Over in the land of art criticism, a tempest has been stirring these past couple of weeks. It started, as near as I can tell, in an interview dated January 18 of Christian Viveros-Faune, the art critic of the Village Voice, by Tyler Green, who blogs about art for ArtsJournal and who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer and Fortune. In addition to being a critic, Viveros-Faune also curates the Volta art fair and Next, an art fair based in Chicago. Green called out Viveros-Faune as to why this isn't "the most basic kind of conflict of interest," and the blogosphere immediately erupted with its trademarked patience and careful dissection of the history of these sort of things. Viveros-Faune was shown the door by the Voice on January 19.
But on January 18, Geoff Edgers on his Boston Globe blog, where I first read about the interview, criticized Viveros-Faune's decision to make himself appear "compromised." Green linked to a host of those who weighed in on his interview, including Time's Richard Lacayo and Jen Graves of The Stranger, in Seattle. Green published a lengthy explanation of his feelings here. Short version: Viveros-Faune was in a position to show favoritism to art galleries and artists that took part in his art fairs, and dole out punishment to those who wouldn't play ball. Perhaps the most willfully blind of those coming down on Viveros-Faune was another Seattle art critic, Regina Hackett in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who wrote that "You can't star in the movie, sell the popcorn and write the review," as if Viveros-Faune were creating the art in the fairs he then reviewed.
Now, Viveros-Faune was managing director of these fairs, and that's a pretty clear line that shouldn't have been crossed. At the same time, I'm still bothered by the tone of this discussion, and a few of the larger issues that weren't raised. And maybe parallels in book criticism and classical criticism aren't entirely sound, but they can still illuminate this particular situation.
What's most disturbing about the entire depressing episode is the lack of historical awareness of the situation and art scene as it has functioned, and continues to work. A famous example of a critic taking a personal interest in the art scene he covered was Clement Greenberg, who promoted Abstract Expressionism and without whom Jackson Pollock may never have gained the notice that he did. Today, Greenberg's collection of paintings and sculptures sits in the Portland Art Museum (see this Art in America story). The 59 artists in that collection often gave their work to Greenberg as thanks for his writing on them. Conflict of interest? Perhaps. Was Greenberg writing about artists to manipulate the art market to value their work more highly? Prove it, chapter and verse.
Thumbsuckers can pull the question apart all they want. But they should at least address it. Go through the various responses to le cas Viveros-Faune, and you'll find no mention of Greenberg. You want a contemporary parallel? Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's drama critic and who writes about all the arts, is also an art collector. He maintains a mention of a favored gallery in a sidebar on his ArtsJournal blog, and frequently writes about his newest finds. Teachout's name also hasn't come up in these discussions. Why? Because it's easier to criticize than wrestle with how the relationships between critics and artists and gallery owners (or, in classical-music terms, presenters) develop. Other art critics write catalog essays for exhibitions. If you want an expert essay written by someone who can write for a general audience, that's where you turn.
Critics can have an ethically sound impact on their scenes beyond writing about it, which brings me to this timely example. Just last week, Alex Ross and Kyle Gann, two of the most noted classical critics alive, co-curated a series of concerts and lectures in Seattle by the Seattle Chamber Players. (I'm on friendly terms with both of them, so make any allowances for the following you think is necessary.) If someone was so inclined, they'd be well within their rights to claim that Ross was nothing more than a shill for the crowd of composers around Nico Muhly, and to say something similar about Gann. (Admittedly, Gann doesn't write much professional criticism these days, limiting his writing to his ArtsJournal blog.) They'd also be dead wrong. Because what went on out there is exactly what you want from critics: They should stake their reputations on artists they think have the most vital messages to say. They shouldn't be forced to remain on the sidelines, idly taking notes and reporting back to their readers that, yes, just as the program said, a concert took place. Having them review those concerts would obviously be unethical, but if a presenter wants to allow a critic's mind free rein, that's all for the best.
And that's exactly what's missing from the condemnations of Green, Edgers and the others in this scrum. Edgers is a journalist, a different breed of writer than a critic that's more concerned with fact-finding and reporting and not subjective opinion, so it's natural for him to take a harder line on this. But he and the others can rake Viveros-Faune over the coals all they like (I mean, he already lost his far-from-lucrative freelance job at the Voice), but it is still stronger for the critic to know the inner workings of this world, and not just write, "He puts paint on good, to quietly devastating effect."
Reviewing isn't for everyone, and curating provides a powerful way of confronting that, and still put forth an aesthetic agenda. In a recent interview, Richard Ford, the novelist, said that he considers editing short story collections such as the 756-page New Granta Book of the American Short Story to be "a much more efficacious way of advancing literature than reviewing." That's the job of a critic, at the end of the day. To advance whatever artform is under consideration in a world that doesn't care for art or its history or its ability to reflect, deepen and shape our lives. It shouldn't be that difficult to understand, but I guess it is.
In the introduction to this mammoth book, Ford proves that he'd be an excellent critic as he delineates the characteristics of story after story he chose, and in the interview linked to above he shows that he has a clear agenda. Like anything else, agendas can be good and they can be bad, but having one that can be supported at least shows that the critic has thought about what they are writing about or curating, and not blindly accepting whatever is placed in front of them.
These hard, knotty questions are asked less and less in the frenzied media world we live in. Viveros-Faune didn't help himself with his testy answers to Green's questions. The thing is, he shouldn't have been asked them in the first place. The answers are less straightforward than the questioners would like to presume.