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Modern art criticism was the key theoretical and argumentative texts born out of the troubled shifts happening in the art world in the first part of the 20th Century. Art and criticism complement each other, and that relationship is key to the development and understanding of innovative ways of artmaking.  

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Art criticism is a side of the art world that is not appreciated enough. Most people don't even remember or recognise this vital facet of the artworld. But art criticism is crucial for the development of Art History, and the understanding of the socioeconomic context of a particular artwork. In short, art criticism is the analysis and evaluation of works of art. Most people think that to evaluate it is to judge, which is not necessarily true. Art critics try to make criticism as objective as possible most of the times, making criticism an argumentative and theoretical analysis of the why's and how's. 

There was a rise of modern art criticism since the late 19th Century towards the 20th Century. This era was loaded with academics and philosophers interested in the changes happening throughout society, affecting all disciplines. As at the beginning of the 20th Century, the art world was going through a vast amount of radical, controversial and anti-conformist movements; these academics were vital to the understanding and contextualisation of art on a broader spectrum. It is also important to note how these texts and writers influenced and shaped how we perceive and create art nowadays. 

In this article, we have put together a brief but insightful list of five important art critics, whose essays became sacred to the art world and started the modern art criticism. 

 

Bernard Berenson, American art critic, undated. Courtesy Momus

 

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin (b. 1892 – d. 1940) was the chosen writer to start of this listing for a very good reason: not just because he produced work during the crucial and troubled beginning of the 20th Century, but also because one of his essays in particular, was and still is massively celebrated for its sacred and innovative concepts. Published late in his career just before his death in 1935, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is a crucial text to understand the paradigm of the technological spectrum within the creative output. This cultural piece of criticism explores and explains the mechanical reproduction and its value. 

 

Walter Benjamin Library Card, 1940. Via Kottle.org

 

Through a time when printing started to be used more frequently, Walter Benjamin started questioning what makes the "aura" of an art object and how that might be affected under capitalist development. As artworks are valued for its uniqueness and rareness, how is this conception affected when art imagery is produced in masses? These arguments were and still are too controversial and contribute to the also controversial terms "low and high art". Mechanical reproduction offered the artist new ways to think and produce outside its traditional history, which influenced much of the contemporary art as we know today. Dada movement may be the best example of this criticism towards its own practice in relation to Walter Benjamin. To be more precise, this questioning of the value of art that comes from the first Dada artworks (e.g. Duchamp "Fountain" in 1917) may have influenced Benjamin to write this influential essay. Later on the 20th Century we can see how "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" can be easily pointed out as an influence to the Pop-Art in the 1960s, or all the non-traditional forms of art.

 

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" influenced the world in a much broader context than its art niche, greatly influencing cultural studies and media theory, situating art within a larger socioeconomic context. Also, important to note that with the rise of new media such as film and photography, Benjamin started questioning if painting, for example, was worthwhile- concluding that what makes art valuable is intangible. 

“Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object” by Lucy Lippard

Lucy Lippard (b. 1937) is an American activist, feminist, art critic, and curator. Lippard always found a way to combine earthly concerns with art though her writings, embracing a broader social and political context than the artworks being criticised. The feminist writer believed that art could be an active participant in political and social dilemmas. 

 

Lucy Lippard, On Kawara, I Got Up, 1969. Courtesy Frieze.

 

Lucy Lippard wrote some of the most important essays and books that contributed massively towards the shifts and changes that occurred throughout the 20th Century in the art world. Some of these significant pieces include "Changing: Essays in Art Criticism" (1971), "The Lure of the Local" (1997), and "On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art, and Place" (1999). We could analyse each one to detail, and we would still be impressed with how her conceptual and communicative skills contributed massively to art history. Despite her significant contributions, we are going to focus on a particular book, "Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object" (1977). 

 

Spread from Heresies #1, No. 1, Vol. 1: Feminism, Art and Politics by Heresies Collective. Courtesy of Printed Matter

 

This book was written during a time of social unrest to which contributed to the writer's take on the "dematerialisation" notion of the art. While living through the shift between traditional forms of art-making to a more experimental, process-based creative process, Lippard confidently pursued a unique writing style against conformism. "Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object" was an anthology for every experimental art movement going on at the time, such as Land art, Minimalism, Anti-form, and Systems Art. "Six Years" informs how the Conceptualism is connected to Feminism, demystifying the women's position. This book was so relevant for a deeper understanding of Conceptualism that it took a form of an art exhibition project titled 'Materialising "Six Years": Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art' in Brooklyn Museum. 

 

Lucy Lippard’s exhibition “Materializing 'Six Years Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art” - installation view from Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy Widewalls.

 

Until today, this book is highly praised for its detailed archival process and for explaining the foundations of Conceptual Art. 

“Avant-Garde and Kitsch” by Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg (b.1909- d.1994) is the most influential art critic of the second half of the 20th century. Born in New York in a Jewish family in 1909, he expressed his passion for literature and the creative world since a very young age. He is known to have sketched almost compulsively until his late teen years when he fell in love with literature. With a very in-depth understanding of the creative mind throughout his childhood, he then applied that understanding to his critical writings further on in life. In 1937 he started writing more seriously and started working with some small journals where his essays were published. A few years later (1939) he published his most debated essay in art history “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in the Partisan Review. 

 

Clement Greenberg speaking in 1961. Image via Widewalls

 

With daring propositions, this essay explores how the Avant-Garde superimpose the traditional forms of art-making turning to kitsch (art independent from the viewer experience; art that is obvious, that presents no difficulties; as the expression -"very much in your face"). Attempting to distinguish high art from low art with a focus on the visuals, Greenberg merges historical, social and political arguments to claim that art became self-sufficient by inevitably focusing on the medium rather than the subject. The critic explored how artists were dissatisfied with traditional conformist norms, sliding away from the subject matter of experience to instead focusing on the processes of the disciplines. In this essay, Greenberg also claims that the necessity of the avant-garde and ultimately the kitsch, born as a reactionary feeling to resist the "dumbing down" caused by consumerism to art and culture.

 

Jackson Pollock ,‘Autumn Rhythm’, 1950. Via prithvidev.com

 

Clement Greenberg was extremely influential in the understanding of Abstract Expressionism and this radical text still widely informs the rise of contemporary art. His vision on how the art should be perceived and written about in an objective manner has largely influenced other art critics such as Rosalind Krauss. 

“Artworld” by Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto (b.1924) was a broadly praised art critic and professor of philosophy that died at the age of 89 in 2013. Starting as an artist, he developed a love for philosophy to which he then merged with art.  In 1964, he published his first influential essay titled "Artworld" that became an essential text to understand how relevant it is the artworld for the artworld.  This is as tricky as it sounds, but Danto devoted himself to try to understand the critical notions of interpretation of an artwork. This essay born out of a visit to an exhibition where he saw for the first time Andy Warhol's "Brillo box" and Danto was deeply shocked. Questioning himself what made these boxes different from any other "Brillo" boxes, he wrote "Artworld" exploring how such artworks are only to be comprehended by the artworld itself.

 

Arthur Danto portrait, undated. Courtesy NY Arts Magazine.

 

By proposing two concepts (Imitation Theory and the Reality Theory), the art critic attempted to explain the mechanisms of defining art through the avant-garde and post-modern movements. Danto argued that aesthetics within art became an autonomous area of knowledge because aesthetics cannot define the value of an art piece.

 

Andy Warhol, “Brillo Box”, 1964. Courtesy Andy Warhol Foundation via DoppioZero.

 

Danto saw Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Oldenburg as leaders of a new kind of aesthetic that could not be categorised into "high art" or "low art". Arthur Danto perspective on the meaning of the Artworld was a massive step in institutional art theory because if there was no such artworld to convey the respect and admiration to distinguish an ordinary object from an artwork, probably the artworld as we know it did not exist. After this essay, he wrote other influential texts that succeeded his primary theory on the "Artworld". These texts include "After the End of Art" (1997) and "What Art Is" (2013). 

“Against Interpretation” by Susan Sontag

The last essay in this short but insightful list of art critics is "Against Interpretation" written by Susan Sontag in 1966. Susan Sontag (b.1933 – d.2004) was an American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist. She is best known for her contributions towards understanding photography as a medium.  

 

Susan Sontag laying down, undated. Via New Directions

 

In this influential essay, Sontag explores how interpretation plays a significant role in the act of evaluating an artwork and how often we try to overanalyse it. Although the title of the text, Sontag is not against interpretation but by the rules imposed to it. By emphasising how we try to fit a particular artwork in a context that we can relate/connect/understand, we misunderstand its value and meaning, making the artwork about us. The critic reflects on the post-modern era and how artworks are independent of our interpretation while having its own discourse. Susan Sontag can be understood as a rebel against the conformist ideas of the art critic is – she defends that the art critic/viewer should not rely on the content, rather than its sensual aura. By over-interpreting an artwork, we are missing its purpose- as art is supposed to be experienced. 

 

Ingmar Bergman, The Silence” (still), 1963. Via htmlgiant.com

 

Susan Sontag's radical efforts to try and revolutionise the way art is analysed throughout history is brilliant, and indeed an influential text beyond its artistic spectrum. To exemplify that and to end this list beautifully, here is a quote from "Against Interpretation". 

“Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art-and in criticism- today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”

 

Lord Snowdon, “Five Art Critics”, 1963. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery.

 

To conclude, it is useful to know that there are many more other influential art critics that we could write an entire book about, but let's leave it for another occasion. All the texts mentioned can easily be found online for you to dive deep on each topic and reflect on how much of these writing pieces have influenced the art world as you know it today. Art critics are an essential part of understanding how relevant a particular artwork is in relation to art history, culture, society and politics. Although some believe art critics judge an artwork, this is not true. An art critics work goes behind its artistic and literary spectrum, evaluating art through context, not beauty.

 

Cover image: Lord Snowdon, “Five Art Critics”, 1963. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Written by Tania Teixeira 

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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