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Criticism: a U.K. perspective

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.

Cover of Time Out magazine featuring Damien Hirst (October, 9, 1997).

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.


Sarah Kent

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).


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