The Critic is hated, vile and shallow. True artists despise him even as the public ignores him.

Bereft of a body of work to call his own, he fills his sallow days casting pebbles of erudition at the chiseled granite erected by purveyors of Art.

Now let me tell you why that is wrong.


I’ll back up a little bit and explain. Why waste my first post on such a tired subject? Because it’s taken on a new relevance in light of the digital age, where we are bombarded with information and creativity, and more importantly, with the rise of my generation, one of whose chief characteristics is to believe that whatever an individual spouts into the public sphere must be, if in justification only to that individual’s own standards, valuable, provocative, and worthy of appreciation, if not praise.

And in an age when we are so easily subjected to the entreaties of individuals who attach the label “art” to whatever effluent flows from their synaptic stream, good criticism is more essential than ever – and it’s getting rarer.

I’ve been contemplating the role of the critic on and off since a conversation I had over a pitcher with a couple fellow 20-somethings at an Austin watering hole, sometime in late June. Friend One talked about going to an art exhibit with a third person, who apparently grew up with artists and therefore spent the entire time criticizing the work.

“I hate that,” Friend Two said. “Any time I hear somebody criticizing someone else’s work, I just think, ‘well, what have you done?'”

Friend One agreed.

This didn’t sit well with me. So, I thought, we’re supposed to go to art exhibits and passively peruse untrammeled genius?

A lively conversation ensued in which I defended the role of the critic in placing art within a context – of history, movement, standards – and my friends, well, they disagreed. It took all of five minutes, then we moved on to another subject.


The conversation jumped back to mind two months later, as I put together this little piece about the Jepson Center for the Arts’ Kirk Varnedoe Collection. Varnedoe was a renowned art historian, critic and scholar who died of cancer, sadly before his time. He delivered lectures to standing-room-only crowds in the great halls of learning after butting heads and opening eyes as MoMA’s Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture (a post he held for 13 years).

Varnedoe helped define a movement and delineated its precepts in books such as this one. I don’t know if he ever created an original work of his own, but the exhibitions he curated at MoMA – including retrospectives of artists like Chuck Close, Jasper Johns and Joan Miro – changed the course of that institution. As did his practice of allowing some of those same artists to organize exhibitions from the museum’s permanent collection in the Artist’s Choice series. Varnedoe played the gatekeeper role with a sense of civic responsibility, making connections between deserving artists and the public, while writing and rewriting artistic dogma.

So I thought about that old conversation again, the idea that critics are hopeless hangers-on and hacks, that criticism is mostly the work of a solipsistic mind, and it struck me as ridiculous.

The evidence of Varnedoe’s impact is seen in the roster of artists who donated work to the Varnedoe Collection after his death: Jasper Johns is there. So are Roy Lichtenstein and Chuck Close. Richard Avedon donated a portrait of Varnedoe and Robert Rauschenberg gave a couple kitschy photo transfers. None of the works are from the top shelf of those artists’ collections – the quality is commensurate with the permanent collection of a mid-sized museum such as the Telfair Museum of Art, which runs the Jepson – but that kind of regard from the artistic world shows you the impact one man can make without any instrument but a judgmental pen and a discerning mind.

From the exhibition’s associated publication, Jasper Johns had this to say:

Kirk was full of analytical ideas, aside from just appreciating or valuing the work. He distinguished himself in that way. His thought had a historical overview, and all of his concerns seemed connected to that. …

Our work is more immediate, and historical placement is in a large measure accidental or an outside consideration. Artists are alive when they are alive and know more or less what has preceded them. They may care about such history and what they have learned about it, but such knowledge tends to be less important than the force of intuition.

The experience of art is not a settled affair, even for someone like Kirk. It is an investigation and an ongoing discovery, and I think he approached everything in theat way.

One of the critic’s most important jobs is to settle that affair, one score at a time, placing the individual intuition into the broader context of the flow of history. It’s a dirty job sometimes, but good criticism can serve as wise council – such as Peter Bart’s convincing dissuasion against rendering Great Gatsby to film – and a guiding light.


Finally, the reason I am beginning with this post, is because last night this all came to my mind again. And I could continue on with arguments, examples of great criticism and its salutary cultural effects, but in reading Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives I came across the following passage. Quoted in the story from peripheral character, critic Inaki Echevarne, the passage describes brilliantly the role of (in this case literary) criticism:

For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude. To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed. Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness.

To the critic goes the job of sailing in a work’s wake: letting her float out to sea, alone and abandoned, or redirecting her course into the great stream of consciousness against which artistic intuition floats upstream and against the odds.