The Oxymoron of Art Criticism: How it has affected Oklahoma Art Critics

Students in this spring’s “Art Since 1960” course spent the semester exploring the role of art critics in modern and contemporary society. Their final assignment for the semester was to analyze the role that art criticism plays in Oklahoma today. Where are the art critics? Who is their audience? What are they saying? Although these essays aren’t directly connected to the OSU Museum of Art or its collection, I believe that healthy art criticism is a vital part of an ecosystem in which museums can thrive.

The student essays shared here have been edited for length. Students’ content and overall arguments have not been altered. This week’s essay is by Sarah Machemehl.

For art to be truly addressed and acknowledged, it needs to be accompanied by text.[1] Art criticism enables the viewer to grasp the complete potential of the work, which can thereby convey the entirety of its influence to that viewer.

My own critique will address contemporary Oklahoma art criticism. The critical reviews discussed throughout this assessment, all written within the last year, associate themselves with their regional audience. The art criticism chosen is speaking directly to the people of Oklahoma. The publications examine local contemporary art and speak to the local community.  They directly define their audience in the title of the publication—for example, Oklahoma Magazine and Art Focus Magazine Oklahoma. Often, articles in these publications simply provide background information of the artist that is being critiqued, offering the reader information about why the artist is currently in Oklahoma, or why their art is being shown in this state. This knowledge connects the art to their audience. Most art reviews in Oklahoma news sites are a simple review of an artist’s background and a quick description of their work. These articles construct a gentle announcement with no real criticism of the actual art at all. They lack any social and personal commentary from the art critic.

connie_seabourne_med

Artwork by Connie Seabourn, discussed in Paul Fairchild’s review for Oklahoma Magazine.

The primary purpose of modern art criticism in current Oklahoma has become bland reiteration of work with a lack of philosophical criticism, categorizing art into large and previously accepted traditional and general ideas, and critical reviews used as advertisement. As a result, contemporary art criticism in Oklahoma lacks the ability to fully engage with new ideas that have developed in local art today. Overall, the criticism reviewed from Oklahoma publications lacks the essential capability of questioning and provoking thought in the community. This absence of meaning and interpretation applied to art criticism has diminished the value of criticism. Local art criticism has become nothing more than a naïve description of artwork, with a nonexistent argument or point of view. Art criticism is supposed to respond, interpret, and judge specific works of art for their aesthetic values. Art critics in Oklahoma have let the pressure of criticizing their personal social circle negatively affect their critiques’ value and purpose.

Local art reviews have become valueless due to the fact that the general audience can gather all the information, and intellectual thought provided in the critique, by just looking at the artwork themselves. This contemporary art criticism in Oklahoma offers no insight of any kind. There are no specific viewpoints or arguments declared, and no theme presented. When formulations are made they are left vague as possible. For example, the Oklahoma Gazette, a local newspaper, publishes multiple so-called “art criticism articles.” One written in early March 2016 by Ben Luschen, about an artist who is creating dolls, titled, “Artist’s Darci Dolls are a hit Among Children and Adults,” simply makes an obvious statement, already known due to the accompanying photograph. “Darci Dolls are brightly colored or distinctly patterned, usually with buttons or fabric eyes. Zippered teeth might form a wide grin,” and then that’s it.[2] Instead of communicating why they are aesthetically pleasing or insight about what is desirable about these dolls, it might as well be a tweet or an ad on television.

The article’s reiteration of work is comparable to a NewsOK article by John Brandenburg entitled, “Art Review: Narrative element reflected in flying subjects in Norman exhibit.” Connie Seabourn, the artist, paints the subjects of birds and mythological creatures. This review mainly describes a few pieces of artwork, lacking any discussion of influence on Seabourn’s esthetics.[3] Both of these articles have lessened the value of art criticism due to the high repetition and lack of theoretical commentary and discussion.

The critics in these articles are not assessing art in terms of personal influence, but rather to large, already existing theoretical ideas. There is a set of fixed answers, regardless of regional or personal relevance to the theories.[4] An article by Paul Fairchild in Oklahoma Magazine, titled, “Inspired By Heritage,” demonstrates how critics take a personal statement and throw it into an already-developed category to make a predictable philosophical statement.[5] Fairchild makes a blanket statement about artist J. Nicole Hatfield’s experience of social difference growing up Native American, cherishing her heritage and a culture widely shared by Oklahoma citizens. This is very generalizing; he is interpreting Hatfield’s art using a simple set of familiar social ideas that have been represented by many different artists many different times. It is not provoking any new thoughts in the reader. Instead, Fairchild should have discussed how Hatfield’s art exhibited her personal struggles with this idea. The critic should have pointed out a new viewpoint for the reader to think about.

An article in Art Focus entitled “Living Contradiction: The Art of P. S. Gordon,” similarly discounts personal expression by placing the artist’s work into a generalized category. This review, more in-depth than “Inspired by Heritage,” discussed Gordon’s images of men with AIDS. The critic, Lucie Smoker, gives more background information on the artist, which is helpful in personalizing his art. Still, she does not indicate any specific critical judgment of Gordon’s personal representation of the main idea. Gordon paints men with AIDS in Renaissance-style ball gowns, in bright colors. Smoker only discusses his paintings in two short paragraphs, ending the discussion affirming that Gordon felt the need to paint the idea very truthfully.[6]

Art is a form of social communication. It is commentary on the world we all live in. Art critics are supposed to help deliver this communication to the public and create a form of critical observation, provoking theoretical, philosophical, or political thought. The lack of real observation of the artwork in Oklahoma publications’ art criticism hinders not only the critique and critic, but also the artist as well. It creates a sense that the artist is selfishly striving for recognition of themselves, and not their art. This gives the audience the feeling that the art being reviewed is pointless, and the artist, consumed with greed, only desires fame.

Art criticism should be deliberately engaging, assessing the meaning of artwork in an attempt to progress the culture of Oklahoma. Overall, the criticism that is written in various Oklahoma magazines today is unproductive. Critiques should assist artist in expressing meaning and value. Even if a critic writes a negative critique, it should inspire the artist to develop an idea strong enough to communicate and impact the society; this should help the artist and the community grow.

 

Works Cited

[1] Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism.” E-flux. 2013.

[2] Ben Luschen, “Artist’s Darci Dolls Are a Hit among Children and AdultsOklahoma Gazette, 23 Mar. 2016.

[3] John Brandenburg, “Art Review: Narrative Element Reflected in Flying Subjects in Norman Exhibit.” NewsOK.com. 02 Mar. 2016.

[4] Kester, “The Device Laid Bare”(see citation above).

[5] Paul Fairchild, “Inspired By Heritage.” Oklahoma Magazine. 26 Feb. 2016.

[6] Lucie Smoker, “Living Contradiction: The Art of P.S Gordon.” Art Focus Oklahoma Mar. 2016: 5-6.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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