Help Desk

Help Desk: Lazy Art Critic

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.

An art critic who writes for local newspaper recently approached me. He wants to review a recent show I installed at a local gallery. He is essentially asking me to provide him with my thoughts on my work and, after reading several of his articles, it seems as if he will just quote me at length rather than provide an actual review of my work. On one hand this appears to be an opportunity to put forth some of my own ideas (however small), but on the other it seems it will be a watered down version of a review that serves more to fill a column than actually respond critically to a body of work. Should I indulge him in my eagerness to gain press attention or decline in hopes of a future proposal from a more attentive critic?

I applaud your sincerity and rectitude, but in this case they are somewhat misdirected. Understandably, you’d like your show to be reviewed by someone who will take the time to get to know the work and write up his or her own analysis and interpretation. Knowing that you’re not going to get it is a bit discouraging, but one could easily grow old and die while waiting for a “more attentive critic.” I don’t want you to second-guess your values but when opportunity knocks, open the damn door.

What you’ve got to keep in mind is that your own integrity is not at stake. The best you can do is work hard to make something you believe in. You’ve made the art and sent it out into the world with some background information to accompany it on its way. You’re not responsible for what other people do with that information. A local journalist who lacks imagination or initiative is not under your control.

Francesco Vezzoli, installation view of Olga Forever! The Olga Picasso Family Album at Almine Rech Gallery

Sometimes when you’re in a quandary it helps to do some thought experiments. Imagine a critic who always pans the work that she reviews. Would you give her the same information about your show, knowing that she might use it to underscore her various arguments about how and why your work sucks? I suspect you would, because you’d at least have the consolation that she was spending time with the work and paying attention. Now let’s try another scenario: Would it make a difference to you if the reason this critic quotes at length from the artist is because he doesn’t trust his own evaluation of artwork? What if, instead of being lazy (and perhaps somewhat disingenuous), he is simply insecure and fearful? And lastly, even though he has a record of quoting at length, can you be absolutely sure he will do the same in this instance? People do change, and we can hope that perhaps he will start with you.

Please don’t think I’m unsympathetic. There’s a well-known “critic” in my town who copies verbatim from press releases, which I discovered when I received a press release from a local gallery and then saw the same wording appear three days later in one of his “reviews.” Thinking that I must be mistaken, I compared the two side by side. As you might guess, they were practically identical and I spent the next few days nursing a sludgy emotional mix of dismay and contempt. It’s disappointing to find that some of the people we entrust with the power to publicly consider and evaluate artwork are, in one way or another, just not doing their jobs.

Francesco Vezzoli, Olga Forever (Olga Picasso en mariée, Boisgeloup), 2012. Oil on canvas and laserprint collage, 206 x 134 x 7 cm

If you’re in this for the long haul, you’ll get your share of press, and other problems will arise. Someone will spell your name wrong, or misquote you, or fail to apprehend what you feel is the most important aspect of your work. In all cases, you should politely correct what you can and then just move on.

It’s something of a gross generalization to say this, but on the whole I believe we artists work hard. We want our artwork to be greeted with the same energy it took to make it. We want the work to be evaluated fairly and intelligently, on its own terms, and preferably both in print and online by a well-known critic who has a healthy share of Twitter followers—joking! (sort of). But if you wait for that perfect day it might never come. It’s okay for you to give this journalist some background information, even if it is carefully crafted to showcase your work in the best possible light. You’re also free to encourage this journalist to write more about his own take on the show (“I’d love to hear your reaction to the work and I look forward to reading your opinions” or something similar). Eventually this review will become just another line on your CV, and hopefully you’ll have moved on to a more interesting conversation about your work. Good luck!