Help Desk

Help Desk: Helpful Words for Negative Reviews

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

I am a visual arts writer, and if I don’t have anything nice to say, I don’t say it at all. I state my personal opinions about artwork I like and choose my subjects based on personal preference. I don’t claim to be a critic. I prefer to describe what I see in a lighthearted way, but I fear that I come across as a fluff writer, and I have actually been called out as an “overly saccharine cheerleader.” Is it ok to be consistently complimentary as an arts writer?

Your query begs for the concision of a yes/no answer, but I’m afraid I can’t give you one. Part of the difficulty is that you don’t claim to be a critic—that is to say, an evaluator of art and culture—yet you state personal opinions based on preference. Isn’t that what a critic does? I wonder if part of the issue lies in vocabulary: critic, criticism, and critique all have a whiff of the negative, yet etymologically they’re all based on the Greek kritikos, which simply indicates the ability to make judgments based on quality. So, if you’re evaluating artwork in print, then chances are your readers already consider you a critic in the traditional sense whether you claim to be or not. Further, I think we have to separate the issue of being a critic from the manner (“lighthearted”) in which you state those opinions, and the fact that you fear fluff but seem to limit your writing to descriptions. Based on the short question you’ve written to HELP DESK, there seem to be some contradictions at work in your practice. If the accusation of being saccharine stings (as it must have, since it compelled you to write to me), then you have to think about what you hope to accomplish.

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981. Oil on canvas, 78 x 120 in

Let’s go all the way back to the fundamental question: why do you write about art? Probably you enjoy the process of looking and responding, and if that’s as deep as you want to go, that’s fine. You can continue on your complimentary way but you’ll have to grow a thicker skin. After all, there’s a lot of art writing out there and the person who doesn’t like your nice-things-to-say style can easily go read something else. That’s a valid position to take and I support it. But if you decide that you want to participate more fully in a cultural dialog, or if you want to help artists advance their work, or if you want to be taken seriously by the arts establishment in your area, you should consider writing about work that you don’t find attractive or valuable.

And let me qualify that by saying I would never recommend anyone write about work she already knows she hates. That is an exercise in futility, a zero-sum game that benefits no one. Instead, I’m talking about those instances in which you go to an exhibition that you expect to like, but end up disappointed by what you see. Or, you connect to parts of a group show, but not all; or some works in a solo show turn out to be stronger than others. Determining why this is so can be beneficial to both you and the artist. It’s not about slamming someone’s effort, it’s about taking the artist’s work and your own opinions seriously.

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, c. 1985. Oil on canvas

While I can respect your position of wishing to only write about shows that fill you with joy, penning the occasional less-than-glowing review will underscore your position when you do write flattering prose, making the positive reviews all the more meaningful. One well-respected arts writer I reached out to said, “I have felt similarly, that contemporary art gets such a short shrift in contemporary culture, so being a cheerleader has its welcome role. But if the writer wants to be taken seriously…then there’s got to be some edge. The trick is when it is useful to write negatively. I recently saw a show that made me angry about its ineptitude and misguidedness. While I may or may not actually write about it, it would seem like a public service to point out the flaws and how they could/should serve as a model to work against. It seems a great opportunity to frame a dialogue about something that warrants more discussion.”

An opportunity to frame a dialogue about something that warrants more discussion is a great way for a writer to think about reviews in general. If all other issues of arts writing originate with this idea and ensue from it, then in some ways it doesn’t matter whether the review is positive or negative, because what we are trying to delve into is the very core of why making and seeing art is important. And if a review is respectful and well written, it makes good use of that opportunity whether or not the author finds the work to her liking.

Mark Tansey, Robbe-Grillet Cleansing Every Object in Sight, 1981. Oil on canvas with crayon, 72 x 72.25 in

Another writer friend reminded me of the responsibility you have to yourself and your own practice, encouraging you to “write to express the full range of your reactions to viewing artwork.” I think that’s a component to this puzzle that ought not to be overlooked. Just as we hope that artists continue to evolve and grow in their practices, I think we ought to hope for the same with critics. The position you once held may be changing, and I urge you to compose a review that reflects on some artwork that doesn’t thrill you. You don’t have to publish it, but at least you can practice the experience of having free rein.

For the benefit of our non-writer readers, I’d like to say that while a positive appraisal of a show often practically writes itself, it is infinitely more difficult and tedious to write a negative review. Indeed, our well-respected arts writer from above touched on this idea as well: “It’s difficult to write responsibly in a negative way, particularly as there are few artists who are genuinely malevolent in their intent. It’s a lot of work to make an exhibition, so the impulse to praise is understandable, and chances are this writer knows some of the artists he or she writes about. Artists may be people, but their work is something autonomous. The bottom line is both the art and the writing need to be interesting.”

Mark Tansey, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1987. Oil on canvas, 100 x 155 in

So if you decide to try it—and I hope you will try it, because how else will you know exactly what you want?—here are some basic guidelines for writing negative reviews:

-Write with integrity. This is about the art, not the artist. If you’re out for blood, don’t write the review.

-Tell us exactly why and how it falls short of the artist’s stated intentions (see the artist statement and press release). If you don’t know what the artist’s intentions were, tell us why you think you reacted poorly to the work. You need to make a clear case for why the work fails, otherwise it will just seem like you’re being petty.

-Let the draft sit so you can self-edit, or have a friend look it over. For any review (positive or negative), it’s worth the extra time and effort to make sure that your critique is logical and valid.

-Write well, but don’t lose yourself in language. Tempting though it may be, don’t sacrifice clarity and a strong argument to a witticism or a snarky zinger.

If you draft a few unfavorable reports and find it not to your taste, you can continue merrily on your way as the Pollyanna of the art set. Good luck!