Basics of Reviewing, Part 3: Reviewing Art

By Barry Willis

Visual art is a luxury enterprise. Art lovers may assert that it’s a psychological necessity, but even the most ardent will admit that no one starves for lack of art.

In fact, we are not “starved” for it at all. We are overwhelmed by a surfeit of it. The world is full of artists at all levels, from novice hobbyists to career professionals, and together they generate more work than there is room to display it. This is why cafés and coffee shops function as third- or fourth-tier art galleries. By offering display space to local artists, they provide opportunities for exposure that artists and would-be fans might not have.

As with writing about cars or cuisine or any other subject, one doesn’t simply wade into art criticism without some background. This doesn’t imply a degree in art history or experience making art, although both would be hugely helpful, but it does mean familiarity with the field. If you’re uncertain about terms such as pastoral and figurative or realism and abstraction, you’ve got some research to do. If spending hours in museums and galleries is your definition of excruciating boredom, it may be research you don’t want to do. In fact, if that describes you, art is definitely not your coverage area.

On the other hand, you may be that rare specimen who gains energy visiting museums, who eagerly anticipates new gallery exhibits, and who pays close attention to developments in the art community. If you’re already a reader of journals such as Art in America and Art News, and a subscriber to Art Net, you’re way ahead of the game and may be a perfect candidate to become an art critic.

Visual art has been part of human culture since the days of cave-dwellers. It pre-dates written language by thousands of years. It became formalized with the advent of civilization, and typically was leveraged to convey political and religious themes and to glorify the ruling class, usually depicted in flattering-but-not-unrealistic sculptures and portraits. Art’s historic function of realistic depiction—basically, a method of visual record-keeping—was usurped by photography as it gained traction in the mid-19th century, prompting artists to explore new forms of expression, such as impressionism, a style of painting that’s as much about the feel of a scene as it is about how it looks.

Some conservative art historians think that impressionism was both the high point and the last gasp of Western culture, but others see it as the gestation period for the creative explosion that happened in the 20th century and continues today. As a critic, you need to gain comfort with terms such as cubism, modernism, post-modernism, Pop Art, abstract expressionism, socialist realism, ad infinitum and all the varied hybrids and sub-genres. Simply knowing a bit about Da Vinci and Rembrandt won’t get you very far, nor will tossing out a few conversational tidbits about Andy Warhol. That would be like having a few phrases of high school French and imagining that you could converse in Paris.

Deeply fascinating and sometimes troubling, art is an arena where there is always room for informed and passionate discussion. If you have insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for the subject, you’ll soon find a niche in the art-world ecosystem. In our next installment, we’ll look at how to approach museum and gallery exhibits.


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