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Criticism vs. boosterism 

And the art of saying what you really think

Having written about art for 10 years, I've developed a rough mental pie chart of the various opinions floating around regarding critics. Popular opinion on criticism seems to approximate the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Where you lie on that continuum seems directly related to whether you are an artist or curator with a show up, and whether you perceived the review of said show as positive, negative or mixed.

"Art criticism is in worldwide crisis," says James Elkins, chair of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His assessment isn't exactly going to make hair stand up on the backs of necks of ordinary folks; they're more worried about getting axed from their jobs or paying for health care.

But in What Happened to Art Criticism?, a quirky publication from the Prickly Paradigm Press, Elkins argues that art critics of late are floundering in the choppy sea of boosterism, convinced -- according to a recent Columbia University survey of the top 230 American art critics -- that "providing an accurate descriptive account" of artwork is their highest objective.

"Contemporary art criticism is entranced by the possibility of avoiding judgment," says Elkins. Unfortunately, he's right. When I want fiery, impassioned criticism, I tend to look not to art critics but film critics, whose creative license in the alternative press allows them to truly speak their minds.

But the best summation of the critic's role I've seen lately came from a column written by the Cleveland Plain Dealer's fine arts editor John Kappes. He advocates a policy of thinking globally and acting locally that makes perfect sense for cities such as Atlanta struggling to define an artistic identity.

"The purpose of criticism isn't to coddle or coo," says Kappes. "The critic must believe enough in this city, right here and now, to dare to hold its actors, artists and musicians to the same standards you'd expect in Chicago, New York or Someplace Else."

Amen, brother. Somewhere along the line, many people got the idea that criticism is just a more sophisticated version of a press release, and that critics are just "spin" machines with fancier adjective-generating properties that repackage hype for a popular audience. This would fall on the rudimentary denial stage in the critical response chart.

But if the local scene is going to bust out, it's going to have to readjust its attitude to recognize the value in people, including critics, responding honestly to the scene's strengths and weaknesses.

When your perspective is limited to the local, Kappes argues, you think inside a kind of neurotic box where local artists aren't good enough and thus have to be championed. But anyone who knows the Atlanta arts scene knows that local artists are good enough to compete on a national or international level. It's a great disservice to the entire arts community when you act as if cheerleading is the only way to get people interested.

Every time you turn around, there is some quirky or just plain odd new space opening up in Atlanta. The oddest part is how many of them have been in existence for several years while managing to stay below the radar.

The Red Wall Studio and Gallery (404-371-9383) probably boasts the strangest locale of all: inside the first floor of the cavernous St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church amid a salvation corridor of multidenominational churches hugging the Ponce de Leon/Druid Hills strip. The cozy space incorporates artists' studios, a classroom and a small exhibition space now showing New Clear Family through Feb. 29. The exhibition features macabre-fanciful works on paper by Bill Turcotte, whose witchy style recalls Edward Gorey and the vaguely psychedelic look of 1960s-era illustration. With an undercurrent of politics, Turcotte taps into the anxieties of childbearing, from the empty-womb syndrome of gay couples to the presence of children who grow like parasitic brambles on their parents, or float in some amniotic sea waiting for rescue by their chosen mother.

Look more

Though its exhibition strategies lean toward the boutique side, the Alcove Gallery (404-438-1052) at the summit of the high-end Bennett Street antiques and art strip is worth checking out for its reasonable prices and attention to off-the-wall, subculture-surfing artists. Exhibits include Nashville wild man Mr. Hooper's loopy riffs on Southern culture on the skids, and an upcoming show by British art-rock band the Mekons. But unlike a traditional gallery, once the art is sold, it's likely to be yanked from the wall by the anxious customer, so you have to get in early if you want to gawk.

And speaking of gawking, photographer Ruven Afanador takes a long, hard look at the preening machismo, tight pants and dandified accouterments of bullfighters from Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Spain in Torero through Feb. 28 at Momus Gallery (404-355-4180). Its frank, at times wry, look at male sexuality might make even matador-fetishist Madonna blush.

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