Fifty shades of art criticism

By Franciska de Beer

What is good art criticism exactly? The question was raised last week in the Groninger Museum where the symposium ‘Art criticism, art theory and art history. A complicated complex interplay?’ took place. With scholars from so many divergent fields attending, I was curious to find out what direction the debate would take.

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The reason for the symposium was the recent release of two books: Kunstkritiek in een tijd van vervagende grenzen by Annemarie Kok and Spaces for Criticism by Pascal Gielen and Thijs Lijster. For this occasion, art historians, art theorists, art sociologist and art philosophers gathered round to discuss the nature of good art criticism. For me, to write an art critical blog about a debate concerning art criticism, with the crème de la crème of the academic field attending, lies somewhere between dangerous and impossible. Dangerous because they are my lecturers and impossible because they are from different disciplines and thus will never fully agree.

One of the most interesting thoughts, in my opinion, was voiced by art historian Annemarie Kok. She claimed in her lecture that in the contemporary situation the domains of art history, art theory and art criticism are moving closer together. According to her, it would be fruitful if the three disciplines were to cooperate more, because this would lead to new insights. The statement caught my attention, because what are the consequences of this cooperation and how should it be realized in practice?

The lectures were followed by a round table debate, which included a multi-coloured palette of art disciplines, including two art historians, an art journalist, and an art sociologist. I had hoped to find out more about how the participants thought they should cooperate together. However, the discussion mainly focussed on the different opinions about art criticism. It was only after a few minutes that I realised that by listening very carefully to the arguments, one could figure out what the participants disagreed about and thus what the reasons were for a lack of cooperation so far.

One such point of disagreement was the status of art criticism. Art philosopher Thijs Lijster stated that art criticism today is more and more centred on the question: ‘Is it art?’ He emphasized Arthur Danto’s assertion that it is no longer self-evident what may be called ‘art’ and art criticism, according to Lijster, is especially suited to answer this question. Art theorist Camiel van Winkel, however, argued that contemporary art criticism deals with the question: ‘Is it worth seeing?’ Art criticism found in newspaper reviews, for instance, fulfils an advisory role by using the ‘star rating system’ in which the amount of stars or dots indicate show good the reviewer thinks the art is.

The topic gradually shifted from what art critics discuss to what they should discuss. Here, differences between the disciplines became particularly obvious. According to art historian Peter de Ruiter, a good art critic should first and foremost look very carefully at the artwork itself. Attention should be paid to the artworks on display and the artistic qualities of the artist. However, art sociologist Pascal Gielen, who was sitting at the other end of the table, clearly did not agree. “I don’t think it’s an interesting discussion at all whether something is of good quality or not. I am more interested in the Zeitgeist in which the artwork appears. To me the link with society is very important.” And here we have an explanation for why at least these two people are not yet collaborating.

On the whole, I think it was an interesting move to bring these various disciplines together for discussion, since it provided much food for thought. I hope there will be more interdisciplinary discussions in the future, because a collaboration between the various fields may indeed provide new insights. To come back at my initial question: What is good art criticism? Well, after attending this symposium, I would say that it depends on who you ask.

Image: Sander van der Bij