State of play: art criticism

Recently it seems like you cannot turn your head in the art blogosphere without reading about one of two things: the imperilled state of arts journalism or the existentialist quandaries of art bloggers. This question is even being discussed in the real world: last night I attended a conversation at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson on the the future of art criticism. With newspapers collapsing like the proverbial houses of cards, and even the best art bloggers only making lunch money from their sites (France's leading—1 million unique visitors last year—art blogger, Lunettes Rouges, claims that his blog doesn't even pay him enough to travel to all the exhibitions that he reviews), everyone is looking anxiously at the horizon wondering where art writing is headed. Most of the coverage that I have read offers few credible answers (try András Szántó or DLK for exceptions to that rule).

Last night's conversation was heated, if pretty inconclusive. The most entertaining comments of the evening were quoted from a recent issue of Cabinet magazine, in which an Iranian contributor laid out her vision of the art world of the future. In this quite wonderful art utopia every critic would be forced to produce one piece of art every year, and every artist one piece of criticism; art sales would be decided by every wannabe buyer writing a two-page letter to the artists explaining what the piece means to them and why they are the most suitable owner for it, with the artist deciding on the buyer on this basis.

Much of the time was spent knee-deep in nostalgia for the good old days. One of the speakers suggested that over the last few years we have seen the chain of influence in the art world essentially reverse itself. Twenty years ago critics were those who spotted talent, museums and dealers followed, with collectors completing the cycle. Today the collectors call the shots: dealers scurry around behind them trying to dig up more of whatever was selling last month, museums put on shows based on secondary market values, and critics get called in at the end of all of this in order to write the requisite eulogies. It's a generalisation but one which certainly explains why most arts criticism has lost its teeth. Everything seems to be ranked somewhere between good and excellent, or simply shrugged off. Partly this is due to the staggering proliferation of exhibitions, art fairs and book launches and the even more staggering proliferation of opinions. Most arts writers are trying to keep up rather than having any time to digest anything, let alone spend the time writing about something that left them unimpressed.

What emerges clearly from all of this is that any writer on the arts that thinks that thinks they limit themselves to art criticism will be crashing back down to earth by the time I have finished writing this blog post. I recently reviewed Dans L'Oeil du Critique at the National Museum of Modern Art. Interestingly, this might be the first show in France (or anywhere?), which is based on the work of a critic, the late Bernard Lamarche-Vadel, rather than an artist, theme or movement. What I found even more striking is that by the time a museum got around to taking such a 'bold' step, it seems that the role of critics has dwindled to the point where there isn't anyone left worth making such a show about.