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Sarah Kent: Criticism – A UK Perspective


New York-based paper Brooklyn Rail recently invited US critic, and President of AICA International, Marek Bartelik, to act as guest editor for their May issue. The result, ‘On the State of Art Criticism in Europe‘ sought to examine the state of art criticism in Europe by inviting critics from across the continent to reflect on their perspective, as well as inviting artists to interview those same critics. Following on her notes in the Guardian this January, AICA UK are pleased to launch their ‘Comment’ section of the organisation’s website with Sarah Kent’s contribution to the Brooklyn Rail, along with her accompanying interview with artist Phyllida Barlow.

Recently, I served on the jury of the coveted London-based Arts Foundation Award for arts journalism and it was a sobering experience. Applicants submitted three articles, an appraisal of their practice, a summary of how they planned to spend the money, and what difference they thought winning would make. I was shocked not just because the quality of the writing was so high, but because of the frustration expressed by many of the applicants and the air of desperation that emanated from their submissions.

Some of them specialized in reviewing theater, others in music, art, craft, or film criticism. Some wrote for mainstream print media, others for specialist publications, obscure fanzines, or online review sites. For most, survival depended on trying pretty much anything that came to hand or on creating fresh initiatives, and I was struck by the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence which they brought to the challenge. They were committed writers eager to make a difference, yet painted a picture of a profession in crisis.

While relative newcomers were desperate for a job, those working full time described the exhaustion that results from churning out endless material and finding no time for considered reflection. Freelancers complained of spending more time touting for work and chasing payment than writing copy. There was a need for time to focus on a long term, in-depth project and bring it to fruition as a production or publication. Most shocking, though, were the mid-career critics who feared redundancy or had already lost their jobs and were desperate to re-train in the hope that diversifying would provide them with new opportunities. When the Independent on Sunday axed its review section last summer all its critics lost their jobs.

You could argue that professional critics are irrelevant now that we have bloggers expressing instant opinions on everything from books to films, television, artworks, operas, and albums. The owners and editors of national newspapers seem to agree. Whereas the quality of our mainstream arts coverage was once admired internationally, critics are now being replaced by feature writers who produce copy as bland as a press release, or sycophantic interviews about the subject’s celebrity rather than their work, of which many seem dismally ignorant. Budget-strapped radio programs are replacing reviews for which they have to pay with interviews that come for free. The aims of the artist, curator, or producer get an airing, which can be interesting but listeners are not offered an appraisal of whether or not the show is worthy of attention.

I became a critic in the mid-1970s because there was a dire need for someone sympathetic and knowledgeable to write about art. I had emerged from the Slade School of Art in the mid-’60s as an ambitious painter intent on making my mark and was lucky to be included in a survey show at the Camden Arts Centre. I sold everything yet was deeply disappointed, because the media coverage had been patronizing and banal. Like many artists, I craved an intelligent response; otherwise making art seemed lonely and pointless. Without an audience, I felt like a dog howling in the wilderness.

The London art world was small and parochial; by and large, contemporary art was viewed with suspicion, indifference, or downright hostility. I began writing for Studio International, the only British magazine specializing in contemporary art; but to earn a living, I had to enter the mainstream and became Visual Arts Editor of Time Out magazine. Rather than writing for interested parties, I now had to address the general public. My goal was to inject life into the conservative art scene by writing provocative prose demonstrating that contemporary art matters, thereby creating a climate in which artists could thrive. Over the next 30 years, Time Out was the only publication that consistently reviewed exhibitions while they were still on show, which made us extremely influential.

Today things are very different, of course. Hostility has given way to admiration; art is so fashionable that high profile exhibitions attract more punters than football matches. This may be good for museums desperately short of funds, but it is bad news for critics. Box office returns are of paramount importance, so in order to ensure good press, galleries micro-manage media responses. During the press view, the curator will take a hoard of hacks on a tour of the exhibition and tell them what to write; they traipse off to file obsequious reports scarcely having glanced at the show, and everyone is happy.

Since Tate Modern opened in 2000, London has become an international center for contemporary art and big name dealers like Gagosian, Pace, and Hauser & Wirth have opened galleries here and auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s are thriving. In this booming art market, critics are similarly irrelevant. Collectors motivated by a love of art and who value informed opinion are increasingly outnumbered by people looking for investment opportunities; for them the only relevant information is the asking price and the security of the asset.

Why does this matter? Because art is not simply part of the leisure industry nor just a commodity. Its role is not just to delight, amaze, or accrue in value. Good art holds up a critical mirror to society, and it thrives in a climate of lively and informed debate. Emerging artists need the endorsement of an intelligent response and successful artists, under pressure to churn out more of the same, need encouragement to risk failure by trying something new. Mindless adulation is as poisonous as indifference, animosity, or neglect.

For readers, intelligent criticism provides an example of how to think analytically and arrive at judgments that don’t parrot received opinion—skills that are important in daily life. We are encouraged to regard ourselves as consumers who absorb rather than agents who think, assess, or do. Good criticism exemplifies active engagement rather than passive consumption, and is an education for us all.

10 Questions From Phyllida Barlow for Sarah Kent


Phyllida Barlow: What are the differences between “reviewing” and “criticism”?

Sarah Kent: Critics perform various tasks from reviewing exhibitions, to writing monographs, delivering lectures, and contributing essays to books and catalogues. In each case, the constraints differ, but favorable comments are generally more welcome than negative ones and in some cases are obligatory. For instance, as catalogue essays are marketing tools intended to enhance an artist’s reputation, anything critical will most likely be rejected.

This is equally true of books published by galleries and museums. The role of publishers, though, is to sell books rather than artworks so, in theory, a publication could be critical yet sell like hot cakes, especially if it were controversial. Reviewers supposedly have more freedom, but some publications are reluctant to print negative reviews for fear of losing advertising revenue. I’ve heard of galleries and P.R. companies erasing from their mailing lists reviewers who criticize a show and I’ve had experience of artists demanding to edit my copy before releasing photographs of their work.

Barlow: Why is “description” being used as such a dominant form, style and content, and literary device, by the art critic/reviewer?

Kent: Description is increasingly used in lieu of critical appraisal because the critics don’t know how to evaluate work that vitiates their criteria, because they fear their views may be unacceptable, or because they believe that judgment is no longer relevant. When Robert Hughes titled his collection of reviews Nothing if not Critical (Harvill press, 1990), he was challenging beliefs expressed by Thomas McEvilley, Hal Foster, Craig Owens, and others that making value judgments was inappropriate.

Since deciding whether or not to write about a work already involves choice, I believe judgment is unavoidable. If work does not interest me, I often decline to review it, so the idea that one’s passions and prejudices can be sidestepped is, I believe, a form of self-deception.

Barlow: Why do art critics/reviewers so blatantly lack the courage to write about the un-writable—art which is non-verbal and non-literary?

Kent: Surprisingly few are equipped to translate visual sensations into meaningful words. The years I spent as an abstract painter and lecturer in art history and criticism were an invaluable preparation. An extensive knowledge of art history is essential, but having been an artist, I believe I have more understanding of the creative process than most academics.

Barlow: Is art criticism, and/or art reviewing, now entrenched in a moral stance?

Kent: I equate the adoption of a moral stance with dismay at work that does not conform to expectations. As Jake Chapman likes to point out, the assumption that art should, or could, be morally uplifting or socially useful is fundamentally misguided since art is fundamentally amoral. The only sensible way to approach new work is with an open mind, though one’s responses are inevitably informed by one’s knowledge and prejudices.

Barlow: To whom is the art review/criticism directed?

Kent: A review is directed at those who read it whether that is the artist, members of the public, curators, collectors, other critics or, in some cases, posterity. I like to think that an intelligent appraisal can be useful to anyone.

Barlow: Are art critics/reviewers afraid of failure?

Kent: I think almost everyone is afraid of failure; a critic is only as good as their last review and their opinion is taken seriously only if it is considered free of influence or bias. I learned very quickly that, as a critic, one can’t afford to have artists or curators as friends, since people who supposedly value independent thought still expect special treatment if they are friends. The reality is that most critics do have such friendships and so are not free of bias.

Barlow: How does the history of art criticism affect a contemporary art critic’s position of what and how they write?

Kent: There must be as many answers to this question as there are critics. Before I began writing in the mid-1970s, I wanted to study art criticism, but no such course existed, so I did an M.A. in art history and aesthetics. But it was reading books by Roland Barthes, Gregory Battcock, John Berger, Thomas McEvilley, Hal Foster, Clement Greenberg, Lucy Lippard, Stuart Morgan, Linda Nochlin, Craig Owens, and many others that taught me how to look at, analyze, and contextualize works of art. And since so much of the art being produced at the time was steeped in theory, I also read Adorno, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Foucault, Freud, Derrida, Lacan, Wittgenstein, and others.

Nowadays one can study art criticism at university, but it is my belief that most original contributions come from left of field rather than orthodox channels, so I’m not convinced that this development is positive.

Barlow: How do art critics/reviewers assess their own work, including their own formal, conceptual, and aesthetic preferences?

Kent: Few people, I suspect, are able to attain enough distance to review their positions, especially as inherent in the making of judgments is belief in one’s ability to do so without prejudice. To be wholly objective is impossible, of course; one’s perceptions are shaped by age, gender, class, cultural and educational background, and experience. More than once I’ve encountered work that has disgusted and enraged me, only to realize later that my discomfort came from being forced to rethink my position. As a student at the Slade, I remember being dumbfounded by Pop Art, because it challenged my assumptions about what art might look like or be about. Interestingly, once the shift has been made it is irreversible.

Barlow: Does a critic/reviewer’s prejudice for or against a work lead to avoiding admitting this through fear of losing credibility and, instead, writing in a very convoluted and, maybe, sycophantic or sarcastic way (depending on the prejudice) which, in fact, reveals that prejudice in a disguised and therefore dishonest way?

Kent: Even though editors can be fooled by it, bluster is pretty transparent. Theorizing can be far more pernicious since it provides a veil of obfuscation behind which to hide confusion, prejudice, and so on. It is easy to mistake verbosity for wisdom and to assume that, if something is unintelligible, it must be profound.

Barlow: Are the roles of critics and reviewers now redundant, as a consequence of the events of 9/11 and the rise of a global art scene?

Kent: You could argue that horrific events such as 9/11 make art irrelevant and criticism superfluous. As Adorno famously remarked, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Faced with what he called the “final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism,” for him cultural criticism also seemed redundant; in these circumstances, he concluded that “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.”

Criticism is now being pushed into the realm of “idle chatter” by a less apocalyptic but no less insidious shift in the way art is perceived. From an activity that encourages discourse, it is being reduced to an investment opportunity for the super rich. And once art is viewed primarily as a commodity, critics have no function beyond endorsing or neglecting it.

Art has been allocated another role, though; exhibitions are more popular than ever. Museums seem to be fulfilling a function once provided by the church—as somewhere to go on Sundays, whether for spiritual nourishment or from idle curiosity. In this context, critics still have a chance to contribute to a discussion of what art is about, what it is for, and whom it benefits. It may be small, but it is still a space worth fighting for.

About the contributors:

After 30 years as visual arts editor of Time Out magazine, SARAH KENT now writes for the Arts Desk and appears on programs such as Radio 3’s Night Waves. She studied painting at the Slade School and was an artist and lecturer until 1977, when she became Director of Exhibitions at the ICA, staging over 50 exhibitions by established and less well-known artists. She has served on numerous juries including the Turner Prize, John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award, New Contemporaries, the RBS Bursary Award, and the Arts Foundation Award for Arts Journalism. She has written catalogue essays for galleries including the Hayward, ICA, Saatchi Gallery, White Cube, and Haunch of Venison and for books such as Shark-Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90’s Rose Finn-Kelcey (Ridinghouse, London 2013) and Shelagh Wakely (ROOM books, London 2013).

PHYLLIDA BARLOW (born 1944) studied at Chelsea School of Art, London (1960 – 63) and then the Slade School of Fine Art, London (1963 – 66) where she later became a professor. “Dock” is a large installation currently occupying the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain. Other recent international major exhibitions include Venice Biennale (2013), Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2013), Des Moines Art Centre, Des Moines (2013), Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach (2013), New Museum, New York (2012), Ludwig Forum Aachen, Germany (2012), Kunstverein Nurnberg, Germany (2011), BAWAG Contemporary Vienna, Austria (2010), and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (2004). She became a Royal Academician in 2011 and lives and works in London.