ben Davis’s commentary. I have read and quoted elsewhere Davis’ recent book, but Tatol is a new writer for me. I particularly like Tatol’s discussion of how judgments may change with age. And, like him, I am interested in comparing judgments of visual art to rock ‘n’roll criticism. He’s not, I would just note, quite fair to the Victorian view of Piero della Francesca; the then director of the National Gallery, London purchased the works you can see in that museum. But that’s a minor picky point. I promise to keep looking at Manhattan Art Review. It’s encouraging to see that that are new voices to discover. I can only touch on a few points in this rich discussion.

Right now there is a great deal of criticism being published. The print media have, it’s true, faded. There is less newspaper coverage, fewer newspapers and Arts Magazine is long gone. But they have replacements. I write for Two Coats of Paint, Hyperallergic and The Brooklyn Rail. Also for Counterpunch. Between just these four publications there is a lot of coverage, including accounts of the smaller or marginal galleries. I suspect that there is more writing in just these publications than anyone, except maybe our hard working editors, has time to read. Because of the familiar Brooklyn-centric focus, what’s missing still is concern with shows provincial settings, like Pittsburgh, where I live.

Tatol and Davis are concerned to legislate, to provide some rules for criticism. In particular, they are concerned with the critical role of this art writing. I expect that almost every writer shares this concern. If you like everything, then your positive reviews are meaningless. But, conversely, if you are too critical about too much contemporary art, then you fall into the position of Hilton Kramer on the right or Benjamin Buchloh on the left. You really have taken yourself out of the art world because you find the entire activity essentially flawed. Maybe you’re right, but it’s boring to always read that same critical judgment. Apart from that, it’s very hard for me to imagine the effect of rules such as Tatol proposes.

Writing art criticism is an inherently social activity. You and I and other writers make judgments, hoping that they will be accepted, but knowing that often this doesn’t take place. In this way, my image of the activity is deeply Kantian. Aesthetic judgments are not demonstrable- they aren’t matter of fact. And so the only test of their plausibility is social. This, to cite historical cases, is why Clement Greenberg’s view of Jackson Pollock, Leo Steinberg’s analysis of Jasper Johns, and the more recent critical consensus about the value of the art of Eva Hesse, Catherine Murphy, and Lillian Tomasko matters.

We certainly can argue about whether art criticism ever has much effect. The real problem with this activity, I think, is that it’s almost impossible to support yourself writing criticism. I speak, I should add, as a retired tenured professor who wrote art criticism on the side, as a hobby, like growing prize roses. And of course, this economic reality is why its so natural for critics (like those associated with October) to make their way into the academic world. There is a great book to be written about the rise of gentrification and the disappearance of the independent intellectual. In that way, Charles Baudelaire, who wrote so many pleading letters begging for money, has turned out to be a role model.

Follow the money / Contributed by Laurie Fendrich

Follow the money and you find the main cause of so little negative art criticism being written today. Venues publishing art criticism are commonly supported by advertising from the art world, especially galleries, and no one in the art world wants to pay for advertising if there’s even a small chance of being trashed.

Yet following the money won’t completely answer the question of why so much art criticism today is affirmative.  What explains why negative art criticism rarely appears in The New York Times or The Washington Post (with Sebastian Smee at the Post being an exception), neither of which relies on art-world advertising to maintain their fairly strong arts coverage? And what explains the decline of the ferociously vigorous sort of art criticism from the 1930s and 1940s (e.g., that written by Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, or Leo Steinberg), or the fierce writing of Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes in the second half of the last century? 

Near the end of his life, the late Irving Sandler saw an inertia afflicting the art world that he often attributed to the decline of art world “polemics.” He was talking about the decline of passionate arguments among artists and critics that had marked avant-garde modern art up until the plethora of new styles and forms exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s also worth pointing out that once artists and critics embraced “tolerance” of multiple art styles and art forms, and the age of “pluralism” settled in, they lost the passion for aesthetic principles. Or maybe it was the other way around—first they lost the aesthetic principles, and then they embraced tolerance. In any event, once passionate convictions about art disappeared, writing about it, at least for a while, responded by turning to theory, and after that moved to mere description and telling the backstories of the artists.

Another problem is that critics are scared that if they write negative art criticism they’ll end up disliked by their peers, possibly even ostracized, or maybe even find it hard to get their art criticism published. Several years ago, I was with my husband Peter Plagens at a cocktail party in Barbara Haskell’s home when, in front of a large group of people standing around talking to Barbara, Mel Bochner made a show of refusing to shake Peter’s hand and then turned his back on him and walked away. He said he wouldn’t shake hands because Peter had written a negative review of one of his shows. The behavior was rude, but it points to an essential truth about artists: Deep down (actually, not all that deep down), they want approval for their work, not honest criticism.

Finally, the rise of identity art and identity politics has increased pressure on critics to avoid negative criticism because it’s made many works of art essentially personal. How does one criticize art when that which separates the artist from the work of art is well-nigh nonexistent?  Critics will back off if there’s a high risk that judging art negatively will be read as negatively judging the artist’s very identity.

With so much art criticism now tepid prose, it’s hardly surprising to learn that Sean Tatol is popular. 


  1. Here at ArteSumapaz, we’ve adopted and adapted Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP). For a lot of reasons, I think an approach based on what might be considered a softer approach – a more humanistic, loving response, is preferable.

  2. I need to look at ArteSumapaz. What’s great about Liz Lerman’s CRP is that it actually asks what the artist is after, solicits peer response, and aims for clear strong realization of the artist’s vision/goals for the work. “Criticism” becomes not judgment or total acceptance, but support for strengthening the art work itself.

  3. Reading your account of how Mel Bochner refused to shake Peter’s hand reminded me of Janet Malcolm’s wonderful piece on Artforum from The New Yorker in 1986, in which she described a spat between Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Artforum, and Richard Serra, who maintained that Artforum had unfairly maligned or undervalued him. In fact, I believe Serra damn near assaulted her physically (I now can’t find the piece in the archives). Shades of brawls at the Cedar Tavern.

    I read very little criticism anymore (nor do I do much reviewing), but I do miss the strong voices you mention: Robert Hughes, Clement Greenberg, Leo Steinberg, even crusty old Hilton Kramer. Seems like there was a lot more passion (and blood on the floor).

    When I wrote for ARTnews way back when, it was a tacitly acknowledged reality that you couldn’t turn in a completely negative review–for fear of alienating advertisers. I have no idea if that’s still the case, or if ARTnews even publishes many reviews.

  4. Jerry Saltz can be/is often nasty or as you put it “scathing”.

  5. Enjoyed reading the counterpoints to Tatol’s essay, but why did I sense the inevitability of Saltz popping up in this convo?

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