What’s the Point of a Bad Review?

09/26/2012 4:00 AM |


Contrary to popular belief, writing negative reviews isn’t much fun. Sure, there’s pleasure in coming up with the perfect put-down for an overblown art star, but by and large you’re attacking working professionals doing an already difficult job. You feel like an asshole, even when you’re sensitive, even when you’re apologetic, and even when the artist’s dealer calls you up to compliment you on the review (as has happened to L Mag Art Editor Paddy Johnson). Peter Schjeldahl, the current art critic for the New Yorker and a master of the negative review, decided he was sick of criticism in 1976. In the lengthy poem he wrote to say goodbye, he pours word after word into an apology for every time “I mistook my hand-me-down taste / for the light of election, and poured ink on the worthy.” Like every good critic, he’s specific: “That supercilious dismissal of William Baziotes—horrible,” he writes, “Jim Dine, how could I, Joan Snyder, how could I … Richard Hamilton, where did I get off?” It’s a poem every critic—art or otherwise—should read in full.

Besides which, negative criticism is not an effective vehicle for change. In Don Thompson’s book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, celebrity megacritic Jerry Saltz tells the author, “I can write that work is bad and it has little-to-no-effect, and I can write it is good and the same thing will happen.” Unless you’re at the absolute top—Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith at the Times, and… okay, that’s it—any negativity is likely to be written off or drowned out. After all, you’re working in an industry where every single other person, from curators and dealers to advisors and collectors, is essentially in the business of producing hype. If you want to change an artist’s practice, an MFA is a whole lot more efficient than a bad review.

It’s also unprofitable. For years, it’s been the case that many major publications—Artforum chief among them—review their advertisers first and everyone else never. Whatever the value they place on critical integrity, no publication is going to run itself out of business for the sake of a few righteous paragraphs. Newspaper criticism has been a better home for the negative review, since newspaper critics are essentially in the business of entertainment (Schjeldahl said as much in a recent interview with Frieze). Those jobs, though, are always the first to be jettisoned in the slow death of print.

Perhaps, as with everything else, the Internet can come to the rescue? Fat chance. Art Fag City makes a point of being critical, but it’s clearly to our disadvantage: positive reviews have a guaranteed audience in the artist’s friends and colleagues, and get passed around as a mark of pride and accomplishment; negative reviews are encouraged to die quietly. Any blog based on traffic would be well-advised to go for the easy back-pat tweets, rather than playing the long game of stature and respectability.

The only time it’s financially advisable to go on the attack is against the art world’s public villains: Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Any takedown of those two is likely to get a huge response, whether or not it uncovers anything new to hate. If you stretch the category a bit to people who generally have more money than sense, you can include artists like Erwin Wurm, Maurizio Cattelan, or Takashi Murakami, but these are less popular targets: you’ll get plenty of nods from artworlders, as with the near-universal panning of Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, but those names don’t have quite the same stench of excess for the hoi polloi.

In fact, artists that successful are often beyond caring. Two weeks after Johnson wrote an article titled “On The Total Vacuity of Richard Phillips,” she ran into the artist at an opening; by all accounts, he was perfectly friendly about it. Any successful dealer has mastered the art of picking and choosing what the press collectors see.

Perhaps the only good news for bad reviews comes as a corollary to that fact: because successful artists can weather bad reviews, and because it’s bad business to go after small fish, a negative review can be a mark of distinction, a sign you’re good enough to merit a takedown. When The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico opened at El Museo del Barrio in 1973, Puerto Rican art wasn’t much thought of. It was a major show, spanning from pre-Columbian artifacts to contemporary artists, but it was a major show of a tradition outside the canon that wasn’t likely to get in. Schjeldahl, true to form, criticized much of the show in the New York Times, declaring that the painting was “pretty bad” and even the artifacts were not “remarkably unique.” By doing so, though, he showed he wasn’t pulling any punches with Puerto Rican art, that it would have to succeed in open competition with Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and the remnants of the New York School. Schjeldahl understood that rejection isn’t disrespect—done properly, it can be just the opposite.

3 Comment

  • There is one circumstance where writing negative reviews pays off–if it establishes your reputation as a deft assassin. People like to read well written bad reviews with cruel zingers, just like people like to see James Bond make a joke after he kills someone. If you have a reputation as an eloquent curmudgeon, you can possibly make a career out of it.

  • “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising…”

  • A diss review might not be very helpful, it can usually be spotted a mile off as a feelgood exercise for some would-be snark. But a thoughtful critical review that makes a valid comment on the state of things that be is gold.

    Saying “that’s not art” is always a mistake, as history amply proves. But saying “this could be more interesting” or “what’s up with this particular circle-jerk moment” can be.

    Seriously, if art blogs have one problem to focus it on it will not be that they are too critical. More so than other media outlets, blogs are written partly out of the desire to be respected and possibly liked by the community you blog for. Critical writing is rare enough, saying it’s counter-productive is, well, counter-productive. Without criticism we are left with a Pinterest-style world.

    Just don’t ever say you don’t like my work, ok? And keep your reviews friendly enough for the lite yoghurt demographic, they got dollars to spend.