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Critics’ Forum Report


On July 5th 2014, AICA and the Liverpool Biennial held a public forum at The Bluecoat, asking ‘How do critics work? Who do they write for?’ Chaired by independent curator Sacha Craddock, panel members included JJ Charlesworth (Art Review); Coline Milliard (Artnet), and Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton (President, AICA UK). The discussion took its cues from the Biennial itself, as well as the special issue of the Brooklyn Rail from May 2014, titled ‘Art Crit Europe’, taking stock of art criticism. (See Sarah Kent’s contribution in our Comment section here.)

Here, Craddock and Allthorpe-Guyton below give their accounts of the lively event, which ‘touched a nerve.’ With a broad set of backgrounds and work, the panel discussion ranged from the practicalities of publishing and the pressures of earning a living as a critic, to the gradual ossification of the art-audience relationship, and the question if people even listen to, or need listen to, the critic.

Milliard called it the ‘best of times and worst of times for art writing;’ similarly, Charlesworth described what he called the ‘Obi Wan Kenobi trajectory,’ where critics, who were previously part of the ’empire’, ie institutionally accepted with a role and status within that system, are now ‘out in the desert.’ Charlesworth further claimed that it was the loss of the public sphere and the public’s losing interest in contemporary art that was a central, undiscussed issue. Despite these views, the attendance and activity of the event attested to the interest, liveliness, and need for public critical discussion.


Sacha Craddock

The panel discussion aimed to cover a wide range of issues in a bid to introduce rather than answer a number of question about art writing today. It was probably a first to have a gathering of critics at the very beginning of a Biennale. In an attempt to address, at least open up, the range of issues and questions facing critics the panel discussed, seriously, the level of work needed to write about art in a time when everyone and everywhere can express an opinion. The notion of the art critic is perhaps eroded in this context.

The panel talked about what they chose to write about, whether in fact they were able choose what they write about. We got good explanations of a range of work; the isolated, hasty or ponderous, relations to editors, academic demand, the quick, the slow, the long and the short. Sarah Kent’s point about writers churning out endless material without time for reflection was touched on.

What Allthorpe-Guyton called the symbiotic relationship between making and doing, the verbalization of understanding was addressed. Ideas of accountability, justification for the art world, and the way in which words did seem, at a point, to make an artwork exist.

Then on to the relationship to the institution, the fact that a long time ago great writers would become the heads of museums, and still do in Spain. This led on to questions of independence of thought, the market, art fairs, the change in the role of the gallery exhibition, the relationship to private money and the undermining of the public gallery.

There is no underground, anyway, and so the last question, to the panel, on who they imagine they write for proved fascinating. Who is listening, anyway, how various is the audience, and do art writers try to help artists?


Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton

We touched a nerve; people were quick to respond:

To the view that lassoing group shows with a provoking title shows a lack of confidence in the works, works that are often quite disparate . And can detract wildly from them. The Biennial’s title, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack’ triggered cartoony images, and the song by Motown’s The Velvelettes.

To the academisation of making, of art and exhibitions, and of the art school, which has burdened the work with a literary and literal carapace. Whose place is it to claim the space of language to reflect on art, to make judgement on quality and give value? Is independent criticism possible when the marketing power of the institution seeks to manage critical response through the overwritten press release?

To the idea of critical writing as a creative practice which has a symbiotic relationship with making and of the independent critic with the compulsion of the artist who can reclaim the space of an eroded and weakened public realm.

To the fact that the emergence of a global and pervasive market was ‘at the expense of the cultural and political values that Europeans so painfully produced over the centuries’, according to Yanis Varonfakis, in his contribution to the Brooklyn Rail’s critcism issue.

To mourn for art the loss of the underground which ‘is no longer possible in cities which are so expensive that people cannot afford to be poor in them.’ (Nina Powers, Brooklyn Rail)

It was but the beginning of a long conversation…