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This text is by Sarah Rose Sharp in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

How to be an Art Critic

Sarah Rose Sharp

I was having a conversation the other day about how I got started writing arts criticism. Sometimes, breaking a process down helps me take it less for granted and it occurred to me how lucky I am to have generally felt welcome in the context of art spaces like galleries and museums--and that it is perhaps unusual to feel entitled to think and express opinions or reflections on works of art. But if my time writing about the arts in Detroit has taught me anything, it is that there is a real hunger in this city for critical thinking and writing about the arts and, if that’s going to happen, we’re going to need more people engaged in arts criticism.

Why aren’t more people already writing about art in Detroit? It is not for lack of a vibrant, thriving art environment. In my opinion, there are three major reasons.

  • It is easier to think and feel things about art than to parlay those feelings into cogent, written analysis or argument

  • People feel, perhaps, that they lack some sort of specialized skill set that qualifies them to participate in arts writing as a discipline

  • A prevailing sense within Detroit that there can only be a limited number of something, that anyone redoubling efforts is diluting the overall effect or stealing resources from another, similar project, effectively creating a zero-sum gain

Of these concerns, I think the first is probably the most valid. It is certainly easier to have nebulous reactions to stimulus than to focus on it for long enough to create a thoughtful reflection in response. If you think that the main purpose of art is to complete your interior design scheme, then perhaps a more challenging approach will not be very appealing to you. But if you find yourself wondering what art is really all about, or even wrestling with feelings of frustration about things that are considered “art,” this is a great jumping off point to deepen your thinking about this subject and perhaps help other people to increase their own understanding of art as a human experience.

As to the second concern and with all due respect to educational institutions, you do not necessarily need a specialized skill set to participate in arts writing. It is my personal belief that nothing will help you so much as exposure to art and artists, perhaps a personal art practice of your own and diligent practice at writing as an expressive medium.

Finally and crucially, I think the Detroit art scene needs to reexamine this sense of zero-sum limitations in general and certainly around arts writing in particular. There are an astonishing number of talented and educated people creating art in this city. Thanks to the internet, there is an endless supply of reporting venues, all desperate for coverage to slot into their 24-hour news cycle. As Detroit is having a moment, there is a specific interest for Detroit-related news of any sort. If there are blogs you read or online magazines you subscribe to, consider that it is a fine time to make your voice heard (particularly if you take issue with the way Detroit may be characterized in the media). If you attend an art show or encounter a work that changes your perspective, take the time to collect your thoughts about it and make an effort to present them. Ultimately, engaging in a practice of written reflection on art has made my personal art practice richer and more enjoyable. It also helps buoy the work of other artists who serve as inspiration and support to me in a hard line of work. Far from diluting the effect, I truly believe that more written output about the arts in Detroit will help to build a critical mass that will raise the whole scene to a new level of success and visibility.

So it is to this end I offer some humble suggestions on how to get started.

1. Go look at art: Maybe the challenge for you is to find a place to meet art. A really beautiful thing about art is that there are so many cultural institutions striving to put it on display—that is literally their entire mission, to get art to you. A lot of them are free. There are a number of great resources for getting your finger on the pulse of art happening in the city: the info zone at the MOCAD, the gallery guide in ZIPR magazine and http://artdetroitnow.com are a few good jumping off points.

Make time to take a look at art. I try to avoid being distracted or in a rush, but I also find that I have a limited window for taking in visual information before I stop being able to process it very well. There is nothing wrong with going into a gallery for 20 minutes and just focusing on a couple of objects—or sweeping through quickly at a first pass and coming back a second time to revisit the things that stood out for you. If you find yourself reflecting about, puzzled by or even angry with a certain piece, it is a good one to revisit.

2. Figure out what you think about art, in general: I am an artist, so I already have a relationship with art - it is (maybe) easier for me to access or align with where any given piece or artist is coming from. But even if responding to art is not a natural activity for you, I think it's really valuable for everyone to develop a relationship with art.

What is it for? What is it doing? What is it supposed to do? I certainly endorse using one’s own feelings as the compass for this work. However, if something seems flawed or presents a target for your criticism, take a moment to examine what reasons you have for thinking it needs to be some way other than it is. If something seems wrong to you, then you must have some internalized sense of what it would be like if it were right. Try to outline that as clearly as you can.

3. Figure out what you think about art, specifically: Now take the art you are looking at, and measure it against some of the ideas you have generated about art, in general (see above). Does this piece of art conform to your ideas of what art is, should be or does? If so, you can use a given show, body of work or a single piece to reinforce an idea you have about art, society or artistic intention—or any number of things, like, politics, capitalism, Detroit or a specific artist? If not, does this nonconformity indicate a failure to make good art or perhaps a different intention on the part of the artist? What, exactly, were they getting at?

Think of it like being in a country that speaks a language you don't know. Maybe you are not connecting with a lot of the vocabulary - but there are still ways you can get the idea of what people are communicating. Color, subject, gesture, emotion? It is okay not to understand what’s going on and it’s important not to let that intimidate you. Just because something is in a gallery, museum, or public art space does not mean it is smarter than you or making a good point. There may not be a point at all.

4. Do your homework: My brain has a straightforward input/output mechanism—if I want to write poetry, I read more poetry. When I wanted to figure out how to write arts criticism, I made a specific point of reading some. Important reads for me have been:

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage, 1996) by Jeanette Winterson

The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Harvard University Press, 1981) by Arthur C. Danto

The Believer—which contains a lot of literary and some arts criticism

Just because I recommend doing some homework does not mean I think you need any specific kind of education to think, write or express opinions about art. I believe that art appreciation and art-making are part of our basic makeup as animals and that everyone has a capacity to benefit from or contribute to art. I would further suggest that any work requiring the viewer to have an MFA in art history to understand it is not a very well-rounded or inclusive work of art, and I am a big fan of inclusivity. Remember: even the most educated person in the world does not know everything about art—in the time it’s taken me to write this article, new art has been made, old art has been discovered and fresh theories about what constitutes art in the first place have been thought up. Bring what you know to the table and be willing to learn more as you go.

However, there is a lot of art that has already happened and many people making art are doing so as part of a larger conversation (sometimes called Art History). Making a good faith effort to get some background information about the art history that may have informed the work you are looking at could give you a more nuanced understanding of it, not to mention some more material to use in generating thoughts and feelings about entire art movements. You don’t need to assume you understand words like impressionist, abstraction, modern, dialectic, craft—or even “art”—you can do some research to make sure that, when you use certain words, your understanding of them matches conventionally understood definitions. One good way to accelerate this process is to remember…

5. Artists can be your Allies: And the same goes for gallerists. Don’t understand something? Ask questions. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of attending artist talks. When there is a forum where you can directly access the artist discussing their line of thinking around a body of their work, you should take advantage of it. If not, look for tear sheets around the gallery that offer statements of intention. Many of these will reference specific sources of inspiration or words for you to follow up on your own time. In large part, artists and gallerists will be very happy for your interest, and museums like the DIA have massive budgets for outreach programs with the express purpose of offering context and information to enrich your art experience. Most of them will be only too happy to discuss the work in greater detail with you…

…BUT don’t try to accomplish this at the show’s opening party or other big events. That is the worst possible time to attempt to have a conversation with anyone. Introduce yourself, ask for some contact info, and follow up at a quieter time when the artist or gallerist is not in the spotlight.

Remember, artists and gallery owners participate in art for personal reasons, but they would not put work in galleries if they didn’t want it to connect with an audience. You are part of that audience, and things that you write may expand that audience for them. It doesn’t mean they owe you anything, but most of them will be happy to try to enhance your understanding of their work.

6. Discover your voice: I find art to be moving and I tend to write about things that I connect with emotionally. Then, I build language around that feeling of connection. If you have a feeling of irritation, maybe that's the emotion you can work from. I think the least we can do, if we're really going to be critical of someone's efforts to bring something into the world, is to present another vision. Then, at least, you're putting yourself as much on the line as whatever you're taking apart.

But that’s just my perspective! You might decide that arts criticism should be entirely separate from a personal creative practice and should also rip apart the efforts of everyone who is not virtuosic in the extreme! Maybe you’d like to approach it from an academic and social research perspective, like Vince Carducci; or respond to works of art in the form of poetry, like Lynn Crawford. The beauty of the system is that you are entitled to think however you want about it. As long as you back up your thinking with some kind of discernible criticism, you’re on your path.

7. Write: At the end of the day, the most important step to being a writer of any kind is to sit down and write. Greater writers than I have written books about the writing process, so I’ll suggest:

Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1995) by Anne Lamott

Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 2010) by Natalie Goldberg

Glitter in the Blood: A Poet’s Manifesto for Better, Braver Writing (Write Bloody Publishing,  2012) by Mindy Nettifee (for any aspiring poets out there)

All of them have great inspiration, suggestions and exercises, but the bottom line remains the same: sit down and write. Give yourself permission. The art world might be little more than trees falling silently in forests without writers there to reflect on the process and product of art-making.

8. Pitch, pitch, pitch: Find a reason in the writing itself, do work that makes you proud. Then, once you’ve got a piece together, send it places. It will be demoralizing, you may not hear back. Send it more places. Put it on your own blog, then send links to that blog to even more places.

Meanwhile, write another piece. If you are good, eventually someone will want to run your material. If you are not good, get better. Find someone whose writing you admire and ask if they will give you a hardline critique. Try to learn from it instead of taking it personally. Remember, once a piece gets picked up, there is a good chance you will be working with an editor and the suggestions they make are usually good faith efforts to strengthen your writing.

9. Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Arts criticism doesn’t have to be the only thing you do or the main thing you do. The discussion about artmaking only improves with more voices. Detroit is a dynamic place, full of artist communities and creators, with the space and low cost of living that artists need to do their too-often unpaid and unappreciated work. We can support them (and each other) by making an effort to contribute to arts criticism as part of our art practice—or as an escape from our soul-killing office jobs.

If you were waiting for one, consider this your invitation.

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link - issue 19: July/August 2015