I often like to complain that art criticism is dying (which some may not consider to be a bad thing, but that’s another conversation). But two weeks ago, when I was at a conference in Barbados (more on that later), I had the pleasure of meeting Leon Wainwright of Third Text and David Scott of Small Axe. Dr. Richard Powell, of Duke, was also there, and he is finishing up his last year as Editor of The Art Bulletin. And this weekend, I heard from my good friend Lucy Steeds, an associate editor at Afterall Books. Being reminded of four journals that explore art criticism in the space of one week? Clearly, I am mistaken…
Third Text describes itself as “an international scholarly journal dedicated to providing critical perspectives on art and visual culture. The journal examines the theoretical and historical ground by which the West legitimises its position as the ultimate arbiter of what is significant within this field.” Published six times per year, the journal is an academic one, with the most recent issue carrying articles like “Climates of Nihilism” and “Contours of the Obscene, Architectures of the Visible.” With writers coming mostly out of art historical, philosophical and critical theory traditions, it may be too esoteric for me on most days (my brain, my aching brain!) but Third Text does review exhibitions, as well. Likewise, its focus on decentralizing the critical dialogue and challenging the omnipresent western perspective is exciting.
It was great to learn more about Small Axe, which recently moved to our hometown favorite, Duke University Press. Focused on the Caribbean, the journal seeks to “participate both in the renewal of practices of intellectual criticism in the Caribbean and in the expansion/revision of the scope and horizons of such criticism” – an ambitious project, to be sure. Edited by David Scott, who is based at Columbia University in New York, the focus of the journal is more liberal arts than fine arts; still, their presence on the web seems to be particularly concerned with art practice. This is likely due in part to the influence of Trinidad-based artist Christopher Cozier, who – if I remember correctly – edits the Small Axe blog. It’s great to see an academic journal with a very active weblog presence, and one which weekly posts on the activities of a range of Caribbean artists – a great educational resource. I’ve been bugging him, so with any luck, we’ll have a post from Chris soon.
The Art Bulletin “publishes leading scholarship in the English language in all aspects of art history as practiced in the academy, museums, and other institutions.” Founded in 1913, it is a venerable publication happily based in academia (articles are published through peer review). There’s definitely a sense that the Art Bulletin seeks to be a much more traditional journal, with articles running across the range of art historical interest, rather than being focused only on contemporary art.
A journal that focuses specifically on looking at, thinking about, and understanding contemporary art, Afterall is the youngest of the four I’ve mentioned here, founded a decade ago in 1998. Co-published by Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London and the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, Afterall also has a book division which puts out both art historical surveys and books focused on the critical analysis of a single work, called ther “One Work” series. This year, there are plans to begin publishing a “One Exhibition” series, moving the concept to an in-depth look at a single exhibition.
I know I’m biased – one of my best friends from graduate school is involved – but I really think that projects like Afterall are (along with Small Axe) where the future of art criticism should be heading. Both seek to engage both the critical and visual sides of the mind, exploring both looking and thinking – a seemingly simple yet increasingly rare balance that should be struck. To me, art criticism needs to be relevant or at least readily available to the mainstream – indeed, part of the problem seems to be that art history departments are turning out very smart people whose only frame of reference is themselves. In other words, academics are reading and writing for other academics. Likewise, artists have become increasingly concerned with the commercial, big shows in white cube spaces and big sales, while the critical dialogue around their work is suffering. The result is that two spheres of the art world, which should be occasionally rubbing up against each other are increasingly living in isolation. Where is the give and take? Heaven knows I’m not looking for a new Clement Greenberg (that’s the last thing we need), but a little dialogue would be nice.
It’s not art criticism that is dying, but its presence in the mainstream art world. The question is, how to revive it?
Top – “The Art Critic at Home,” Doug Savage, www.savagechickens.com
Bottom – Mr. Art Critic, Starring Bronson Pinchot