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Art Critics, Art Criticism, and the Political Machine

by Brian Sherwin on 6/16/2011 8:52:53 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


In recent years I've been interested in how politics shapes the world of art writing-- how the political views of an art critic may shape his or her direction in art criticism. The rise of social media-- and the fact that so many notable art critics today embrace it-- has revealed a private side of professional art criticism that we would not have been aware of otherwise. After all, prior to the Internet professional art criticism was restricted to traditional print-- and in most cases the public would have only known the details of a critics personal preferences on specific issues if he or she happened to know the critic personally. Today is different. Unfortunately, it is common to find that the potential for political bias-- if not total bigotry toward specific ideas-- thrives within the professional art world. As an art writer-- and student of art history-- that concerns me.


When approaching this topic I thought at first that it might be helpful to reveal whom I consider examples of this 'critical' problem. However, I've learned that if you call a specific art critic out for alleged professional bigotry he or she will simply deny it or try to turn the proverbial tables. These individuals know who they are-- and it is not hard for anyone to spot them simply by observing their activity online. By 'following' an art critic online-- such as being a 'friend' on Facebook-- one can observe how his or her personal views-- specifically in the realm of politics-- may very well shape his or her professional direction as a writer. What would have only been assumed in the past can now be verified simply by researching the digital paper trail of the art critic.


The problem today is that we live in an age of social and political extremes-- you are either 'this' or 'that' and if you don't 'fit' within an individuals political and social agenda you may as well be dirt in his or her eyes.. We see this form of political and social extremism everyday-- one need only pick up a morning newspaper or turn on the television. That said, I would think that most would not expect to find that form of blind one-sidedness spewing from the mouth of an art critic. After all, people generally view art critics as open-minded individuals, true? One would like to think that the art world-- in general-- can handle a plethora of viewpoints expressed visually, right? Unfortunately, I've found that is not always the case.


The more I look into this issue the more I realize that in order to take an art critic seriously within this boiling political landscape one must really look at what an art critic has written about beyond just art. Readers should look into the backgrounds of the artists the critic has championed compared to those he or she has 'trashed'-- look at what the art critics 'says' using social media as a platform for communicating with others, find out if the critic has intentions or motivations that are obviously beyond the importance of art. With that information gathered-- the reader should consider just how important those factors are to the critic as an individual-- and decide if the critic is viewing art through a strict political tunnel.


I know an art critic who clearly allows his political inclinations to impact his opinions on almost every aspect of life. This specific art critic clearly places himself within the extreme left-wing of United States politics-- though he may not admit that directly. It is obvious due to the fact that this specific critic describes those who oppose his views as "maniacs", "religious wacko's" or "cynical liars"-- or worse. In a sense, he lumps anyone who has conservative views into one pile-- all while calling them extremists-- when in reality he is just as extreme as the individuals he verbally attacks on an almost daily basis-- he is just on the other side of the fence and therefore believes that he is "right". If he lumps people together like that-- is it wrong to suggest that perhaps he lumps artists in the same way professionally? Could it be that he intentionally avoids writing about specific artists due to his strong personal views on politics and other issues? I for one think these are questions worth asking.


The art critic I'm thinking about has every right to champion his political tendencies by means of posting offensive prose and conducting hard-line dialogue with anyone who opposes his extreme views of others. However, one must ask if his preference for releasing a constant barrage of personal political rhetoric within the realm of social media is also reflected in his choice of art to write about-- and thus, the artists he promotes through his profession as an art critic. If that is the case-- one must consider just how reliable his opinions are in regard to how the art of today is documented for the future. I for one don't think that art should be a slave to political bigotry-- I don't think the art history of tomorrow should be burdened by political one-sidedness today.


It is no secret that this form of political bigotry has dominated the mainstream art world for several decades now. The problem is that very few of the art critics I'm thinking about have the courage to make it known that they do have extreme views that almost serve as a requirement for their professional attention. If they are called out on it they simply suggest that the accuser does not know what he or she is talking about-- even if years of social media ranting proves otherwise. Why is that? My guess is that art critics with this clearly one-sided mentality-- this, politically enforced tunnel vision-- don't want to hamper their professional opportunities or the legacy in art writing they leave behind by making it clear that their devotion to a political agenda out-weighs the devotion they should have for art in general.


It is difficult for someone to have hard-line political opinions while at the same time attempting to convey a sense of open-mindedness within his or her profession-- especially if that professional is an art critic. Art critics who clearly choose to adhere to a specific political ideology will most likely be remembered for their one-sidedness. After all, everything we post online serves to document who we are as individuals-- every post is just one screenshot away from being preserved for others to see at a later date. I think future generations will see that many influential art critics today have burdened their careers-- and professional integrity-- by becoming thrall to political and social extremes while disregarding everything else. When this stage of current political extremes comes to an end-- they will be looked upon as fools.


Where do I fit in this? I never addressed myself as an art critic until readers started addressing me as one. I suppose I've earned whatever importance the 'title' has in the minds of some people. Most-- I hope-- would say that my art writing over the years-- not just on FineArtViews-- has been fair and balanced for the most part. As a critic I don't hide the fact that I have some politically and socially conservative views. However, I can quickly show where I've interviewed or spoke positively about artists who have a totally opposite view of politics and society. After all, I've written about a wide range of artists over the years-- and the ideas put forth by that collective of artists is extremely varied. I don't allow personal views to severe connections before they are even made-- and the only extreme I embrace is the extreme of allowing various opinions-- both verbally and visually-- the chance to 'speak'. That is not to say that I can't be overly critical at times-- but I'm also open to exploring ideas expressed visually that I don't necessarily agree with. To me that is the role of an art critic-- to look past and find meaning.


I look at the individual when I interview or write about an artist-- I don't consider if the individual stands in opposition of my own personal views. I don't scrap an interview or review when I discover that an artist believes this way, that way, or the other. I'm obligated to the art. Thus, my personal views on key political and social issues have little to do with whether art deserves to 'speak'-- no matter the message! I 'listen'. I view art writing as being bigger than me-- bigger than the views I may personally have. Thus, I find it important to seek out a plethora of viewpoints-- even if they run against the grain of my own views. To me that is the responsibility and integrity of an art writer-- of an art critic-- or at least one who cares beyond his or her personal intentions and motivations.


In closing, I believe that we are currently living in one of the most interesting times for art criticism. The clash of increased exposure to information, mass media, and extreme opinions-- overall-- have come together in a way that is both exciting and alarming. Art criticism will never be the same. I realize that many will say that art and politics don't mesh well-- but it happens everyday within the realm of art criticism. True, it may at times be concealed-- but it is there looking back at us. It is up to the reader to see beyond the reviews in order to place an art critic into perspective-- to decide if he or she is part of a political machine... and if so, to what extent.


Take care, stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Related Posts:

The Bias and Hypocrisy of the Mainstream Contemporary Art World: Does it bother you?

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Andy Warhol + Religion = Contemporary Art World

Topics: art appreciation | art criticism | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | inspiration 

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Paul Murphy
Hello Brian, I've long held the view that art criticism and political biase have gone hand in glove for many years, especially in the UK.
When I was an art student many years ago it was clear that if you were naturally drawn to representational art you were somehow deficient, regressive, conservative, reactionary etc etc etc....I can remember one of my art school teachers calling representational art 'illusionism', and totally irrelevant and worthless for that. Certain types of conceptual and abstract art were the only genres considered worthy of attention. Art was considered critically valid or interesting if it was 'subversive' or 'irreverent'. I clearly remember an artschool tutor telling me that I had to be dealing with 'extremes' in order to be creating wothwhile art.
I became so disillusioned with this as a young would-be artist that I lost any sense of purpose or direction in my developement and not having any natural inclination toward conceptual art, gave up and changed career.
It was only since the advent of the internet that I became aware of the great wealth of really high quality representational painting going on. Most of this seemed to be in the USA though I came to realise that the were many wonderful artists working in Britain as well largley ignored by the mainstream media.
I think the internet has opened up a channel for painters to find an audience un prejudiced by the kind of biased politically driven criticism that you describe.

Brian Sherwin
Thanks Paul. I agree that representational artists do appear to have a hard time within the mainstream art world-- especially if they are exploring conservative social and political themes with their artwork. However, I'd say that artists in general-- if they reveal personal conservative viewpoints-- have it rough no matter what direction of art they adhere to.

A clear social and political bias does exist within vital areas of the professional art world-- and art critics ranging from Ken Johnson in NYC to Ben Luke in the UK have hinted at it.

There is this idea that all artists are cut from the same social and political cloth-- that simply is not true. The fact that so many feel that way-- feel that all artists are liberal-minded-- shows just how tight the 'gates' have been closed within the contemporary art world. The scope is narrow and has been for decades.

It is almost as if we have been conditioned to think that art takes a specific direction... speaks specific messages... that artists are all unified on specific social and political issues. There is more to art than that. There is more to individuals than that.

With the Internet I feel that it will be very hard for traditionally left-leaning art professionals-- critics, curators, museum directors-- to contain art to specific ideologies. The public observes that there is more going on... and questions start to be asked.

The Internet will force the strongholds of the mainstream art world to be more open to a plethora of ideas expressed visually-- or appear closed-minded if specific themes and directions of art continue to be denied regardless of public opinion.

Bob Ragland
No art critic can speak louder than a bill collector.


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