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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Art criticism must die

CULTURE SURFING ARCHIVE
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click to enlarge Cinqué Hicks - JOEFF DAVIS

For 15 years, art critic Felicia Feaster was the voice of visual art criticism at Creative Loafing. For many she was the voice of visual art criticism in Atlanta. When she left the paper in 2008 to serve as senior editor at the Atlantan, many in the art community waited eagerly to see what would become of her writing at the publication.

In fact, Feaster breathed new life into the upscale glossy. For nearly three years she covered the major Atlanta art institutions. But she also became known for introducing underground staples such as photographer Stephanie Dowda and rock 'n' roll silkscreen printers Methane Studios to a readership more likely to sip Chardonnay than to swig PBR.

Recently, the sudden news of Feaster's dismissal from the magazine, along with editor-in-chief Nancy Staab, left art watchers shocked. The magazine was bought last August by Dickey Publishing, the parent company of Cumulus Media, which owns and operates Jezebel magazine. Now, the new owners are restructuring the editorial staff.

Magazines get bought out. Publishing missions change. Such personnel switcheroos occur routinely in media, and it's usually nothing personal. But Feaster's departure leaves me wondering about a much bigger issue: What's the future for Atlanta's authoritative voices in art criticism?

For now, Feaster has turned up as a contributing writer at local arts blog ArtsCriticAtl.com. Without the backing of a major print publication, however, will her voice remain as authoritative in Atlanta? I don't know. But, in the bigger picture, art criticism might thrive if we were less hung up on authoritative voices to begin with.

Indeed, art criticism as we've known it must die in order to save itself.

Roughly speaking, what we now know as art criticism emerged in 18th-century Europe hand-in-hand with a new kind of event called the public art exhibition. Democracy was new and all of a sudden people started to think they should have a say in all sorts of public matters. Critics were essentially no more than insightful people who could talk back to the art on behalf of the public.

That time has passed. In our hyper-individualist age, the idea of working out a collective opinion in public through a single voice seems suspect. The range of options for communicating has grown considerably, and people are using them to discuss art. They're also forming opinions and interpretations in the process, whether critics think that's a good idea or not. The whole idea of a handful of gatekeepers setting the agenda is starting to look hopelessly out of date.

Art criticism by and large still hasn't fully figured out how to make the most of the new hybrid public space that spans the digital world and the analog one. For the most part, art critics (myself included) are still issuing opinions from on high. Sure, all of our various blogs and websites have commenting features, but in the Web 2.0 era, comments are the bronze-age technology of web interactivity.

In the new public forum, conversation and interaction will have to become the basis of how we talk about art, not the tacked-on afterthought. To remain relevant, art critics must use their expert knowledge to address, stimulate and referee the multiple conversations that meaningful art inevitably sparks.

Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine critic of reality show "Work of Art" fame, is the current poster child for new models of engagement. Any credibility he lost by slogging through the sludge of reality TV was more than made up for by his new rock-star image as the everyman critic. A monster on Facebook, Twitter and in the blogosphere, Saltz has perforated his own authoritative voice and infused it with a constant give-and-take with fans, followers and readers. He's less a gatekeeper and more an emcee, orchestrating the chaos of voices around him.

How will all this happen and who will pay for it? I can't say. After all, to my knowledge the number of art critics who've gotten a boost and a paycheck from a nationwide cable channel is exactly one. Working out that discrepancy is a project that'll take many minds working over long periods of time.

Despite what some have said, however, the public still wants the tools to make sense of their experiences with art. They still want insight. That is, they still want criticism. It's up to the critics to dive in to the fray and wrestle with new ways to provide it.

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