Art criticism is culture care
Consider with me, if you will, a maligned and despised profession. Those who labor in it are often treated with ambivalence or contempt by the very people who are affected the most by their work—I’m talking about art critics, of course. Artists often talk about critics as if they were some sort of parasite or barnacle, at best only getting in the way and at worst actually stifling artists’ ability to express themselves. We can see the common attitude toward critics in the word “critical” itself; it’s a value-coded word, and being described as “critical” always implies negative criticism. But I declare that the time has come for critics to re-establish their rank as a helper and valuable player in the arts. What critics do for the art world is very important; critics are vital to a healthy, thriving art ecosystem.
What critics do can be fit very neatly into Makato Fujimura’s idea of culture care. Fujimura’s two books Culture Care and Art + Faith: A Theology of Making are must-reads for anyone interested in cultivating an artistic practice rooted in principles of Christian thought. In these books, he lays out a comprehensive vision for what it could mean for a Christian to make art according to the principles of their faith, centered around his idea of “culture care,” the deliberate pursuit of practices which are designed to cultivate, nurture, and heal the cultural environment around us. Being a practicing artist himself, Fujimura gives advice which is defaulted toward those readers of his who are also artists. His principles, though, can be more broadly applied, and although I do not recall him ever specifically mentioning the role of the critic in his writings, it is certainly true that the critical function can be performed in a way which nurtures, instead of diminishes, the artistic disciplines.
Art critics don’t have to act like Anton Ego from Ratatouille or Egon and Zak from Hitch. Instead of gruff dismissiveness, their attitude could be one of celebration; the critics get to be the cheer team for the amazing stuff that the artists are producing. I call for an expanded definition of what an art critic could be. I see art critics as a kind of factotum or griot, acting as an embodied cultural memory and making connections between all the different parts of the art world, pulling them together into a coherent whole.
The art ecosystem contains many roles: promoter, patron, collector, teacher, theorist, &c., &c.—chief, of course, being the artists themselves. Many of these roles overlap but they are all essential, and they all need each other. For instance, artists often have difficulty promoting and selling their own works. They might have extraordinary technical skill, but for some reason it seems like an entirely different set of skills is needed to sell a piece of art. Notable exceptions occur; Andy Warhol seemed to be able to make and to sell art with equal facility. But ordinarily it takes a special talent to do the selling and promoting.
But the promoter isn’t often as interested in how or why art is made. Their role as hype squad for new art is not the same as the role of, say, a theorist or aesthetician, who can describe with greater clarity the content and meaning behind the works—often, with greater clarity than the artist can. The roles of theorist / aesthetician often coincide with the role of art historian, who can slot an artwork into its particular place in time and position it in relation to the styles and movements of the past.
Historians and theorists can discuss art in relation to the past, but their skill in relating it to the present is not as pronounced. This is the role that collectors fill—those who are at the forefront of discovering new movements and feeling the pulse of the current climate. Even though collectors are kind of a despised group—they are accused of merely following fashion, and interested only in seeing their own portfolio grow—their role as financial supporters of artists is essential. Artists have to eat and pay the rent just like everyone else, and collectors are the ones who give the artists the funds necessary to keep working.
Collectors, however, are always one step behind the artists—unless they take on the more demanding role of patron. Patrons can help shape the future; they are able to influence the course of art history by giving financial support to artists who can then follow their own creative impulses. This happens most frequently with government and foundation grants these days, but there’s no reason private individuals can’t give lump sums of money to artists to do with what they will. There is also a long history of quasi-patrons who repeatedly collect works by their favorite artists on a one-at-a-time basis, as they are made—this is what Gertrude Stein did for Picasso, what Charles Saatchi did for Damien Hirst, and what Erik Hoel is doing for.
Art critics are the ones who tie all these roles together. They act as promoters of artists’ new work to patrons while at the same time explaining why that new work is important. They work closely with artists, understanding their motivations and ideas, and advocating for the acceptance of their creations. Their knowledge of art history can also help new art find its place among what has been made before.
The art critic is the one who helps bring new art into the world. They help bring to fruition the concepts that artists develop, helping to broaden their reach and gain acceptance. They are hype squad, historian, theorist, and commentator all rolled into one. Does this give them too much power over the work of the artists? Well . . . does the midwife or obstetrician have too much power over a newborn baby?
Of course, this can’t be done in a self-serving or exploitative way. This is why an understanding of Fujimura’s culture care idea is essential for art critics; his concept helps critics curb their self-serving tendencies and shows them how to truly act in service to the arts. The true critic, the one who thinks hard about their chosen art for the purpose of helping it develop to its full potential, is an invaluable ally for artists as they make art and bring it to the public’s attention.
For a while I was a member of a church in a small Presbyterian denomination which kept a pastor who was not affiliated with any church specifically, yet who was involved in ministry directly to the leadership of the individual churches—he was a “pastor to the pastors.” This always struck me as a very fascinating arrangement; it was an admission that even those who lead need counsel sometimes and must rely on a support network if they are to serve effectively. For Makato Fujimura’s conception of culture care to work in this world, the artists will need allies and support to ensure they themselves are doing their generative work to the best of their abilities. Ted Gioia recently said of music critics that they “serve as the conscience of the art form,” and that’s a very good way of describing what the best critical work could be.
Imagine this: an artist’s studio, and the artist has brought in a critic whose opinion they have grown to love and trust, so the critic can give advice on the artist’s newest work. “Well—what do you think?” the artist says—and in that moment, that moment of profound vulnerability for both artist and critic, the most important criticism is spoken. In that moment, the critic gets the chance to be a caregiver to the caregiver. And if that happens enough times, the artists, and hence the arts, will flourish as never before.
Here is an interesting overview of a style of handicraft known as “Fraktur Folk Art.” This style was popular in southeastern Pennsylvania among religious communities of Swiss-German heritage and flourished in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It was primarily used for decorations on official documents such as birth certificates and marriage licenses. It is highly decorative and generic in an endearing, pleasant way.
Now . . . with Fractur Folk Art in mind, consider Zombie Formalism, the art style recognized by Jerry Salz in this essay. Salz bemoans the overall blandness of contemporary abstract art; it’s “handsome, harmless,” and “decorator-friendly, especially in a contemporary apartment or house,” he complains. “It feels cerebral and looks hip in ways that flatter collectors even as it offers no insight into anything at all.”
But really . . . isn’t Zombie Formalism just another kind of folk art? Pennsylvania Mennonites needed a visual environment in which to write their marriage notices; similarly, modern-day hospitals, banks, and corporate offices need a coherent visual style to the paintings they wish to put up on their walls. Hence, Zombie Formalism.
If Zombie Formalism is the new folk art, then what counts as folk art and what doesn’t? Is the division between high culture and low culture finally going to break down? As Louis Armstrong said once, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”