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Caring What the Critics Say

Considering criticism

By Lisa Radon August 25, 2009

“I don’t really care what the critics say. I’m here to facilitate what artists want to do.” So says, Gavin Shettler of Milepost 5 who will be talking with Eva Lake today about the recent Manor of Art show on Eva’s show, Art Focus, on KBOO at 11:30 AM today.

We can only assume he’s responding not to critical condemnation, because neither the papers nor the blogs really dug in critically to his recent Manor of Art show (co-organized by Chris Haberman). A massive like this doesn’t want critical scrutiny (in more ways than one). I think he’s responding to a comment on a Culturephile post made by a Portland artist and curator which really was more criticism in the traditional sense, as in, "Yes, your butt does look fat in those jeans," rather than considered feedback.

Shettler’s desire to support "what artists want to do" is a key point. Because the Manor (and ensuing blog comment craziness) makes clear that there are many artists who simply want exposure, approval, sales, or silence. Lucky for them, critics, particularly those writing for print publications, don’t have space to consider their work anyway.

So what is criticism, and who does want it? Gallerists, curators, and artists alike, from Elizabeth Leach to Namita Gupta Wiggers to Seth Nehil are asking for more and deeper critical consideration of visual arts in Portland. In response to recent comment-a-thon on that earlier post, I’ve been thinking about the functions of criticism both generally and in the Portland arts ecosystem.

Criticism is a conversation that includes the artist, the critic, and the reader. The artist initiates the conversation when he or she publicly shows his or her work. Via this conversation, the general reader learns about the work, perhaps for the first time, learns a bit more about the artist, and is given tools to understand it and its place in the history of art and the broader world. When it is good, the conversation can tease out layers of meaning and inquiry in the work as intended by artist and perhaps even those the artist was too close to the work to see. And it can give us different ways of thinking about a work both in context of the exhibition via consideration of the curation of the show and in the broader context by bringing critical theory to bear on the work.

Seen in this way, a primary criteria for evaluating art is whether the work brings anything new to the conversation. Or is it like one of the 5 or 6 stories your dear uncle tells every year after Thanksgiving dinner? We listen because it is a good story, but recognize we’ve heard this one before.

So what are some of the larger functions of criticism?

+ Providing feedback, recognition, connection to potential dealers, collectors and peers to the artist.

+ Writing the record. As someone who is currently doing research into regional art history, I deeply appreciate the yellowed clippings of reviewed shows that give me the picture of the moment as well as the work and the artist. Criticism is the first step in the writing (with a capital W) of art history.

+ Via critical theory, inviting us to step back from the work and examine the conditions under which it is produced and displayed.

+ Encouraging deeper engagement on the part of the viewer by posing questions, by situating the work in art historical context. The engaged viewer is the potential collector and patron. In the broadest sense, if we can foster deeper engagement through conversation, we are contributing to the health of the artist, gallery, institution in Portland.

As artist Mark Randall said in the comments on the review I referred to earlier, "…people are actually taking the time to converse and opine about this show. That’s always a bonus."

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