The Abiding Value of Art Writing
A recent New York Times article detailed the steady but dramatic decline of opportunities for art critics today. The article, “Art Critics: Next Endangered Species?” by Zachary Small was published on February 4th. While the article was discouraging, it did not reveal anything new to me or to other critics, who have long been experiencing diminishing opportunities to ply their trade.
I was the art critic for a respectable Irvine, California newspaper, writing two reviews a month on art in the greater Orange County area. That gig provided me with personal and creative satisfaction, while giving the local art world much needed critical coverage. Many of my reviews were re-published in the LA Weekly, as both papers are owned by the same publisher.
“Echoes of Perception: Peter Alexander and the Californian Impressionists” (installation image), 2022,
UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art. Photo: Jeff McLane
The arts venues that I wrote about appreciated my reviews, as without these, they would have had little, if any, press. The UC Irvine art department often sent my reviews to students. The UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art relied on my reviews to tell the world about their exhibitions. My final review in the Irvine newspaper covered the Langson IMCA exhibition “Variations of Place: Southern California Impressionism in the Early 20th Century.”
Last June, I was informed by the Irvine paper that it could no longer pay freelance writers. As I read the discouraging email, I reflected that arts coverage in Orange County (and beyond) has been diminishing greatly. The Orange County Register laid off its art critic several years ago and has had little arts coverage since then. The OC Weekly folded three years ago, ending its arts coverage; Orange Coast magazine’s arts supplement Premiere OC also stopped publishing a few years ago.
`Franz A. Bischoff, “Alpenglow, High Sierra,” c. 1918, oil on canvas, 30 x 40".
Courtesy of the UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art, gift of The Irvine Museum
I informed several people — gallery and museum directors and arts executives — about the demise of my freelance art writing position. One gallery director wrote: “The attrition of arts coverage in mainstream media is disheartening at the least, and devastating for those who earn their livelihood from journalism.” Another wrote, “Your support of our exhibition program through reviews has been instrumental in the success of our program.” A third director wrote, “My MFA chair often said that text is the afterlife of the most important artworks we know of, and it's so sad to read that artwork (and exhibitions) in Orange County might not get that.”
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Bathing Beauty,” 1967, painted resin with iron base by Jean Tinguely, 65 x 65 x 35”
An arts executive wrote: “We try to cover some arts community news in our twice monthly newsletter, like comings and goings of arts leaders, grants, etc., and we scan the local papers to find more and then digest the links in the newsletter. But our reach is limited to about 10,000 email subscribers — nowhere near what mainstream media reaches.”
While I appreciated the replies, they did nothing to assuage my frustration at the loss of that art writing gig. Yet I continue to contribute articles to other online and print publications while attending numerous art exhibitions.
Ideally, art writing does more than inform people about specific art exhibitions. It gives readers deeper understandings of the nature of art and creativity. It helps us understand the inspirations and motivations of artists, along with the fundamentals of art movements. And that enlarges both the writers’ and readers’ powers of imagination and possibility.
Writing about art is my passion. It provides the opportunity to inhabit a world filled with color, light, form, texture, and the often-profound emotions of artists. Dialoguing with art patrons, museum curators and directors, while researching my articles, affords me deeper understandings of artists and art movements, and the intense satisfaction of sharing those insights with the public.
The upshot is that art criticism sharpens and transforms the perspectives of the people who compose the reviews, and as a result of those who read them.
As the emotions of artists are often inchoate early in their careers, those feelings, when honed by the creative process, become like master classes empowering the artists to manifest their authentic voices. Indeed, Niki de Saint Phalle, whose oeuvre I reviewed in Visual Art Source, gained clarity of insight into her painful life trajectory through art making. I noted at the time that her work came to “conjoin joy with rage, artistic expertise with primitive energy, all of it infused with vitality and sensuality.” Her repeated struggles to gain mastery over her artistry become powerful inspirations for both her work and life, as well as for the audience that has encountered her mature work running from the 1960s into the late 1990s.
Art writing can alert us to some of humankind’s most destructive behavior, as I reported on the de la Torre Brothers’ work, also in VAS. Quoting artist Jamex de la Torre: “We see technology as the only way out of the global warming debacle. So, this transformer is the empowering image of future scientists coming up with creative ways to deal with the rising global temperatures.” Artists who inject their understanding of public issues into their art making, do not by virtue of that undermine their creativity, as was once a common critical posture. Rather, their proactivity frequently enriches their aesthetic output, while evoking for viewers broader perspectives about the world that might otherwise never occur to us.
Art writers are both gatekeepers and midwives for the best of what artists convey. Writers’ crafting of language in response to visual expression — an art all its own — can instigate inspired thinking in readers.
Einar and Jamex de la Torre, "La Belle Epoch,”
2002, kinetic mixed-media, blown-glass installation
What is injurious is not merely the loss of so many independent print platforms — even as many art writers have followed the digital migration. That vacuum is too often being filled with narrow agendas and social media postings that feed the needs of specific interest groups rather than serve the general public’s desire for quality writing and trustworthy information.
The cause of the attrition in arts coverage is most often the lack of profitability. The arts executive quoted above explained that his staff met with editors of a major newspaper, encouraging them to provide more arts coverage. “It resulted in some occasional increased arts coverage, but mostly by young newbies who they can get cheaply.” His staff also connected an online publication to private arts donors. The result was at best minimally increased arts coverage.
Misplaced priorities also account for the lack of arts coverage. Another museum director told me, “It is so sad about the direction some media outlets have taken. They would rather cover politics than uplift the quality of life of its citizens by supporting the arts.” Not that local, regional, national, and international politics aren't important. Those journalists answer to our essential need to be informed about current events. But engagement with the arts is also vital to society’s lifeblood. Perhaps most importantly, art writing helps advance the public impact of worthy artists.
Sara Jane Boyers, “From the Ghostlight Theatre Project,” from “Art in the Plague Year,”
curated by Douglas McCulloh, California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside