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  • Writer's pictureWilloughby Thom

Reflections of a first-year graduate student: contemporary art criti(c/que)

Graduate students are in a two-year professional limbo, teetering between civil and academic states. It's an opportunity to refine interests and specialize in a subject; ultimately, honing the skills necessary to achieve higher professional positions. It's a temporary, yet, rapid-fire series of lectures, coursework and networking, gearing you up for the real-world of hand shaking and democracy. Yes, it may not always be glamorous or mandatory, but it is crucial to recognize graduate school as an essential bridge between undergraduate and professional life, especially for those of us who pursue careers in the humanities. It is a concentrated time where we have the opportunity to think and marinate in ideas with little to no restrictions.

As a first-year masters student studying contemporary art history, I often find myself just thinking. Staring into oblivion as I internally debate with myself about the two-sided role the art gallery plays (market and influence) in the modern art world, type of thinking. Some may call it a practice in analysis, but it is more of an engagement with fragmented ideas and opinions that result in a "I should write an essay about it" open-ended proclamation. So, as an attempt to foster and develop these ideas, welcome to the series:"Reflections of a first-year graduate student."

As of late, I have been ruminating over several questions: does criticism still have a place in contemporary art discourse? Can it be said that the title of "art critic" has become synonymous with that of a "critical academic?" Has art been overly criticized it now requires overt contextualization to justify cultural value?

Let's take a moment to review terminology: "criticism" is defined by the act of observing things critically, an exercise in judgement (good/ bad/ mediocre). "Critique," as a noun, is an act of criticism; as a verb, it is a critical examination. A "review," by definition, is a critical look at an event. By this argument, a review requires judgement. Overlooking the holes in my argument, it is safe to say, there is an assumption that a critic will provide truthful commentary on what they experienced, but how can we classify something as a "review" when it doesn't take a stance?

Today, art is coming at us from everywhere. It exists physically on the walls of galleries and museums, digitally in the realm of social media, and it is created by everyone. While the accessibility of art resources and practices has grown exponentially since the turn of the 21st century (which, don't get me wrong, is incredible), it is fair to say that art historians and critics are anxiously drowning in a sea of up-and-coming artists. Despite social media, there are very few platforms which cater towards art discussion, adding stress to those who write and think about contemporary art. The space in publications like ArtForum, ARTnews, and Artsy, for example, is exclusive but not limited, relying on writers to cover shows quickly rather than critically. Consequently, reviews have become "previews."

Hal Foster pines for the old days, when, as he sees it, great critics were also serious intellectuals. “When I was young you could pick up The New Yorker and read Sontag, or pick up The New York Review of Books and read Didion. Now you pick up magazines and you get . . . Peter Schjeldahl? Jed Perl? David Salle? I admire Peter and David as writers, but they aren’t critics.” As he sees it, the editors of those estimable publications have “given up on the critical part of the old public sphere; they’ve given up on criticism.” (Rubinstein 2019)

Interestingly, in a report from Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program that surveyed 196 art critics from various prominent and independent news outlets, almost 75 percent of the participants felt “rendering a personal judgment is considered by art critics to be the least important factor in reviewing art.” While, on the other hand, 91 percent believed that it was their responsibility to "educate the public about visual art and why it matters," somewhat addressing my third question regarding contextualization.

check out the report here.

In fact, we have even seen a shift in the way films are reviewed. It can be said that most movie-goers or film aficionados refer to Rotten Tomatoes or Letterboxd for their reviews; entrusting the opinions of the public over the, quote-on-quote, experts hired by major cultural publications. If they were still on the air today, the scathing reviews of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would be seen as pretentious or possibly performative. In addition to the entertainment value of their program, their professional opinion held significant influence, but, now, the world is suspicious of those who consider their opinions definitive.

“First, of course, art critics habitually speak for themselves. They conceive themselves as private citizens with singular opinions striving to be heard within a cacophony of competing voices and opinions. They don’t decide what we see, in other words. They only argue about whether it is worth seeing or not. . . . Curators, however, do decide. They include and exclude, and, as a consequence, the eccentric, combative tastes and opinions that constitute an art critic’s abiding virtue quickly become vices in curatorial practice. Critics have freedoms commensurate with their lack of power. Curators have responsibilities that derive from their actual power to exclude, so they must always see themselves, in some sense, as public servants. When two curators agree, their agreement is taken to represent a consensus of public taste. When two critics agree, one of them is redundant.” (Hickey 1999)

With all that said, I don't have an answer to the questions proposed earlier. If I did, it would be signed, bound and submitted as a PhD thesis. But, with the little time and space I had (on the page and in my head) I hope this inaugural piece opens further debate and discussion. If it doesn't, thank you for taking the time to read the ramblings of an aspiring art historian. However, if you take one thing away from this essay, understand that a necessary element of art criticism is to respond to art.



1. Davis, Ben. 2023. “Is Art Criticism Today Too Affirmative? That's the Wrong Question to Be

Asking.” Artnet News.

2. Hickey, Dave. 1999. “Mixology—an installation by Christine Siemens,” exhibition

brochure, New York, Apex Art.

3. McEvilley, Thomas. 1991. Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millenium, Kingston, N.Y.,

McPherson & Co., p. 177.

4. Rubenstein, Raphael. 2023. “From the Archives: Why Don't Critics Make Judgments


5. Rubinstein, Raphael, and Serena Williams. 2019. “Art Critics Today Struggle to Find


6. Sandler, Irving. n.d. “Art Criticism Today – The Brooklyn Rail.” The Brooklyn Rail.

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