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J ane A llen The (Declining) Power of Review November 1981 The following was delivered as an invited lecture on October 2 at a symposium on “Criticism and Contemporary Art” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. When I first received the suggested topic of this talk in the mail, it distressed me. “The Power of Review.”—Somehow, it did not quite agree with the way I thought of myself. The “Power of Review” suggested something military to me. It called up the image of a cinematic sergeant striking fear into the hearts of a row of straggly conscripts. As a critic, I did not envisage myself as a tough-minded professional soldier getting the troops in order. If anything, my view of myself as editor of the New Art Examiner has been rather anti-institutional—say the keeper of an underground railway station, helping runaway slaves escape from the domination of the plantation system. Decidedly, the title “The Power of Review” did not appeal to me. But then I thought, “this talk is not for me.” The mere fact that this is the topic reveals a good deal about the current state of the art world. This is the way critics are seen, and perhaps, I should examine the truth of that perception. Certainly there are critics writing today who keep alive the military metaphor. Hilton Kramer of the New York Times is one, and with that paper’s vast circulation and influence he can afford to be more than military . I noticed in the catalogue for the Art of Our Time exhibition that J A N E A L L E N    The (Declining) Power of Review   127 curator I. Michael Danoff at one point makes a reference to one of Hilton Kramer’s articles, the title of which is, “The Best Paintings Jim Dine Has Yet Produced.” That’s not just a sergeant speaking. That’s the pope. Most critics writing today have neither the power of Hilton Kramer nor, perhaps, even the inclination to acquire it. In fact, a growing number of critics want neither the perquisites nor the inconveniences of power. A few years back when I talked to Carrie Rickey, then an up-and-coming art critic who wrote for the Village Voice, she told me she never answered her phone because she could not stand the pressure from artists and dealers. Her phone number was unlisted, she said, but she still got 15 to 20 calls every evening. Since then, she has given up art writing and become a film critic. The fact is there is a large discrepancy between the way critics are perceived and the way they perceive themselves. Most critics think of themselves as responsive intellectuals, coping as best they can with the plethora of material that the vastly extended art world presents to them. They attempt to keep faith with their own values, but also to evolve them in response to the evolving art they see around them. For the majority of critics, Lionello Venturi’s definition of criticism still holds true. He asks, “What is criticism if not a relationship between a principle of judgment and the intuition of a work of art or of an artistic personality?” This relationship is not always easy. Particularly in the twentiethcentury , the critic had to be something of a masochist. In our era of the “tradition of the new,” the critic not only has his values continuously challenged by the individual work of art or by the outrageous assertions of the artists. He or she must embrace this challenge as part of the job. As Leo Steinberg recently pointed out in a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, critics usually can only take this kind of punishment and integrate it into their critical value system for a limited number of years. By and large, new art demands new critics who can empathize with the artists because both are at approximately the same stage of emotional and intellectual development. Your developing Turners demand new Ruskins, your budding Delacroixs, new Baudelaires, who will not only sympathize with the new work, but will develop vocabularies and a world view to match it. This is criticism at its highest level, and it will continue to be the standard so long as we remain romantic in our conception of culture. However, besides the dilemma of the romantic critic who rides the crest of the wave and then is thrust aside by the forces...


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