hirst.jpg
Damien Hirst’s diamond skull

You can whack them with a shovel. You can shoot them, poison, stab or throttle them. You can threaten their families and you can hound them in the press; you can put them down any way you like, but some artists refuse to stay down. What does this tell us? That artists are the undead? Or, worse, that criticism is in crisis?

At almost every international art fair over the past few years, there has been a panel discussion about the crisis in art criticism. I have found myself talking about the topic in London, Madrid, Berlin and Miami. Wherever critics are paid to gather (you wouldn’t catch us in the same room otherwise), they go on about the crisis. These debates have become an occupational hazard – but they also pay well. If I had known there was money in it, I would have invented a crisis myself.

At Art Basel in Miami Beach last December, just as we were about to go out and perform on the imminent death of criticism and to answer such questions as “What is art criticism today and why is it relevant?” and “Is money the new art criticism?”, the Las Vegas-based critic Dave Hickey said he felt like Donald Duck at the Last Supper. Being Donald Duck is at least livelier than being a dinosaur, drowning in a dismal swamp. There is indeed something faintly ludicrous in sitting around at an art fair talking about criticism. Never has the art market been stronger. Never has money been so powerful. Never have so many artists got so rich, and never has there been such alarming stuff on sale. Never have critics felt so out of the loop.

People blame all the money sluicing round the art world. They blame the internet and the rise of the blogger. They blame the dumbing-down of newspapers and the replacement of criticism with the sparkling, if vapid, preview featurette, and the artist-as-celebrity photo opportunity profile. Who cares about the art or the concepts?…

Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, has complained: “At no time in the last 50 years has what an art critic writes had less effect on the market than now.” Whatever he writes, Saltz believes, has no effect. Might as well shrug and walk away. I just wonder why a critic even cares that their writing has such a negligible influence on the market. Although there has been a certain pleasure, on one or two occasions, in making Charles Saatchi stupendously angry, I couldn’t care less if collectors pay any attention to me or not.

Some critics think that the fact that there’s so much bad art around means that it is a great time to be writing about art, which is like saying that because of the plague, what a great time the 14th century was to be an undertaker. Critics aren’t doctors. We can’t fix things. We are not here to tell artists what to do. They wouldn’t listen anyway. Maybe the word criticism has become part of the problem. Or the problem is that we are asking the wrong thing of the critic: critics are not the painting police nor the sculpture Swat team, not market regulators nor upholders of eternal values (there aren’t any). Those who think they have a role to play in this regard are as jumped up as they are unreadable. Criticism might blow the whistle on overhyped art, flabby curating, moribund institutions or the odd fly-blown administrator, but that is because you cannot divorce art from its context.

Being iconoclastic, slagging off artists and institutions, gets a critic noticed. Anger, undeniably, is also a good motive for writing in the first place. Controversy, the smell of blood, the whiff of scandal – this makes careers. It also sells newspapers and magazines. Of course it is the duty of the critic to be iconoclastic, and to be reckless; but critical terrorism is no good as a long-term strategy. It becomes predictable, and the adrenaline buzz soon wears off. It is also disingenuous, and ultimately a false position. There is such a thing as bad faith, and lousy opinions.

Getting things wholly wrong is also a critical prerogative. But, again, it is no good just turning up with a lot of fixed opinions and then complaining that the art doesn’t measure up to your impossible requirements and unassailable prejudices. Some critics make you wish you didn’t like art at all.

The Guardiann

Tomorrow: Part 2