In the world of art, artists produce works, galleries and museums showcase them, and collectors end up buying them. Between these interlocking art gears, art criticism acts as a lubricant. Art critics are neither the creators nor the buyers of art; they connect art to its audience, being both an insider and a distance from all parties. Compared with other critics (such as film critics and book critics), art critics seem to be more mysterious. They are like shadows, always following the development of art.
The Origin and Development of Art Criticism
In ancient times, the opportunity to appreciate art was more often controlled by the elite class, and the general public lacked the opportunity to encounter art, let alone express artistic opinions. Therefore, it was not until the Renaissance that a number of detailed art analyses and critical essays on certain artists emerged. Prior to that, there were texts that resembled art criticism, but they were not systematic. The earliest art critical texts date back to the Cronica (1308-64), a work by Giovanni, Matteo and Filippo Villani, during the Renaissance.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, art treatises proliferated and offered many insights. Albrecht Dürer, for example, was the first art critic to state that “the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy,” and the first to analyze the intellectual emancipation underlying the Renaissance movement.
By the 17th century, theoretical criticism (theoretical art criticism) entered the picture, basing their analysis on reason and viewing art as the embodiment of the human creative mind. In the 18th century, the French writer Denis Diderot further expanded the medium of art criticism. His work The Salon of 1765 was the first attempt to portray artworks in written form. It was also during this time that newspapers and magazines began to create independent art criticism sections, and in the 1870s the Morning Chronicle became the first newspaper to systematically publish information about art exhibitions.
By the 19th century, artists were no longer working for religions or governments, but were free to create their own works, and private lives and everyday objects could be the subject of paintings, and sketches of paintings were allowed to be included in the list of works to be exhibited. As the art world became more liberal, tolerant and diverse, art criticism also blossomed.
Art Criticism Advances Art History
After centuries of development, a consensus gradually emerged on the content norms of art criticism articles, while the diversity of the objects of art criticism – the artworks themselves – was expanded. After World War II, the center of world art shifted from Paris to New York. As the center of art shifted, American art critics began to shine. At the time, the major American magazines were engaged in a war of attrition for the public’s attention, and the battlefield extended to art criticism. As a result, art criticism articles were printed and distributed to a wider audience with the mass circulation of magazines.
It can be said that the prestige of American art critics reached its peak in the 1920s and 1950s. Among the most influential of these critics were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. The two art critics, who were close friends of each other, were at odds with each other in their professional views, discussing the topic of “the maturation of American contemporary art,” proposing an analytical approach to abstract art, and successfully promoting the development of the abstract art movement in the United States.
The art critic Clement Greenberg, known for his theory of formalism, also introduced a new object of criticism, institutional criticism, and began to evaluate conceptual art.
Greenberg’s most significant contribution was his identification of derivative works of action painting and his recognition of the creative acts of artists. In his 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” he wrote：（The new American painting is not ‘pure’ art， since the extrusion of the object was not for the sake of the aesthetic. The apples weren’t brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to do so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting.）”This statement directly confronts Rosenberg’s emphasis on the formal and technical nature of painting.
For Greenberg, Abstract Expressionism was not a continuation of modern art, but a new beginning in art history. He believed that freedom was inherent in the creation of art, and that “the moment one decides to paint is the moment of greatness. Every movement wielded on the canvas was synonymous with liberation from political, aesthetic and moral bondage. Yet Greenberg did not choose to embrace subsequent artistic movements, such as Pop Art and Minimalism, and reflects his certain limitations.
On the other hand, the art critic Harold Rosenberg proposed abstract expressionism, along with support for action painters. Rosenberg’s art criticism has not only provoked thought in readers for its insights related to contemporary art, but has also directly influenced artists’ work. His critical essays have been called the cornerstone of understanding abstract expressionism, formalism, and “non-objective” art.
Thanks to Rosenberg’s sensitivity and foresight in contemporary art, he had the good sense to discover the artist who would become famous, Jackson Pollock. Rosenberg first mentioned Pollock’s name in a 1943 art article for the magazine The Nation: I was surprised and gratified to discover Jackson Pollock’s abstract works that were not overly abstract. He was the first painter I knew who could convey a positive force through his busy colors, and his work can be said to profoundly embody the essence of American painting (There is both surprise and fulfillment in Jackson Pollock’s not so abstract He is the first painter I know of to have got something positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of (American painting.). “The professional and forward-looking nature of art criticism is exemplified by the career journeys of two outstanding art critics, Greenberg and Rosenberg. Their contributions influenced the subsequent decades of art criticism, and to this day their art theory is an inescapable topic of conversation in art criticism.
Has current art criticism gone stale?
In the past, people had the impression that art criticism was mainly about interpreting art and judging its aesthetic value, and the status of art critics was highly respected for their high insight into and art. At the same time, artists also accept the opinions of art critics, allowing a positive circular mechanism to form between art criticism and art creation.
However, art criticism, once highly revered, is losing its voice in today’s age. Art historian James Elkins has pessimistically commented, “Art criticism is dying, it is being mass produced and massively ignored.” He argued that art criticism was becoming uninteresting, losing its professionalism and losing its originality over the past twenty years. Art critics have become more like the PR heads of contemporary artists, galleries and art markets, becoming a part of the contemporary art machine that supports the constant stream of money it spits out. As a result, the commercial value of art exceeds its spiritual value, aesthetic, emotional, cognitive, moral and other intangible values. As a result, each work of art is displayed to stimulate collectors’ impulse to consume, just like mass consumer goods that are mass-produced to expand sales. The article of art criticism is more like a loudspeaker, in order to hype and corroborate the value of a certain artwork and thus attract collectors’ consumption.
Art criticism has become less neutral, and we sometimes see art criticism articles in the form of propaganda copy. In addition, the influence of art criticism is not what it used to be. Artists and curators have become the biggest stars in the art world, and art critics, who were the gatekeepers, have been pushed to the margins. For example, the star artists, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, whose work has always been sought after by the market, with thousands of dollars pouring into their pockets, and whose work is still paid for by the market even when art critics write a critique of their art, the power of art criticism The appeal of art criticism has diminished. The value of a work of art is increasingly aligned with its final price, and the art critic has lost the control it once had: the art critic.
Art Criticism in the Wave of Change
With the development of technology and public art institutions, art has begun to move from the high halls to the masses, and the winds in the field of art criticism have shifted. In particular, the development of the Internet has brought art resources that were once scattered around the world within reach, while every Internet user has the opportunity to speak online and have his or her words seen by all. As a result, thousands of art-related articles are produced every day, including traditional news reports on an art event, art sections in magazines, exhibition brochures, observational articles on the art market and academic analyses of artworks, as well as a fragmented amount of art-related commentary online. Mixed and diverse, serious art criticism seems to be losing its presence in comparison to the well-presented and comprehensible art-related articles.
At the same time, the bar for contributors of art articles is being lowered. Social networking platforms encourage users to share their personal feelings about a particular piece of art or exhibition. In a way, this implies that everyone can review art, share their own personal feelings and become an art critic. The entrance to art criticism has become wider than ever, and the boundaries of judging art review articles have become blurred.
On the one hand, this approach liberates the power that originally belongs to art experts to the public and frees up an infinite variety of perspectives on art. But on the other hand, the viewers, in the process of commenting, connect their own experiences and ideas to the artwork and the insights they get sometimes do not match the artist’s original intentions.
At the same time, on the Internet, the public’s communication with artworks and art critics is no longer the one-way flow it used to be. Those lofty and authoritative art criticism articles appear less and less frequently, and more young people choose to browse artworks and read short art reviews on their cell phones. In a way, the cell phone has become a mini-exhibition, and the decider of its content is ourselves. We can decide whether we want to follow an artist or let a genre’s work disappear into the mobile stream. We can also express our own attitudes by liking, retweeting and sharing.
In the face of the current mixed environment of art criticism, many people cannot help but lament that art criticism is dead. But the changing environment also holds a new development direction for art criticism. The current art scene is rapidly changing, and one cannot help but feel dazzled. In the midst of this massive output, the majority of artworks are merely mediocre, and people are desperate for someone to help them identify and sift through them. This has always been one of the functions of art criticism – to identify the quality and value of artworks, what is good and what is bad, in order to prompt artists to reflect and develop.
At the same time, as art becomes more and more popular, art critics have taken on a new function: popularizing art, encouraging more people to participate in art appreciation, distinguishing between good and bad, and prompting them to think. An art critic, in contrast to the general public, is a person with professional knowledge who builds on his or her own past experiences and cultural environment to evaluate a particular work of art or exhibition. Different art critics will again have different views and opinions on art works. Those who are curious about the art world can find another way of looking at the same work of art through art criticism articles, and the additional information that comes with art criticism can prompt the reader to think further about the meaning of the work.
Art criticism is like a mirror, calmly and objectively analyzing the development of this art from a third party’s perspective. Although more and more people have a channel to share their art views, there are few art critics who can truly have a voice and influence the direction of artists’ creations and the art market. The more art blossoms, the more we need art criticism to guide us through the vast array of choices.