Art Criticism as a Way to Live

It has been almost six years of my being employed at Hyperallergic, first as a staff writer, then as an editor, later on as a senior critic and opinions editor. In all this time, I’ve been one of the very few Black men (or perhaps the only one) more or less working full time, writing on visual art and performance for a major arts publication — in New York City! It is baffling to me that this is still the case. Now, as I leave Hyperallergic to pursue other projects, I think about the ways that art criticism has become a means of contending with the forces that are larger than me: the habits of mind and of language that are fashionable in the art scene; the policies of galleries and art institutions that scrupulously maintain the divide between public and private; the hierarchies and our routine genuflections toward the orders they establish. Once, in 2019 when I was on a press trip to cover the art fair TEFAF Maastricht, I got to know quite a few of the fellow writers who were on the same excursion. But there was someone who wrote for the exclusive magazine Departures (created for American Express Platinum cardholders). He did not speak to me the entire trip.

I’ve found that silence is one of the key ways that the art scene operates. It makes certain conversations private when it would better serve us to have them be public. I’m not only thinking of the sexual harassment or abuse of employees. There are more subtle ways that silence is wielded. 

The author at three years old with his mother, Sarah Rodney, father, Joseph, and sister, Judith, in Jamaica before the family’s immigration to the United States. (image courtesy the author, unknown photographer)

In September 2020, I had posted a story on Facebook that referred to a conversation I had had with the artist Nina Katchadourian. This discussion had to do with me coming into an understanding of how crucial public criticism is and I provided a link to the piece where I more fully discuss my interaction with Katchadourian. One respondent told me that she thought I was acting out of bounds because I sought to interfere with the relationship of the artist to her gallery. According to her, as a journalist I wasn’t supposed to do that. I responded to this person that it sounded to me like they had lost the plot and just didn’t understand what criticism is. I’ve had to say this several times in the past few years. There doesn’t seem to be a widespread, clear understanding of the distinction between journalism and criticism in the New York art scene. 

Here’s my understanding of the difference: Journalism, in its ideal form, attempts to convey the facts of a situation, the “who, what, when, where, and how” that is talked about in level-one journalism college courses. This is reportage. The journalist acts as a conduit for information that is verifiably true. Critics may also report facts, but they also offer an opinion, render a judgment. A critic takes reported information or reports it themselves, and then interprets what it means for the individual, the community, the class, the nation. Criticism is both interpretive and analytical. It goes further than journalism by using analysis to establish historical genealogies, to theorize how the effects or ramifications of the reported thing might impact particular communities or have otherwise unforeseen impacts if circumstances change. Ultimately criticism looks at meaning, for the individual critic and for the public they address. The public part is indispensable. I’ll explain, by looking at past moments of me operating as a public voice.

Last year, I wrote about the exhibition Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, which was mounted at the New Museum. My argument was a bit more nuanced than I will offer here, but essentially I argued that “The rest of the show feels like a cavalcade of A-list artists who are here mostly because this is that kind of show — one in which audiences will assume that because so much Black talent is assembled in one place the exhibition must be meaningful.” Or even more succinctly: “It’s as if the curators claimed they were holding a wake, but on the low, really they wanted a cotillion.” 

This critique did go against the grain of celebrating any show of aesthetic force that primarily included people of color, no matter how flimsy the fealty to the putative curatorial premise. Two very prominent Black artists reached out to me separately and privately to say that they were really glad that I had written that piece, and that in making that argument I had said what they were thinking. Over time I’ve had more than a few people tell me a similar thing in other situations. I deeply appreciate hearing this. But I wish that they had been willing to say this to me publicly, out loud, where others can take stock of their allegiances, their beliefs. There are fewer consequences, especially in terms of social standing and power, for saying things in private, and that’s part of the reason I write out loud, where I hope the whole room can hear me.

One other side of this habit of private discussion is that sometimes my willingness to expose myself and the bad faith of art institutions is instrumentalized by those who haven’t taken or cannot take the same risks. Here I think of the story I told of having a horrifying night inside an Edward Hopper exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The LA Times art critic Christopher Knight retweeted my tweet about that article, saying, “This whole art-museum-experience thing is way, way out of hand. Such foolishness.” From his other comments on social media and in print, I am aware that he does not at all care for the trend in the museum field toward creating “experiences” (which is something I discuss in my book The Personalization of the Museum Visit as a subset of an larger cultural shift to an “experience economy”). I don’t mind Knight using my account of my misery to help him make a point about a cultural shift that I’m also suspicious of because it tends to privilege spectacle over contemplation, but it is a kind of instrumentalization of my work, which, when it happens among my colleagues in the field of art writing, I tend to appreciate. But there are other instances when this is not welcome.

In 2016, when I was just a contributor to Hyperallergic, I wrote a critique of the protesters who had convened to oppose an event at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts titled “Kimono Wednesdays,” organized around the display of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise” (1876). The painting featured Monet’s wife wearing a kimono. The show offered visitors the opportunity to put the kimono on and take photographs in the garment. The ensuing demonstrations accused the museum of participating in “yellow-face” appropriation of Japanese culture. The logic of the arguments put forward by the leaders of the protest struck me as faulty, especially since by several art historical accounts Monet was himself mocking the then-current European fascination with Eastern cultures. My piece was a rigorous dismantling of some of the claims made (and Ryan Wong followed up with his own opinion on my arguments). The comments were a torrent of accusations, denunciations, recriminations, and a few insights. I found myself having to defend the Boston Museum protesters because reactionaries who jumped into the fray (at that point Hyperallergic comments were open to everyone, a situation that I’m sure took months off Hrag’s and Veken’s lives since they were the ones moderating them) aiming to use my criticism to back their dismissal of the activists as petulant opportunists. I spent hours in the comments carving out a position between responding by reflex, instead of deep thought, to situations that appear to be exploiting marginalized groups, and ignoring the dangers of, or even excusing, institutional imprimatur of work that is culturally insensitive or racist or sexist. I’m still carving out this position. I may always have to do so. Perhaps I’ve made this my permanent job.

But not everyone in the art scene sees the value in criticism as a publicly contested activity. I’ve had a prominent African-American academic who is a full professor at a distinguished university tell me that their definition of criticism diametrically differed from mine. They are an advocate of emphatic affirmation, not of calling people out. They believe, and here I have to speculate a bit because they did not say this explicitly, that conflict arises when the kind of (public) criticism I favor is applied, that it may become impossible to hold hands with people and enjoy their company and get along in the hopes of preserving familial, friendship, or collegial relations. I argued then, as I do now, that holding discussions of the meaning and value of art pieces, shows, events in public has public value, because we get to hold each other accountable. Actually, this is invaluable. 

An alternative is complete silence. This is the response I often get from artists and museum and gallery workers when I have written something that annoys them, angers them, or just doesn’t suit their purposes. 

A personal note: My father, when I was old enough that he couldn’t hit me anymore, would then punish me by being silent. He would say nothing to me for days. I learned to cultivate my own counsel, reaching out to poets and novelists, and later, academics and cultural critics. So I am particularly sensitive to the pernicious effects of contempt and am on guard against the silences that are used to exile and marginalize genuine insight.

Here, I should say how I came to art criticism. Growing up Jamaican in a very religious household with working-class Jamaican parents in the north Bronx would not suggest the life I’ve found. It starts in crisis: I went through a deep depression in my late teenage years. I had no idea how to be in the world or what to care about. I was afraid of everything, and even afraid of being seen or heard. Poetry, literature, and visual art saved me. I began writing because the first poet who made me feel that language mattered and that sensitivity could be an asset was Sylvia Plath, and after discovering her I wanted to write everything I wrote with the same drive and poetic fervor. Ultimately, I stopped writing because I never thought I was as good as her. And then I fell in love with visual art, particularly photography, Eikoh Hosoe’s portraits, Minor White’s abstractions, Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers. I tried to make pictures that made human beings into sculpted forms. After getting a bachelor’s degree in English, I worked for a year outside of school to create a portfolio by which to apply to art school. I got into UC Irvine. Given what I likely would have said about my work at that time, the faculty must have seen something in me that I did not yet see. (This actually occurs all the time, but some are loath to admit that critics can do this, and some of us are rather good at this.)

Being in graduate school for two years brought me to another crisis: realizing that I am not a studio artist. The studio feels like a morgue to me. I go there and die a little. The ideas didn’t come. I was bored with reading theoretical observations about the state of contemporary image-making. I didn’t like the pretense of artspeak. I left school with an MFA in my back pocket, like a letter that I opened which was addressed to someone else. I spent about five years in the wilderness of fashion retail, indulging my interest in that and discovering that I had a gift for selling, which is about remembering people’s names and being charming. But this was not a proper life. I was still interested in ideas and when I tried to write about art, I found out that I had never learned how to carry out visual analysis, or how to conduct research. I thought school was the best remedy. That was my whole plan: get into a PhD program, find out how to do research properly, and hope for the best. 

In the nine years it took me to get the doctorate in museum studies, I did learn to write. Smaller magazines such as Artillery magazine (still a great place to publish reviews) and Whitehot magazine (just stay away) gave me opportunities. By the time I had started contributing to Hyperallergic, I realized that my education put me in precisely the place I needed to be in order to develop into the writer I wanted to be. I wake up in order to find the poetic resonances in visual art and performance, to connect these ripples in the water of my consciousness to my own experience through the dialects of poetry and storytelling. I love making sense of the artwork, finding in it the fugitive places where meaning is concealed. And though I’m not trained as an art historian, I have learned how to read the work via artistic genealogies and existing canons, and in terms of grand philosophical constructs. But in the art scene we rarely discuss power: the relative power of artists, curator, writers, dealers, and museum professionals within a hierarchy where one’s status is reified by gallery representation, prestigious museum shows, public recognition, and awards. We rarely publicly talk about how the power differentials affect what all of us do, but we need to because the wielding of power materially affects all our lives. Sometimes the artist and their associates have the power to quash a critic, not silence them precisely, but muffle them a bit.

I think of the public conversation that happened through the writing of Dushko Petrovich. I was only tangentially involved in this conversation, which has become a model to me for airing out the private conversations that, again, enforce certain unspoken hierarchies, which don’t necessarily break down in the ways that all the good students of race, class, and gender might expect. The great example is the situation patiently and deeply explored by Petrovich that begins with the Art Journal article: “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversations with Dushko Petrovich.” In it, Petrovich explores what happened behind the scenes to Steven Nelson, who was commissioned by Aperture magazine in 2016 to write an essay on Deana Lawson’s work. Nelson was unable to get his piece published by them, sought out another publication and was refused, and eventually published the essay with Hyperallergic after I edited it. This is how Nelson describes the piece: 

This is an essay in two parts. The first was originally commissioned by Aperture in 2016. The monograph division rejected it. I then submitted it to Frieze. Despite its initially enthusiastic reception, the magazine ultimately killed the work. Both rejections are the result of Deana Lawson’s dissatisfaction with my contextualization of her work and the acquiescence of editors to her wish not to see this article published. The essay’s first part investigates Lawson’s work in relation to African American, modern and contemporary art, and visual culture. The second explores the lives of this essay and the implications of the artist’s wish to bury it.

To come to an understanding of how and why this played out, Petrovich interviewed several people involved: He first spoke to Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic; Steven Nelson; Anastasia Karpova Tinari of Rhona Hoffman gallery; me; Jennifer Higgie, editorial director of Frieze magazine and Frieze Masters; and Nick Chapin, Frieze’s director of publishing. Petrovich carefully and conscientiously traced the trajectory of the piece from inception to publication, exposing the mostly undetectable fault lines that undergird the interlocking systems of research, discussion, promotion, and valuation of an artist’s work. His examination of the situation demonstrated how fiercely and, in some cases, how dishonestly, gallerists and publication staff will defend an artist’s work and the mythology constructed around the work and the maker. That’s the thing about principled research and writing: Sometimes they begin to undo the myths. 

Subsequent to Petrovich’s series being published, I was invited to a swanky affair and had a brief conversation with Lawson, who was there and I told her about my involvement with the article Hyperallergic had published. She visibly stiffened, gave me a look that smelled to me of suspicion, and then said she appreciated my candor. A little later, I ran into a gallery director who is a keen advocate of her work and she got a bit incensed when I admitted that I thought our involvement was exactly the right thing to do. She said that Lawson had a right to determine what was written about her work, especially since it was her gallery that commissioned the essay. Perhaps. 

But this is precisely what insightful criticism does: It ignores the maker’s sentiments and intentional rhetorical framing of their work; it goes further than that. Sometimes it goes so far that it upsets the apple cart and the bruised and battered fruit, when it gets to the marketplace, has lost a little of its previous valuation. It now might be sold for a little less than expected, or at least that’s the fear that gallerists, dealers, auctioneers, collectors, directors, and other stakeholders in the system of aesthetic production, sales, and distribution have regarding critics: that they will upset the apple cart.

Dread Scott, “Seph Rodney (Number 41)” (2019) (photo courtesy the artist)

And this I’ve found is one of the most troubling aspects of being a full-time critic and writer. Despite working for a publication that consistently and conspicuously waves the banner of seeking to decolonize the art scene and publishes pieces that are feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, pro worker’s rights, critical of capitalism, and supportive of non-canonical histories and forgotten or ignored artists, despite this, there is a way in which, at times, my writing as a Black man is expected to extol the qualities and particularities of my race, tell the story of how far we have come and how we have triumphed despite the seemingly ubiquitous prevalence of racial ideology, rather than offer a forthright evaluation according to the principles of my, more or less, own independent thinking.

Here I am recalling a Latina NYU professor who was initially quite friendly with me. At an awards dinner, she publicly called me out by name, praising the work I had written for Hyperallergic — at least up until that point. But that praise was rescinded when I wrote a piece on the protests roiling El Museo del Barrio after its controversial appointments of Patrick Charpenel, a Chicano man, as the executive director of the museum, and Rodrigo Moura, a Brazilian, as its chief curator. I made the point that part of the issue may be differences in understandings of the museum’s mission that are linked to generational perspectives. This academic told me that I was wrong, that I had misunderstood, that the problem was race. I said I disagreed and held my ground. She has not spoken to me since.

There is another key instance in which I analyzed a situation and sought to make an argument ostensibly critiquing the social media response of a well-loved Black woman artist and drawn naked hostility. When I wrote about the critical reception of the 2017 Whitney Biennial and Simone Leigh’s polemical response to that criticism, I subtly but firmly made a case that art which is considered “radical” is only legible to a certain group of people who are distinguished by their formal education and training, and a kind of criticism (what I term a phenomenological approach) is useful to welcome the visitor who lacks a priori knowledge of the work or artist. I received a good deal of praise for that piece. But, my contention was dismissed as “insane” by a colleague in the art scene. And some random artist said that since I was essentially saying that people of color are part of an elite group in the art scene, clearly I was “doing [criticism] wrong.” It didn’t matter that Simone Leigh conveyed to me that she agreed with what I had written. Others saw the purpose of my writing as either unequivocally supportive of Black artists or somehow wrong, deficient. 

Here, the pervasive capitalist model seeps into criticism. Greg Tate mentioned during a virtual roundtable discussion “Art Writing Futures, A View from the United States” (at which I was also present) that AICA held to discuss the state of contemporary criticism that fellow writers at the Village Voice were concerned about hurting the economic chances of Black people fighting for recognition. The concern was that if one disparaged the work of Black artists, you might damage their reputational value and thus their ability to make a profit in the future, and since it was already so difficult for them to be successful in a white supremacist culture … well, you likely know the rest. 

The rest looks like an initial surge of interest in my piece about the brilliant artist Chakaia Booker, in which I discuss her powerful way of working and then a pervasive quiet in messages to me, retweets and shares of my Facebook posts as readers took in the full scope of the piece which describes one of Eric Mack’s pieces as “a galumphing and inert piece of artistic chicanery … as dispiriting as a meal of cold gruel.” There seems to be less enthusiasm for pieces like this, though I am usually very careful to punch up rather than down. Eric Mack did win the Rome Prize last year, and has been the subject of many solo museum presentations, so I don’t imagine that he has endured any drop in his reputational value. The truth is I didn’t write that in order for that to happen. I wrote it because it’s the truth as I see it.

This is what publicly displayed, independent thought looks like. This can also be celebratory. I am the same writer who marveled at the paintings of Jennifer Packer and recognizes in them the tacit call to be responsible with my seeing. I celebrated the evocative work of the artists Oasa DuVerney, Roberto Visani, and Chris Watts, who explicitly and implicitly deal with the intersection of race and power. I held hands with the artist Michael Rakowitz who hails from a culture and history very different from my own, who nevertheless taught me something deep and abiding about how to metabolize loss. 

I want to and do support the work of historically marginalized people who have been left aside, uncelebrated in certain dominant discourses and historical accounts. But the truth is also that sometimes the very people who have been marginalized reiterate the same systems of hierarchical status and are similarly dismissive of artists who don’t fit their talented-tenth thinking or pass their tests of authenticity. 

In my corner of the arts scene, there are many stakeholders and their associates who claim that they want a revolution, a social and economic recalibration that will center those who have been shoved to the margins, but they don’t really want that. Their actions and words said in private indicate that they don’t want a revolution; they just want revenge.

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But this is a one-sided account. I’ve also lifted up artists and seen them flourish. Early on I saw the value and brilliance of Nona Faustine’s work. In 2015, before I had become a Hyperallergic staff writer, Faustine’s work gave me the opportunity to bring poetry (a lyric by Lucile Clifton) in conversation with her work which presented her naked body to the viewer in a way that was unflinchingly demonstrated her self-possession. I was among the first critics in the city to recognize her work as pivotal and crucial to our ongoing dialogues on race, gender, power, and the history of the United States. A few months ago, I publicly spoke about the meaning of her work on stage with Jessica Lanay and Pamela Sneed at the Brooklyn Museum. I was able to help shine light on Faustine and her work and subsequently got to see her blossom.

Much the same is true for my interaction with Tariku Shiferaw, who I used as a key figure in my 2017 essay about a generation of Black artists who are using abstraction is ways that are subtly yet decisively political. Shiferaw had developed a particularly minimalist painting style that combines wide, horizontal bands of paint evenly applied across a plastic substrate. The work I wrote at the time seemed to me to be some “hard-hearted abstraction,” while also using the titles to refer to music particular to the Black community: hip hop songs, reggae music. Since then Shiferaw, like Faustine, has gone on to make richer, more layered, more profound work and is gaining recognition for this work. And as I wrote about both these artists, they taught me something about how to look, how to question assumptions. It is critical that what I wrote about them was public, that these conversations happened where others could see and hear and join in. Through this collective consideration, we grew.  

The greater truth here is that I have been writing much of this piece as if I am an art scene outsider. I am not. I am regularly invited to address college classes, give public lectures, act as a juror for prizes and residencies. I am invited to write catalogue essays for prominent artists, asked to curate exhibitions, teach classes, and hold workshops. I am recognized and, in some cases, welcomed to art spaces. I suppose the last six years have shown me how to move into the interior of the discourse on contemporary aesthetic production while remembering the person who stands a little way off from the work, unsure of what to say about it, and even less sure that what they have to say will be heard with generosity. I still sometimes want to write from this imagined vantage point. What’s it like not to know, and slowly come into knowledge? I want to make a public space for being ignorant without being reviled for that ignorance. I also mean to carve out room for regarding criticism not only as long-form articles like this one, or the reviews I’ve hyperlinked throughout, but to see it as part of my Facebook conversations, tweets, Instagram comments and posts — the flip and unserious quips, the deep and considered statements. Indeed I live with a critical consciousness, and I can’t imagine not doing so.

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People in the art scene will fairly regularly privately tell me that my criticism is needed, that it keeps people honest, that it provides a way for artists to know how their work is actually landing beyond the pasted-up smiles and PR-manufactured enthusiasm. That is what I believe. I think criticism lets people know where they are in space and time. We can forget, occupying the various bubbles that we do. We forget where we are relative to others whose lives are just as meaningful to them as ours are to ourselves. We forget and then might be reminded by having a critic give us a fresh perspective on the work we have been standing in front of for hours and yet failing to see.

I wish more stakeholders would say publicly that criticism is needed, even when it is not wanted. The last six years have taught me this: to be willing to say the unpopular thing, to hold to the truth so that we can find a way to live in it. And I’ve learned to speak publicly about the issues that some would rather keep private or doom to silence. I won’t do that. I know that’s no way to live.

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