Ben Davis on the rise of art news and the crisis of art criticism

Clement Greenberg. Image: Chicago Art Criticism

At, Ben Davis has a thoughtful and I think largely accurate description of the rise and rise of news media about the visual arts industry over the past decade – at the expense of art criticism:

The expanding market for “art news” coincided with the ballooning of the more commercial side of the art world in the ’00s: the explosion of art fairs (Art Basel Miami Beach debuted in 2002, Frieze in 2003), the rise of the “ego-seum,” the hunger of corporations to tap high-culture cachet (Takashi Murakami’s team-up with Louis Vuitton was in 2003), the triumph of art-as-investment, and the “emerging artist” wave that saw galleries harvest kids fresh out of school (Alex McQuilken’s “Fucked,” a video of the 19-year-old artist having sex made while she was at NYU, famously sold out at the 2002 Armory Show). But everything about “theory-crit” requires the reader to buy the idea that the academy is the most important tastemaking center. Thus, the commercial explosion created a space where all the stuff about the market and the social scene, institutional moves and their political ramifications, actually feels more relevant than the most “serious” criticism.

And there’s the rub, of course. Art news is more relevant than art criticism in the year 2011, because almost no-one reads or takes art criticism seriously. What mattes in the art world nowadays is the money, in the way that what matters in publishing and in Hollywood are best-sellers and blockbusters. Critics will remain interesting, insightful and even incisive, but the days when a powerful critic such as Clement Greenberg could effectively ignite and then police an entire art movement are, at least for the foreseeable future, probably over.

4 thoughts on “Ben Davis on the rise of art news and the crisis of art criticism

  1. The rub is that your comments are surely complicit with the situation in which we find ourselves. It is one thing being realistic but realism should come with criticism. The quote from Ben Davis is ambiguous – somehow the world of money and media is positioned as bad, but not as bad as the ‘tastemaking’ claims of academia – a clear reference to Bourdieu and on and on down the syntagmatic chain to the whole idea that academia and art is elitist and thus the market is anti-elitist and thus can;t be challenged. You response closes down the situation immediately – yes, its finished its over. Is that so? First it ignored the continuing role of the academic-gallery network in setting art trends and second it gives no grounds on which to oppose this emphasis on money-media. And it also over-states the role of greenberg, who did not ‘ignite and police’ an art movement (again, the bad old critics) but attempted to give critical expression to already existing tendencies in art. He was certainly not unchallenged – especially by artists. So until we can speak about criticism without the tired old knee-jerk of THE ACADEMY we can get on with charting the complete collapse of a value system before global capitalism and the rather odd coupling of the avant-garde with neo-liberalism (cf. Peter Stallabrass)

  2. Justin – I’m out and about today but I’ll endeavour to respond in detail soon.

    As a first reply I’d note that perhaps you’ve confused the brevity of a blog post with closing down the debate. I’ve worked as both an art critic and an arts journalist and so I’m quite aware of how both fields have developed (or otherwise) over the past decade.

    Davis’ point, which I agree with, is that the amount of speculative money that has washed into the highest levels of the art world in the past 15-20 years – and especially the past ten years – has changed the way art is perceived and valued by its own participants. The work of Thornton in “Seve Days in the art World” and Thompson in “The $12 million Stuffed Shark” reinforces this argument – they report that critics are regarded as essentially unimportant by most collectors, dealers, gallerists and even many curators, and that what generates more interest and column inches is artworld industry reportage.

    By the way I’m not defending and advancing neo-liberalism here or attacking the standards of academic art criticism. I do however think that many academic art critics write for such small audiences and in such complex language that it’s not surprising that their influence is waning.

  3. Hi Ben,

    yes all fair points. I suppose I’m concerned to avoid that sense of art criticism being the ‘policing’ of the art world and thus its shunting aside by the artindustry world as some sort of liberation. I’m not sure that I go along with Thornton on this (I’ve not read the other book), who makes her living by applying academic theory to worlds which she claims are oblivious to this theory. But when you actually look at the blurb next to art works, or the catalogs, or the pronouncements at industry conferences/ prize giving – they are all dripping with art theory references (and all the more annoying for that I should say). So column inches is certainly one thing, but the conceptual grist which powers the whole mill comes from ‘high theory’ even if this is no longer given public face by the intellectuals themselves. Hirst may be ‘pork bellies’ but its easy to see his art school references through the faux common man words. So I suppose I am saying that the art world is driven by money, but this does not mean it has nothing to do with art criticism. Something more complex is going on.

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