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Dave Hickey says he is quitting the art world. Photograph: Nasher Museum Of Art

One of America’s foremost art critics has launched a fierce attack on the contemporary art world, saying anyone who has “read a Batman comic” would qualify for a career in the industry.

Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.

“They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious,” he told the Observer. “Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.”

Hickey says the art world has acquired the mentality of a tourist. “If I go to London, everyone wants to talk about Damien Hirst. I’m just not interested in him. Never have been. But I’m interested in Gary Hume and written about him quite a few times.”


Edward Helmore and Paul Gallagher


Fine wine … detail of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1523-24). Photograph: Corbis

Walter Pater was one of the most honest critics to ever have lived. In his book The Renaissance, this Victorian scholar says something subtly disturbing to many people who love the arts. The purpose of criticism, he argues, is to identity and understand the particular types of pleasure that works of art can give us.

Pleasure! This is something few critics have ever been prepared to be so open about. Art, in a philistine world, is forever fighting its corner. Arts administrators resisting cuts feel obliged to insist on the deeper value of art, its use to society, its ennobling purposes. Artists themselves, when interviewed, also want to come across as serious people doing something of immense political and cultural importance. Only rarely does an artist reject the idea of social and spiritual purpose – as Bob Dylan does in the 1967 film Don’t Look Back, when he sneers at journalists asking him to explain his “message”.

Pater was art’s bravest whistleblower. He said frankly that works of art exist to give us pleasure, just like wines, or divans, or tobacco, or whatever else filled the archetypal Victorian aesthete’s boudoir.

It’s time for me to come clean, too. The reason I write about art is because it gives me so much pleasure. I delight in art. It is a drink, a feast. And this is the true reason why, much of the time, I choose to stress the great paintings and sculptures of history. This isn’t some cliched juxtaposing of figurative art and conceptualism – just a recognition that if you are looking at and writing about art every day you may as well explore the headiest flavours, the richest recipes. If you were a professional food critic, would you want to write about crisps – or haute cuisine? Great paintings that have stood the trust of time are like wines that have matured for centuries.


Jonathan Jones

Tinie Tempah will be rapping about Chris Ofili’s latest work. (Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/PR/Guardian)

The art world thrives on the reactions of critics. Sensationalist work damned as “gratuitous” or “pretentious” is what makes the Turner prize so exciting. The most media-worthy pieces of the last 10 years have been the work of the YBAs: an unmade bed, a light flashing on and off, a black Mary. Opinions may differ on works such as these, but one thing remains constant: the views belong to white, middle-class (mostly) male critics. Certainly academics are seen as credible authorities, but what of those outside the artistic elite?

It seems like the Tate has realised the importance of having diverse voices to challenge and criticise the way art is seen. Over the next two Sundays, Tate Britain will be inviting urban acts, producers and poets to show the art world a new side to criticism. Each artist – including the current UK No 1 Tinie Tempah – will use the space to present individual responses to artwork by Chris Ofili (in this particular instance Tinie will be spitting 32 bars about one of Ofili’s paintings).



Savage… the art critic Peter Fuller by Jane Bown, 1988 Photograph: Jane Bown/Observer

Do art critics have a point any more? Can they contribute anything to the development of art? For a long time I’ve ducked this question. If you’d asked me any time over the past few years, I’d have replied that criticism does not seriously influence art. It has its own justification, however, as literature. If literature seems a pompous word, let’s say entertainment. The appetite to read about art is almost as insatiable as the need to look at it; the critic provides a service that gives a chance to talk, think and tell stories about art and artists. Maybe it doesn’t have any impact on art but it does occupy a place in the culture. That’s what I would have said, until recently.

But that’s a weak defence of criticism. The truth is that critics have been in retreat for a long time. In British art, they faced a cataclysmic loss of standing just before I came on the scene. When I was a student, the art critic whose books I bought was Peter Fuller, founder of the magazine Modern Painters and a savage critic of most trends in contemporary art. I enjoyed the provocative seriousness of his essays. I also loved the writing of Robert Hughes, another critic whose eloquence was – and is – very much at the expense of current art.

Not much newspaper criticism comes near their mark, but what critics did share, in the late 1980s, was a similar scepticism about new fashions, a “seriousness” defined by suspicion. And of course, history played a joke on these critics – even on Fuller and Hughes. While high moral disdain for shallow modern art was pouring from the printing presses, a generation of British artists led by Damien Hirst were getting away with anything they wanted – again and again and again. Words were crushed by images. Critics were reduced to the status of promoters. They had no other role.

Today I think there is an opportunity for critics again – and a need. The sheer volume and range of art that we’re fed in a culture obsessed with galleries is so vast and confusing that a critic can get stuck in and make a difference. It really is time to stand up for what is good against what is meretricious. And it really is possible to find examples of excellence as well as stupidity. In other words, this is a great time to be a critic – to try to show people what really matters.

Yes, there’s a staggering volume of mediocre art being talked up by fools. But there are real talents and real ideas too. The critic’s task is to identify what is good and defend it come hell or high water – and to honestly denounce the bad. Art history can help in this task by enriching your perspective. Writing can give you a flexibility in how and when you want to engage. But engage we must. Engage we will.

Jonathan Jones

Damien Hirst

British artist Damien Hirst has hit back at condemnation from Australian art critic Robert Hughes by likening his business approach to that of greats Rembrandt, Velasquez and Goya.

Speaking yesterday at auction house Sotheby’s, which will offer 223 new works by the artist for sale next week, Hirst defended himself against Hughes’ criticism that he was “functioning like a commercial brand”.

“Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, I think they were all thinking about the commercial aspects of art,” Hirst said.

“I believe I’m only doing what any of these artists would be doing if they were alive.”

But Hirst also said he put art first and money was secondary.

Hughes has branded Hirst’s works – which include a diamond encrusted human skull which recently sold for £50 million ($108.4 million) – as “tacky” and “absurd” in a new TV documentary in Britain.

The Australian described Hirst’s acclaimed shark in formaldehyde is the “world’s most over-rated marine organism” despite it having sold for £8 million ($17.34 million) four years ago.

“It is a clever piece of marketing but as a piece of art it is absurd,” Hughes says in the documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, which is to be screened on Channel 4 on September 21.

But Hirst dismissed the criticism as “Luddite”.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less from Robert Hughes,” Hirst said.

“He probably cried when Queen Victoria died.”

The Sotheby’s auction, which expected to raise £65 million ($140.35 million), is seen as a ground-breaking departure from the tradition of leading artists selling works through galleries and dealers.

Sydney Morning Herald

Art critic Robert Hughes

Damien Hirst’s works are “absurd” and “tacky commodities”, according to Robert Hughes, a prominent Australian art critic.

The critic said commercial pieces with large price tags mean “art as spectacle loses its meaning” and identified the British artist’s work as a cause of that loss. Hughes says it is “a little miracle” Hirst’s 35ft statue Virgin Mother, could be worth £5 million and yet be made by someone “with so little facility.”

He calls Hirst’s formaldehyde tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a “tacky commodity”, and “the world’s most over-rated marine organism”, despite collector Charles Saatchi selling it for close to £7 million in 2004.

His criticism comes amid claims Hirst is now so rich he is a dollar billionaire, and if his empire continues at the rate it is going, he will soon be worth more than Sotheby’s, the auction house.

Hughes, 70, is famous for his 1980 BBC series The Shock of the New, which made the theories behind modernism in art accessible to a wider audience.

The latest attack was made in a Channel 4 documentary about art and money called The Mona Lisa Curse, to be shown on September 21, which details Hughes’s observations over 50 years as a New York-based art reviewer.

He says works of art now operate like film stars, starting in 1962 when Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa left The Louvre in Paris to go on display in New York, the long queues turning the masterpiece into a mere spectacle.

It is not the first time Hughes has made public his contempt for Hirst’s art. Making a speech four years ago at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual dinner, he said: “A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velazquez can be as radical as a shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames.”


Photograph: Martin Godwin

After years as an art critic in print publications, Charlotte Higgins has announced that she is becoming a full-time blogger.

So after four years as this paper’s arts correspondent, a reporter who tried to fit blogging in around the edges of my life, I’m about to move online. From this week, blogging will take its place at the heart of what I do. Why, apart from all of the above? Well, as a form, the blog is fantastically elastic – a quality that cannot fail to be seductive to a writer. Everything is up for grabs. A blog can be everyday, whimsical, deeply serious or all three; it can be published instantly (clearly a boon to journalists); it can be experimental.

Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the New Yorker who blogs at, has described his own gradual discovery, some years back, of blogs that weren’t just repositories for trivia about Star Wars (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but which contained serious writing about music. There was Jeremy Denk, for example, a professional pianist who, aside from posting hilariously eccentric pieces about yoghurt or waiting in airport queues, also offered in-depth musicological analyses of work he was approaching as a performer, alongside musical quotations and sound files. Ross has said he found the tide of these blogs by performers particularly intriguing, as potentially distant figures were gradually demystified through their presence online…

This new journey is not one that will be undertaken in isolation, but in the company of you, the readers. I don’t expect this to be a comfortable ride. For a long time, journalists have been largely insulated from the direct reactions of readers, and to find your loose arguments or baggy thinking being painfully held to account can be a shock to the system. On the whole, I’ve found this part of the experience a rewarding one. Who wouldn’t want a stream of ideas and arguments to come their way? The benefits of conversation and community outweigh any demerits; I’d rather be in the thick of things than loftily dispensing words into an apparent vacuum.

My blog is, of course, a small and extremely insignificant part of a revolution in the arts, and in the way newspapers now cover them. One consequence has been the ongoing debate about the status of “amateur” bloggers compared with the work of “professional” critics: will bloggers make critics redundant? Will critics increasingly fetch up as bloggers? In the US, this debate has been accompanied by the sacking of an enormous number of arts reviewers from newspapers. But I don’t think the two are polar opposites. For a start, many bloggers are professional critics, not least Ross and his colleague at the New Yorker, pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones; and not all professional critics offer uniformly excellent criticism.

When I wrote about the RSC shows, one of the cast said: “It’s like being reviewed as we go through.” I was shocked: I felt I was offering a response, as valid as anyone else’s – but, bluntly, not as a reviewer. Everyone can offer a response to an artwork; real criticism requires knowledge, experience, time, literary skill and insight. I see no signs that criticism is under threat in the UK, and if ever it were I would be the first to the battle line. For now, though, I am very happy to be breaking down boundaries, stepping on toes, genre-bending and throwing everything up in the air – all in a blog.

Charlotte Higgins

I’m just gonna say here that finally, it all got me down. After hearing about the death of criticism, the death of books, the death of theater (actually, this book isn’t about the death of theater, but its clarion call for an acknowledgment of theater’s sociological significance seems awfully desperate), the death of severance packages, the news from a colleague that her new assignment to her paper’s arts beat ended before it began, and the actual death of a laid-off theater critic, I started to wonder what’s the point? I mean, I can blog all I want, but isn’t that part of the problem? Why buy the cow?…

Anyway, after a couple of days where I sunk so low I ended up going running with my IPod set to a wrist-slitting all-Radiohead shuffle (try clearing your thoughts with that going on), it occurred to me that Radiohead gave away their last album. Why? Because the dying old model wasn’t serving them any longer, and they decided that rather than wait around for the machine to fix itself, they’d make a better, stronger one. And so they did.

Here’s what I think:

1. We must demand arts education in our schools. You can check my old posts about this issue to see how crucial it is for the future of arts journalism, and for the state of the arts in general.

2. Cross your fingers and hope we get Obama in the White House come November. Better yet, let everyone you know in on his support for the arts and arts education (this is a blog entry from the days when I was still undecided) and on John McCain’s utter disdain for both. If you think things are bad now, wait and see what happens when McCain eliminates funding for the NEA.

3. Encourage the next generation of arts journalists. Rather than discouraging them, as Eric Bentley suggests, send them to J-schools by the score. These kids never knew a world without the internet, and they will be the ones to re-shape journalism as we know it. We might as well do everything we can to ensure that future has a heavy artistic bias. If you discourage students from becoming arts journalists, then yes, the field will die, it will be your fault, and you will be haunted by Oscar Wilde’s ghost for the rest of your days.

4. Unionize. Been laid off and re-hired as a freelancer? Join the Freelancer’s Union. It’s lonely out there scarfing donuts in front of your computer all day, and will only get lonelier. You don’t have to form a coven and meet in basements every week with charts and hot coffee (although if you’ve got that going, then good for you). Get connected and still maintain your computer/donut schedule by signing up for listservs and online discussions.

5. Join every relevant organization you can. There’s power in numbers, and right now arts journalists are feeling completely powerless. Join NAJP, join your national critics’ organization (for theater critics, it’s ATCA). You are not the only one freaking out–repeat after me, “I am not the only one freaking out.”–but if you’re doing it alone, you’re wasting your energy; use it instead to create a better, stronger machine.

Take off your headphones (and turn off Radiohead, for God’s sake, they’ll only make things worse), raise that glazed cruller, and refuse to accept defeat. For arts journalists (unlike Hillary), there is no better option; we do our job, or our civilization loses a record of its contemporary cultural significance.

Now get to work and let me know what you’ve come up with.

Wendy Rosenfield
Drama Queen

Part 2…

A former Guardian art critic, who now delivers Olympian judgments for one of the Sunday newspapers, recently moaned to me that no one took him seriously any more. The “any more” bit was a trifle deluded, in my view, as I have never taken him seriously in any way. We have lost our authority, he wailed. “What authority?” I was tempted to ask, but didn’t. One can only mistrust critics who whimper about the waning of their authority. They are, I think, more interested in power than in writing. The only sensible way to deal with one’s power, such as it is, is to not think about it.

Which is not to say that what one writes doesn’t matter. The opposite is true. The only authority a critic or an artist can claim lies in the work they do. Everything else is just wind.

I don’t know what I think, often, till I write. The act of writing shows me what I think. I never know where things are going till I get there. There is an element of fiction and invention even in criticism. Being a critic has its performative side. For the writer, the problem, as much as it might be one of interpretation, is felt first of all in the difficulty of describing what one is looking at.

Description, however plain it appears to be, is never neutral, however technical it gets, whatever its claims to objectivity. And while we’re at it, criticism is never objective, never impartial, never disinterested. It is subjective and partisan. What else would you expect?

Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art – not speaking about it, not writing about it – is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist’s intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it – which doesn’t prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all.

In the end, we are all critics. Listen to the babble of conversation as you leave the cinema or the theatre, or to the chat in the gallery. People argue about what they have experienced and about what the critics have said. This is good. But some voices might be worth attending to more than others, just as some artists, some playwrights, moviemakers, composers, choreographers are better than others. The fact that we can’t all agree on what is valuable (and why) keeps things interesting. It also keeps criticism alive.

Some things are not easy to grasp. We have to work at them. This, in part, is what criticism tries to do. It is also where a lively engagement with the art we encounter begins. And it is where we all begin to be critics.

The Guardiann

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